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See Inside December 2011

A Chip that Thinks Like a Brain

Neural computers will excel at all the tasks that make regular machines choke

DHARMENDRA S. MODHA is probably the only microchip architect on the planet whose team includes a psychiatrist—and it's not for keeping his engineers sane. Rather his collaborators, a consortium of five universities and as many IBM labs, are working on a microchip modeled after neurons.

They call their research “cognitive computing,” and its first products, two microchips each made of 256 artificial neurons, were unveiled in August. Right now all they can do is beat visitors at Pong or navigate a simple maze. The ultimate goal, though, is ambitious: to put the neural computing power of the human brain in a small package of silicon. The program, SyNAPSE, which is funded by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is building a microprocessor with 10 billion neurons and 100 trillion synapses, roughly equivalent in scale to one hemisphere of the human brain. They expect it to be no bigger than two liters in volume and to consume as much electricity as 10 100-watt lightbulbs.

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