IBM pursues computer chips that behave more like brains


“There’s a lot of work to do still, but the most important thing is usually the first step,” Tononi said in an interview. “And this is not one step, it’s a few steps.”

Technologists have long imagined computers that learn like humans.

Your iPhone or Google’s servers can be programmed to predict certain behavior based on past events. But the techniques being explored by IBM and other companies and university research labs around “cognitive computing” could lead to chips that are better able to adapt to unexpected information.

IBM’s interest in the chips lies in their ability to potentially help process real-world signals such as temperature or sound or motion and make sense of them for computers.

IBM, which is based in Armonk, N.Y., is a leader in a movement to link physical infrastructure, such as power plants or traffic lights, and information technology, such as servers and software that help regulate their functions. Such projects can be made more efficient with tools to monitor the myriad analog signals present in those environments.

Dharmendra Modha, project leader for IBM Research, said the new chips have parts that behave like digital “neurons” and “synapses” that make them different than other chips. Each “core,” or processing engine, has computing, communication and memory functions.