IBM unveils new "brain chip"

Researchers at IBM on Thursday unveiled a new generation of experimental computer chips "designed to emulate the brain’s abilities for perception, action and cognition."

The new chips, which IBM calls "neurosynaptic computing chips," use advanced algorithms and silicon circuitry to recreate what occurs between spiking neurons and synapses in biological systems. Two prototype chips are already in testing. From IBM's press release:

Called cognitive computers, systems built with these chips won’t be programmed the same way traditional computers are today. Rather, cognitive computers are expected to learn through experiences, find correlations, create hypotheses, and remember – and learn from – the outcomes, mimicking the brains structural and synaptic plasticity.

The chips are the result of a multi-year initiative combining principles of nanoscience, neuroscience and supercomputing.

"These chips are another significant step in the evolution of computers from calculators to learning systems, signaling the beginning of a new generation of computers and their applications in business, science and government," Dharmendra Modha, project leader for IBM Research, said in a statement.

Some day, Modha told MSNBC, these chips might form the basis of computers that could monitor real-time traffic-light cameras, and send off an ambulance when an accident occurs. Or sensors on the ocean floor equipped with the chips could be used to detect rogue waves and tsunamis.

So far, the chips have been used to drive a car through a simple maze and reconfigure a triangle from just a fragment. Oh yeah, and Pong. As in the arcade game.

"It might beat you, I don't promise, but it might," Modha said.

In an interview with Wired, Modha said IBM researchers were trying to build something that looks like the brain — "a massively, massively, massively parallel distributed substrate" — instead of using the inefficient "communication pathway" used by normal computers today.

"It’s like an orange farm in Florida," Modha said. "The trees are the memory, and the oranges are bits. Each of us, we’re the neurons who consume and process them. Now, you could be collecting them and transporting them over long distances, but imagine having your own small, private orange grove. Now you don’t have to move that data over long distances to get it. And your neighbors are nearby with their orange trees. The whole paradigm is a huge sea of synapse-like memory elements. It’s an invisible layer of processing."