Computers designed like brains

Nature often supplies us with great ideas for engineering. Leonardo da Vinci drew concepts of flying machines based on observing birds in motion, centuries before they were successfully built. George de Mestral came up with the idea of Velcro after seeds of burr plants stuck to his dog’s fur on a hunting trip. Now researchers at IBM, one of the largest technology companies in the world, are designing computers based on the structure and function of our own brains.

The project is called Systems of Neuromorphic Adaptive Plastic Scalable Electronics (SyNAPSE). Recently, IBM announced that two of its computer chip prototypes are able to gain experiences and learn from those experiences, according to This cognitive computing ability contrasts computers that have existed for decades. The traditional role for computers is to be programmed in a particular way and consequently re-programmed again and again.
“The computers we have today are more like calculators,” said Dharmendra Modha, the project leader for IBM Research. “We want to make something like the brain. It is a sharp departure from the past.”

IBM’s website states the brain-inspired system performs through the utilization of advanced algorithms and silicon circuitry, resulting in the ability to correlate concepts, invoke hypotheses; in other words, learning from outcomes and remembering them. One of the cores in the prototype chip contains 262,144 programmable synapses, and the other contains 65,536 learning synapses. These synapses mimic the connections in our brains, which communicate to one another as well as other parts of our body, including our muscle tissue and organs.

“Imagine traffic lights that can integrate sights, sounds and smells, and flag unsafe intersections before disaster happens,” said Modha. “Or imagine cognitive co-processors that turn servers, laptops, tablets and phones into machines that can interact better with their environments.”

According to IBM, another use of the technology could be for monitoring the water supply of the world. This would include the analysis of data involving temperature, pressure and other water metrics to give advanced warnings of emergency situations such as tsunamis. Locally, this cognitive computing could be applied to monitor the rivers and lakes in Manitoba. Perhaps with this technology the province would know precisely how much water might flood any given region and undertake the appropriate emergency measures.

Recently the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has endorsed SyNAPSE by providing IBM with a grant in the amount of US
$21 million for phase two of the SyNAPSE project.

We can only imagine what smart phones, desktop computers and video games may look like in the near future; the results may be mind boggling. Let’s just hope it will be nothing like what James Cameron imagined in The Terminator.