In a development with important implications for research and education, IBM Corp. announced Aug. 18 that it has built two prototype computer chips that it says process data more like how humans digest information than the chips that power today’s PCs and supercomputers.
Computers, like humans, can learn. But when Google tries to fill in your search box based only on a few keystrokes, or your iPhone predicts words as you type a text message, it’s only a narrow mimicry of what the human brain is capable.
The challenge in training a computer to behave like a human brain is technological and physiological, testing the limits of computer and brain science. But researchers from IBM say they’ve made a key step toward combining the two worlds.
The new IBM chips represent a significant milestone in a six-year-long project that has involved 100 researchers and some $41 million in funding from the government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA. IBM has also committed an undisclosed amount of money.
The prototypes offer further evidence of the growing importance of “parallel processing,” or computers doing multiple tasks simultaneously. That is important for rendering graphics and crunching large amounts of data.
The uses of the IBM chips so far are prosaic, such as steering a simulated car through a maze, or playing Pong. It might be a decade or longer before the chips make their way out of the lab and into actual products.
But what’s important is not what the chips are doing, but how they’re doing it, says Giulio Tononi, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who worked with IBM on the project.
The chips’ ability to adapt to types of information that it wasn’t specifically programmed to expect is a key feature.