Researchers at IBM have developed a system that stores and processes information in much the same way that neurons work in the human brain, auguring the advent of a new generation of smart machines.

TrueNorth: Building Machines that Mimic the Human Brain

 Computers have already been taught sensory capabilities. Now the next step is get them to function like the human brain. At the International Joint Conference on Neural Networks held in Dallas, Texas in August, the IBM Cognitive Computing team unveiled a new type of computer architecture designed to simulate some of the processes of the human brain. Dubbed TrueNorth, this IBM Research project introduces a new programming paradigm (meaning a fundamental style of computer programming; a way of building the structure and elements of computer programmes) which includes, among other elements, an architectural simulator and a library of software developed for the Systems of Neuromorphic Adaptive Plastic Scalable Electronics (SyNAPSE) project a year ago.

Distributed processing, Corelet Language

Most modern computer systems are built on what is known as ‘Von Neumann architecture’ –which creates separate units for storing information and processing it in a sequential fashion – and they use programming languages designed specifically for that architecture. Instead, TrueNorth stores and processes information in a ‘distributed’, parallel way, like the neurons (processors) and synapses (memory) in a human brain. The associated software simulates the functioning of a massive network of neurosynaptic cores with 100 trillion virtual synapses and two billion neurosynaptic cores. To work with this approach, an object-oriented Corelet Language has been designed for creating, composing, and decomposing what are called ‘corelets’ – tiny neural networks. For example, one corelet can detect motion, while another can sort images by colour. Individual corelets can be linked into more and more complex structures. IBM has developed a library of 150 pre-designed corelets to help programmers.

Untangling Big Data

Karlheinz Meier, co-director of the European Union’s Human Brain Project, explains that non-traditional computing architectures such as TrueNorth are not intended as a replacement for existing systems. Inspired by the human brain, and able to sift data fast in order to perform forecasting, they might be used to solve some problems requiring big data analysis that the traditional Von Neumann approach cannot untangle. In fact this system could be applied to many different domains. For instance, smart sensors equipped with SyNAPSE chips based on the TrueNorth approach could be used to build special glasses for the visually impaired, which would collect sensory information and translate it into a form the wearer could understand. The IBM team is also working on the possibility of bringing the technology into smartphones, connected objects and automobiles.


By Ruolin Yang