New IBM chip promises tech solutions that learn and reason

Wed, 2014-09-10 06:00 -- Doug Cooley

Technology gadgets that help the vision impaired navigate unfamiliar spaces and environmental watchdogs sniff out sources of pollution are among the ideas swirling around a break-through computer chip developed by Council Lead Partner IBM.

Called TrueNorth, the brain-inspired, “neuromorphic” chip is expected to apply to a vast range of sense-based uses, including vision, hearing and multi-sensory scenarios. When combined with other cognitive computing technologies, it could become the foundation to create systems that learn, reason and help people make better decisions.

How it's different

The chip marks a sharp departure from standard microprocessors designed around linear logic and hard-wired circuitry to calculate, send messages and analyze data

“What sets TrueNorth apart is how well it seems to tackle the problem of pattern recognition, something that’s incredibly simple for a human brain but devilishly difficult for computers,” reports the NOVA Next science journal. “The chip functions through its “neurons,” which are tightly connected; each is linked to 256 others. It’s a design that emulates the neural networks seen in animal and human brains, and it helps TrueNorth identify moving cars, pedestrians, buses, and more.”

This neural network attribute enables solutions that make sense of patterns of signals and learn from identifying repeating patterns, according to A Smarter Planet blog piece. It provides the ability, for example, to detect the differences between two people, or changes in the amount of light, or when something is out of place.

Sensor networks, public safety monitoring and other speculations

While the chip is not yet on the market, IBM expects it will likely support technologies that rely on real-time information such as robots, sensor networks and public safety monitoring systems. Others speculate that the chip’s pattern recognition capabilities could yield solutions that:

    • Guide self-driving cars or other automated systems that depend on processing vast amounts of sensory data in real time
    • Search for survivors in fallen buildings while keeping rescue workers out of danger
    • Help a vision impaired person to navigate through a crowded environment with moving obstacles
    • Enable your smartphone to become a mobile sensing device

Moreover, as an INC. magazine piece points out, the smarter chip could enable more efficient cloud computing data centers. It draws half the power needed to operate traditional microprocessor chips, and that would translate into lower costs to power and cool data center equipment.

For a detailed technical discussion of the TrueNorth chip, check out this recently published Science magazine article.