To most people, predictions about machines soon becoming more intelligent than humans might seem like a far off possibility, but an announcement Thursday from IBM about its development of cognitive computing chips seems to bring us one very significant step forward in that direction.
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IBM unveiled a working prototype of silicon computer chips Thursday that emulate the processes of the human mind rather than relying on the traditional architecture of computer chips, which have remained basically unchanged since the 1940s.
The research team's design uses fewer transistors than traditional chips, and it features 256 digital processors that act as "neurons," that do the computation, and synapses that learn and remember things. One of the chips has 262,144 programmable "synapses" and the other has 65,536 "learning synapses," according to IBM.
Traditional integrated circuits feature many more transistors, and are programmed. The new IBM chips won't be programmed in the same way, and they'll process information differently.
One major breakthrough significance of the "neurosynaptic core" chip is that the technology could use much less power than computer chips do currently because they're designed like a human brain (which is, believe it or not, extremely efficient at processing information.) They would also occupy less space than the supercomputers of today.
"This is a major initiative to move beyond the von Neumann paradigm that has been the ruling computer architecture for more than half a century," said IBM's Project Leader Dharmendra Modha, in a press statement. "Future applications of computing will increasingly demand functionality that is not efficiently delivered by the traditional architecture. The chips are another significant step in the evolution of computers from calculators to learning systems, signaling the beginning of a new generation of computers and their applications in business, science and government."
John von Neumann was a polymath and mathematician who laid the foundations for modern computer chip architecture.