Fans of the 'Terminator' franchise might sleep a little uneasy tonight as IBM, teaming with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and four universities, has designed the first working computer chips modeled after the human brain.
In the popular film series, Skynet is an artificial intelligence system built by Cyberdyne Systems for the US armed forces. The goal was to remove the possibility of human error and provide an efficient response to incoming enemy attacks, but things went horribly wrong when the system became self-aware and turned on humanity.
The project is called Synapse (Systems of Neuromorphic Adaptive Plastic Scalable Electronics, stylized as SyNAPSE), based on the junction between neurons and other cells in the nervous system. Dharmendra Modha is the chief investigator of the project and a researcher at IBM Almaden Research Center in San Jose, California.
“This is the seed for a new generation of computers, using a combination of supercomputing, neuroscience, and nanotechnology,” Modha said in an interview with VentureBeat. ”The computers we have today are more like calculators. We want to make something like the brain. It is a sharp departure from the past.”
At current, the system is comprised of three key elements that make it very similar to the human brain. It has neurons that act as digital processors to compute information, synapses which are described as the foundation of learning and memory and axons that connect various parts of the system together.
IBM’s cognitive chip design is far from global domination but researchers hope that one day the chips can simulate and emulate the brain’s ability to perceive surroundings, sense, recognize and interact without human guidance.
The first prototype computing units use 256 neurons, 65,536 synapses and 256 axons. IBM hopes to eventually build a system with 10 billion neurons and 100 trillion synapses. In comparison, the human brain has one billion neurons and 10 trillion synapses.
The project was started in late 2008 with a $4.9 million grant from DARPA, the US government’s military research division. Phase two of the project is said to begin soon where a computer will be built around the brain chips.