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Neural networks can do some impressive things these days. They can describe images, translate speech How Skype's Star Trek Translator Works How Skype's Star Trek Translator Works Skype's new translate feature offers something dreamed of since Star Trek -- an effortless way to communicate across languages. Read More , play videogames, and even have dreams Create Your Own Artificial Fever Dreams with Google's "DeepDream" Create Your Own Artificial Fever Dreams with Google's "DeepDream" Have you seen the trippy images coming out of DeepDream? Want to make your own? Look no further! Read More . However, these networks are huge, and can be extremely slow to run. The DeepDream software, running on my desktop PC takes about ten minutes to process an image. When Google Now 6 Google Now Features That Will Change How You Search 6 Google Now Features That Will Change How You Search You may already be using Google Now on your Android device, but are you getting all that you can out of it? Knowing about these small features can make a big difference. Read More or Siri If You're Not Using Siri By Now, You Should Be If You're Not Using Siri By Now, You Should Be Most of the commercials, jokes, and media hype about Apple's iOS voice assistant, Siri, have subsided, but I still run into iPhone users who don't take advantage of this powerful feature. Just the other day... Read More want to understand your speech, they have to stream the data off to a supercomputer elsewhere, producing a frustrating delay.

It’ll be a long time before the processor in your phone is able to run these million-neuron networks at a reasonable speed. Given the impending slowdown in Moore’s Law What Is Moore's Law, And What Does It Have To Do With You? [MakeUseOf Explains] What Is Moore's Law, And What Does It Have To Do With You? [MakeUseOf Explains] Bad luck has nothing to do with Moore's Law. If that is the association you had, you are confusing it with Murphy's Law. However, you were not far off because Moore's Law and Murphy's Law... Read More , it might take a very long time indeed. So, how can we bring the power of these algorithms to bear in the mobile world? IBM thinks it has an answer.

A Brain in a Box

The machine is the size of a slimmed-down mini-fridge, or a medicine cabinet. It consists of 48 little boxes, each about the size of a computer hard drive. The boxes contain computer chips that are, well, a little weird. IBM calls it “TrueNorth.” It’s a specialized chip designed, from the ground up, to run neural networks IBM Reveals Revolutionary "Brain on a Chip" IBM Reveals Revolutionary "Brain on a Chip" Announced last week via an article in Science, "TrueNorth" is what's known as a "neuromorphic chip" -- a computer chip designed to imitate biological neurons, for use in intelligent computer systems like Watson. Read More . Implemented in the silicon are physical analogs of neurons and synapses (the connections between neurons).

Each chip simulates about one million neurons, with 256 million synapses between them. Together, the 48 million silicon neurons exceed the number of brains in the cerebral cortex of a rat (which max out at about 21 million). That’s a heck of a lot of learning power in such a small box.

Rather than using software to simulate the behavior of a neural network, these chips cut out the middle man and build the “neurons” directly out of silicon. That has a lot of advantages. Normally, a neural network of this size would be run on racks and racks of servers. These installations can use as much power as a city block. In contrast, each TrueNorth chip draws on 70 milliwatts of power — so little that it can run flat out for a week on a standard cell phone battery. It draws more than one hundred times less power than a high-end Intel CPU What Does "Dual Core" & "Quad Core" Mean? [MakeUseOf Explains] What Does "Dual Core" & "Quad Core" Mean? [MakeUseOf Explains] At one point, our computers had a central processing unit (CPU) with a single core. These days, most CPUs you'll come across are dual core, quad core, or even octo core. We'll explain exactly what... Read More . Together, the 48-processor machine likely consumes less energy than your PC.

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Making Intelligence Mobile

While the current machine is pretty bulky by mobile standards, it’s also a very early prototype that doesn’t push the limits in terms of chip fabrication. In the near future, it’s very likely that such a machine could be made even smaller and lower powered, letting companies embed it in mobile devices, or intelligence-intensive mobile machines like self driving cars How Self-Driving Cars Will Change Transportation Forever How Self-Driving Cars Will Change Transportation Forever As we move into 2015, the question is no longer whether self-driving cars will replace manually driven cars, but how quickly they'll take over. Read More and autonomous drones 5 Amazing Uses For Drones In The Future 5 Amazing Uses For Drones In The Future Unmanned aerial vehicles, more commonly called drones, are now infamous for their surveillance capabilities, but like most tools, the usefulness of a drone depends on who's in control. Read More . This would radically change the way artificial intelligence is used, taking the technology back from the cloud.

Unfortunately, the chips don’t allow for the network to be trained using hardware acceleration — yet. You’ll still need a traditional supercomputer to allow the network to learn to perform a task. However, once a network has been trained, its behavior can be executed easily on a TrueNorth chip. In the future, these chips may be able to implement the learning algorithms themselves in hardware, allowing for the creation of true, learning “electronic brains”. It remains to be seen how long it’ll take to make this technological leap, though I don’t know of any specific obstacles.

Needless to say, these sorts of chips require new ways of thinking about software. That’s why IBM built the brain-scale machine. It’s a demonstration for a boot camp they’re hosting for researchers from 30 different research organizations on five continents. At the end of the symposium, the machine will be disassembled, and each processor will go home with a different research institution. Their job is to figure out how to build good software for this strange, organic chip. At a hackathon held in Colorado, researchers were able to get the chip to recognize images and speech in only a few days, suggesting that current “Deep Learning” research Microsoft vs Google - Who Leads the Artificial Intelligence Race? Microsoft vs Google - Who Leads the Artificial Intelligence Race? Artificial intelligence researchers are making tangible progress, and people are starting to talk seriously about AI again. The two titans leading the artificial intelligence race are Google and Microsoft. Read More will largely carry over. That said, there’s still a lot of work to be done on how to get the most out of these chips.

A Chip For Every Season

If rumors of the death of Moore’s Law bear out, this sort of technology is going to become increasingly important to push the frontiers of machine intelligence. A human brain has about 100 billion neurons. If a future version of TrueNorth could learn independently, and we fully understood the algorithms that power the brain, you’d need about 2000 of the 48-chip machines in order to be able to rival a human brain for power Here's Why Scientists Think You Should be Worried about Artificial Intelligence Here's Why Scientists Think You Should be Worried about Artificial Intelligence Do you think artificial intelligence is dangerous? Does AI may pose a serious risk to the human race. These are some reasons why you may want to be concerned. Read More .

But that’s not out of the question. According to some napkin math, that machine would fit in a room. It would draw less power than an electric car 6 Electric Cars You Can Actually Afford 6 Electric Cars You Can Actually Afford Think you can't afford an electric car? Wrong. These six cars show how affordable electric cars have become. Read More . If you want to live in a future of intelligent machines, TrueNorth shows a path to achieving that goal, even if Moore’s Law falters. For now, it’s still poised to revolutionize the way we use AI in our cars and mobile devices. That’s pretty exciting all by itself.

What do you think? Is dedicated hardware the future of AI? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

Image Credits: mouse by kontur-vid via Shutterstock

  1. mountainisasloping
    September 12, 2015 at 4:57 am

    I thought of this in 2005 as a way to pick fruit. Finally they are making it.

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