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DARPA-funded IBM researchers develop TrueNorth: advanced, power-efficient, brain-inspired computer chip

Scientists at IBM, under DARPA’s Systems of Neuromorphic Adaptive Plastic Scalable Electronics (SyNAPSE) program, have developed one of the world’s largest and most complex computer chips ever produced—one whose architecture is inspired by the neuronal structure of the brain and requires only a fraction of the electrical power of conventional chips. A technical paper on the breakthrough chip, called TrueNorth, is published in the journal Science.

In the paper, they note that the von Neumann architecture underlying much of modern computing is fundamentally inefficient and nonscalable for representing massively interconnected neural network with respect to computation, memory, and communication. Through their research, they found that event-driven communication combined with co-located memory and computation mitigates the von Neumann bottleneck (the shared bus between CPU and memory). Their key architectural abstraction, inspired by neuroscience, is a network of neurosynaptic cores that can implement large-scale spiking neural networks that are efficient, scalable, and flexible within today’s technology.

Computation, communication, and memory. (A) The trend of increasing power densities and clock frequencies of processors is headed away from the brain’s operating point.

(B) In terms of computation, a single processor has to simulate both a large number of neurons as well as the inter-neuron communication infrastructure. In terms of memory, the von Neumann bottleneck, which is caused by separation between the external memory and processor, leads to energy-hungry data movement when updating neuron states and when retrieving synapse states. In terms of communication, interprocessor messaging explodes when simulating highly interconnected networks that do not fit on a single processor.

(C) Conceptual blueprint of an architecture that, like the brain, tightly integrates memory, computation, and communication in distributed modules that operate in parallel and communicate via an event-driven network. Merolla et al. Click to enlarge.

Inspired by the brain’s structure, we have developed an efficient, scalable, and flexible non–von Neumann architecture that leverages contemporary silicon technology. To demonstrate, we built a 5.4-billion-transistor chip with 4096 neurosynaptic cores interconnected via an intrachip network that integrates 1 million programmable spiking neurons and 256 million configurable synapses. Chips can be tiled in two dimensions via an interchip communication interface, seamlessly scaling the architecture to a cortexlike sheet of arbitrary size. The architecture is well suited to many applications that use complex neural networks in real time, for example, multiobject detection and classification. With 400-pixel-by-240-pixel video input at 30 frames per second, the chip consumes 63 milliwatts.

—Merolla et al.

The 256 million configurable synapses—programmable logic points—are analogous to the connections between neurons in the brain. That’s still orders of magnitude fewer than the number of actual synapses in the brain, but a giant step toward making ultra-high performance, low-power neuro-inspired systems a reality.

The parallel, distributed architecture of the brain is different from the sequential, centralized von Neumann architecture of today’s computers, the researchers note in their paper. The trend of increasing power densities and clock frequencies of processors is headed away from the brain’s operating point.

Many tasks that people and animals perform effortlessly, such as perception and pattern recognition, audio processing and motor control, are difficult for traditional computing architectures to do without consuming a lot of power. Biological systems consume much less energy than current computers attempting the same tasks.

The SyNAPSE program was created to speed the development of a brain-inspired chip that could perform difficult perception and control tasks while at the same time achieving significant energy savings.

TrueNorth architecture. Panels are organized into rows at three different scales (core, chip, and multichip) and into columns at four different views (neuroscience inspiration, structural, functional, and physical).
(A) The neurosynaptic core is loosely inspired by the idea of a canonical cortical microcircuit. (B) A network of neurosynaptic cores is inspired by the cortex’s two-dimensional sheet. (C) The multichip network is inspired by the long-range connections between cortical regions shown from the macaque brain. Merolla et al. Click to enlarge.

The SyNAPSE-developed chip, which can be tiled to create large arrays, has one million electronic “neurons” and 256 million electronic synapses between neurons. Built on Samsung Foundry’s 28nm process technology, the 5.4-billion transistor chip has one of the highest transistor counts of any chip ever produced. Each chip consumes less than 100 milliWatts of electrical power during operation. When applied to benchmark tasks of pattern recognition, the new chip achieved two orders of magnitude in energy savings compared to state-of-the-art traditional computing systems.

The high energy efficiency is achieved, in part, by distributing data and computation across the chip, alleviating the need to move data over large distances. In addition, the chip runs in an asynchronous manner, processing and transmitting data only as required, similar to how the brain works. The new chip’s high energy efficiency makes it a candidate for defense applications such as mobile robots and remote sensors where electrical power is limited.

Computer chip design is driven by a desire to achieve the highest performance at the lowest cost. Historically, the most important cost was that of the computer chip. But Moore’s law—the exponentially decreasing cost of constructing high-transistor-count chips—now allows computer architects to borrow an idea from nature, where energy is a more important cost than complexity, and focus on designs that gain power efficiency by sparsely employing a very large number of components to minimize the movement of data. IBM’s chip, which is by far the largest one yet made that exploits these ideas, could give unmanned aircraft or robotic ground systems with limited power budgets a more refined perception of the environment, distinguishing threats more accurately and reducing the burden on system operators.

Our troops often are in austere environments and must carry heavy batteries to power mobile devices, sensors, radios and other electronic equipment. Air vehicles also have very limited power budgets because of the impact of weight. For both of these environments, the extreme energy efficiency achieved by the SyNAPSE program’s accomplishments could enable a much wider range of portable computing applications for defense.

—Gill Pratt, DARPA program manager

Another potential application for the SyNAPSE-developed chip is neuroscience modeling. The large number of electronic neurons and synapses in each chip and the ability to tile multiple chips could lead to the development of complex, networked neuromorphic simulators for testing network models in neurobiology and deepening current understanding of brain function.


  • Paul A. Merolla, John V. Arthur, Rodrigo Alvarez-Icaza, Andrew S. Cassidy, Jun Sawada, Filipp Akopyan, Bryan L. Jackson, Nabil Imam, Chen Guo, Yutaka Nakamura, Bernard Brezzo, Ivan Vo, Steven K. Esser, Rathinakumar Appuswamy, Brian Taba, Arnon Amir, Myron D. Flickner, William P. Risk, Rajit Manohar, and Dharmendra S. Modha (2014) “A million spiking-neuron integrated circuit with a scalable communication network and interface,” Science 345 (6197), 668-673 doi: 10.1126/science.1254642

  • Dharmendra Modha (IBM Fellow) “Introducing a Brain-inspired Computer: TrueNorth’s neurons to revolutionize system architecture


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