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August 07, 2014

Breaking News: Science

Today, Science published our article (free from this web site) entitled "A Million Spiking-Neuron Integrated Circuit with a Scalable Communication Network and Interface". Here are links to reprint (free from this web site) and abstract (free from this web site). Article was published along with a news feature (behind paywall) and cover (behind paywall) profile.

Left-Right Brain

Breaking News: One Giant Leap for the SyNAPSE Team, One Small Step for Mankind

TrueNorth Chip Cap
Illustration Credit: Aaron Cox

Six years ago, IBM and our university partners embarked on a quest–to build a brain–inspired machine–that at the time appeared impossible. Today, in an article published in Science, we deliver on the DARPA SyNAPSE metric of a one million neuron brain–inspired processor. The chip consumes merely 70 milliwatts and is capable of 46 billion synaptic operations per second per watt–literally a synaptic supercomputer in your palm. Here are links to IBM Press Release, DARPA Press Release, and Steve Hamm's blog.

Picture of TrueNorth GDS

Along the way–progressing through Phase 0, Phase 1, Phase 2, and Phase 3–we have journeyed from neuroscience to supercomputing, to a new computer architecture, to a new programming language, to algorithms, applications, and now to a new chip—TrueNorth.

Vertically–Integrated SyNAPSE Ecosystem
(A Clickable Map of Papers)

Illustration Credit: William Risk

Let me take this opportunity to walk you down this road less travelled (rather, previously untraveled!). At such an opportune moment, I hope this reflection and vision will incite within you a burning desire to collaborate and partner with us to make the future journey a joint one.


Today's computers can be traced back at least to Blaise Pascal's 1642 mechanical calculator. The modern era in computing started with the unveiling of ENIAC on February 14, 1946. The development of the transistor in 1948 enabled the creation of integrated circuits in 1958, which, in turn, enabled the first microprocessor in 1971. Since then the clock frequency of the microprocessors has increased 1000–fold. As remarkable as this evolution is, it has been headed in a direction diametrically opposite to the computing paradigm of the brain. Consequently, today's microprocessors are eight orders of magnitude faster (in terms of clock rate) and four orders of magnitude hotter (in terms of power per unit cortical area) than the brain.

Considering overall energy consumption underscores the divergence between the brain and today's computers even more starkly. Note that a “human–scale” simulation with one hundred trillion synapses (with relatively simple models of neurons and synapses) required 96 Blue Gene/Q racks of the Lawrence Livermore National Lab Sequoia supercomputer–and, yet, the simulation ran 1500 times slower than real–time. A hypothetical computer to run this simulation in real–time would require 12GW, whereas the human brain consumes merely 20W.

What explains this disparity? There are two factors: technology and architecture. Unlike today's inorganic silicon technology, the brain uses biophysical, biochemical, organic wetware. While enormous advances in future enabling nanotechnology are underway, we focused on the second factor: architecture innovation–specifically, on minimizing the product of power, area, and delay in a system that could be implemented in today's state–of–the–art technology.


The cerebral cortex is hypothesized to comprise repeating canonical cortical microcircuits. Inspired by this hypothesis, in 2011, we demonstrated an event–driven “worm–scale” neurosynaptic core that integrated computation and memory. Now, we have shrunk the neurosynaptic core by 15–fold in area and 100–fold in power, and have tiled 4,096 cores via an on–chip network to create TrueNorth–with one million neurons and 256 million synapses. It is worth noting that we had only committed to deliver a chip with 1,024 cores, but, in November 2011, as a team, we made a gutsy decision to increase the scale four–fold to 4,096 cores. Fabricated in Samsung's 28nm process, with 5.4 billion transistors, TrueNorth is IBM's largest chip to date in transistor count. While simulating complex recurrent neural networks, TrueNorth consumes < 100mW of power and has a power density of 20mW / cm2.

Unlike the prevailing von Neumann architecture–but like the brain–TrueNorth has a parallel, distributed, modular, scalable, fault–tolerant, flexible architecture that integrates computation, communication, and memory and has no clock. It is fair to say that TrueNorth completely redefines what is now possible in the field of brain–inspired computers, in terms of size, architecture, efficiency, scalability, and chip design techniques.

Designing and testing TrueNorth was no cakewalk. Its unprecedented size, unconventional architecture, new hybrid synchronous–asynchronous circuit methodology, and a new unfamiliar technology process required custom design, verification, and testing methodologies that demanded innovation, team work, and project management at the highest level. A critical element was one–to–one equivalence–at the functional level of spikes–between TrueNorth and our software simulator Compass. This equivalence allowed us to begin developing applications long before chips returned from the foundry and to verify correctness of the chip logic.

Having exhausted all available means and tools for verifying the chip before fabrication, to ensure no stone was left unturned I even offered a $1,000 bottle of champagne to anyone who could find a bug. None was found. It was not until a year later–after the chip passed all unit, regression, functional, and multi–chip communication tests–that we were certain no fatal bugs existed. My champagne was safe!

The project simply could not have succeeded without the innovative spirit and the tremendous dedication of the current core team. Cornell Tech provided the critically important asynchronous circuit design tools that we jointly refined over the course of the project. Collaboration with Samsung was critical in gaining access to their advanced 28nm foundry process that allowed balancing the low active power of the architecture with matching low power of the underlying silicon technology. I am immensely grateful to our 200+ collaborators since 2008–spanning eight IBM labs and fabs, five universities, one start–up, and two Department of Energy laboratories. Finally, DARPA's mandate, metrics, and investment were absolutely vital.

Picture of SyNAPSE Team
Standing, Left to right: Myron Flickner, Tobi Delbruck, Jun Sawada, Bryan Jackson, Wendy Belluomini, Tim Melano, Marc Gonzalez–Tallada, Bill Risk, Kumar Appuswamy, Rodrigo Alvarez–Icaza, Brian Taba, Ben Shaw, Sue Gilson, Arvind Kumar, Norm Pass, Luca Longinotti, Arnon Amir, John Best, Scott Lekuch, Rajit Manohar, Steve Esser, John Arthur
Sitting, Right to Left: Filipp Akopyan, Arash Shokouhbakhsh, Sim Bamford, Paul Merola, David Barch, Dharmendra S. Modha, David Berg, Jeff Kusnitz, Alexander Andreoupoulous, Andrew Cassidy
Photo Credit: Hita Bambhania-Modha, photo free to use without restrictions!
Link to high-resolution image is here.


Let's be clear: we have not built the brain, or any brain here. We have built a computer that is inspired by the brain. The inputs to and outputs of this computer are spikes. Functionally, it transforms a spatio–temporal stream of input spikes into a spatio–temporal stream of output spikes.

If one were to measure activities of one million neurons in TrueNorth, one would see something akin to a night cityscape with blinking lights. Given this unconventional computing paradigm, compiling C++ to TrueNorth is like using a hammer for a screw. As a result, to harness TrueNorth, we have designed an end–to–end ecosystem complete with a new simulator, a new programming language, an integrated programming environment, new libraries, new (and old) algorithms as well as applications, and a new teaching curriculum (affectionately called, “SyNAPSE University”). The goal of the ecosystem is to dramatically increase programmer productivity. Metaphorically, if TrueNorth is ENIAC, then our ecosystem is the corresponding FORTRAN.

We are working, at a feverish pace, to make the ecosystem available–as widely as possible–to IBMers, universities, business partners, start–ups, and customers. In collaboration with the international academic community, by leveraging the ecosystem, we foresee being able to map the existing body of neural network algorithms to the architecture in an efficient manner, as well as being able to imagine and invent entirely new algorithms.

To support these algorithms at ever increasing scale, TrueNorth chips can be seamlessly tiled to create vast, scalable neuromorphic systems. In fact, we have already built systems with 16 million neurons and 4 billion synapses. Our sights are now set high on the ambitious goal of integrating 4,096 chips in a single rack with 4 billion neurons and 1 trillion synapses while consuming ~4kW of power.

Picture of 16 Chip Board

The architecture can solve a wide class of problems from vision, audition, and multi–sensory fusion, and has the potential to revolutionize the computer industry by integrating brain–like capability into devices where computation is constrained by power and speed. These systems can efficiently process high–dimensional, noisy sensory data in real time, while consuming orders of magnitude less power than conventional computer architectures.

On one hand–with portable devices–think smart phones, sensor networks, self–driving automobiles, robots, public safety, medical imaging, real–time video analysis, signal processing, olfactory detection, and digital pathology. On the other hand–with synaptic supercomputers–think multimedia processing on the cloud. In addition, our chip can be used in combination with other cognitive computing technologies to create systems that learn, reason and help humans make better decisions. Over time, our hope is that SyNAPSE will become an integral component of IBM WATSON group offerings.

Concept Models

We have been working with iniLabs Ltd., creators of a retinal camera–the DVS–that directly produces spikes, which are the natural inputs for TrueNorth. Integrating the two, we have begun investigating extremely low–power end–to–end vision systems.

Retinal Camera

If we think of today's von Neumann computers as akin to the “left–brain”–fast, symbolic, number–crunching calculators, then TrueNorth can be likened to the “right–brain”–slow, sensory, pattern recognizing machines.

Left-Right Brain

We envision augmenting our neurosynaptic cores with synaptic plasticity to create a new generation of field–adaptable neurosynaptic computers capable of online learning.

I was not there when ENIAC was unveiled, but I have a palpable sense that we are at a similar turning point in the history of computing. The technological and practical possibilities are immense and could touch every sphere of science, technology, business, government, and society. I am optimistic that the enduring value of our work will be the inspiration of a completely different way of thinking about computing. It will, I believe, spawn an outpouring of creativity by universities, startups, established tech companies, and by professionals in countless industries and occupations.

We are not there yet. Indeed, TrueNorth is a direction and not a destination! The end goal is building intelligent business machines that enable a cognitive planet, while transforming industries. Exciting!

Hemingway inspired reflection, brain inspired journey

TrueNorth architecture delivers maximal computational expressivity with minimal volume and power consumption. This is the result of a painstaking design process and years of work by a talented team of scientists and engineers, grounded in neuroscience, working creatively within the constraints of the latest semiconductor fabrication technologies, to judiciously balance function, efficiency, computational utility and practicality. We reflect upon this accomplishment by admiring and emulating another paragon of parsimony, drawn from the realm of literature.

One day over lunch, Ernest Hemingway is said to have taken bets, from an assembled group of writer friends, that it would not be possible to write an entire story in just six words. Once all bets were on the table, Hemingway produced the following: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn." He proceeded to collect his winnings.

Inspired by Hemingway's feat, we set out to portray the Essence, the Impact, the Team and the Process behind the creation of TrueNorth with a series of six-word stories. We selected 16 stories to anticipate the achievement of our next milestone: a 16-chip TrueNorth board comprising 16 million neurons and over 4 billion SyNAPSES. The backdrop for each story is a chip package designed to visually express the inherent tileability that allows TrueNorth to attain such unprecedented scales. Like TrueNorth chips, each story stands alone, embodying its own expressive dimensions even as it tiles, seamlessly alongside its neighbors, to create a richer, more complete whole.

The Essence

The Impact
SOPS = Synaptic Operations Per Second; FLOPS = Floating-point Operations Per Second

The Process

The Team

This entire blog post including text and artwork was put together by Ben Shaw by pooling creative contributions from the following team members: Alex Andreopoulos, Andrew Cassidy, Ben Shaw, Bryan Jackson, David Berg, Dharmendra S Modha, Filipp Akopyan, Jeff Kusnitz, John Arthur, John Best, Jun Sawada, Myron Flickner, Pallab Data, Paul Merolla, Rathinakumar Appuswamy, Rodrigo Alvarez-Icaza, Sue Gilson, Timothy Melano, Wendy Belluomini and William Risk. Chip package design by Aaron Cox.

Jobs: Brain-inspired Computing

RES-0683225 Research Staff Member-ASIC and System Design
RES-0683232 Research Staff Member-Software and Applications
RES-0683057 Research Staff Member-Software and Applications
RES-0683578 Research Staff Member-Scalable Systems / Supercomputing Architect
RES-0683223 Hardware and Systems Engineer
RES-0683215 Systems Software Engineer
RES-0683211 Systems Software Engineer
RES-0683583 Software Engineer: Tools and Programming Languages
RES-0683592 Development & Delivery Engineer
RES-0683593 Software Trainer / Coach
RES-0683227 Technical Writer/Archivist

Video: MIT Digital Summit

On June 10, 2014, I gave a talk at MIT Technology Review's Digital Summit and engaged in a conversation with Editor-in-Chief Jason Pontin as well as audience. Here is a link to the video.