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June 26, 2017

Keynote Speech at the Ring Ceremony at UCSD's Jacobs School of Engineering

Dharmendra Modha Giving the Talk
Photo Credit: Hita Bambhania-Modha

On June 17, 2017, Dean Al Pisano invited me to present the Keynote Speech at the Ring Ceremony at UCSD's Jacobs School of Engineering. Enclosed is a transcript of my remarks.

Congratulations class of 2017!

I am honored to share this pivotal day in your life with you, your families, and your friends. And I want to thank Dean Pisano for inviting me here, as well as the distinguished faculty and my UCSD mentors who have all helped shape who I am today.

As you graduate from the Engineering school, there is a blank canvas in front of you. The space of that canvas is the Earth and its vicinity, and the time of the canvas is your individual life span. On this blank canvas, we engineer, not only, devices, materials, systems, structures, and processes, but we also engineer our own careers and lives, so as to manifest strength, utility, and beauty.

The recipe for success, I believe, is three-fold:

  • first, identify external gradients towards your inner purpose;
  • second, capitalize on inherent opportunities presented by these gradients using your most authentic self;
  • and, lastly, engineer the means for exploiting these gradients while fighting the chief villain in our lives, namely, the 2nd Law of thermodynamics.

First, let us talk about gradients.

A gradient or an imbalance is simply a difference across a distance. For example, think of differences in temperature, pressure, chemical concentration, voltage, incomes, etc. The gradients are the sources of opportunity. When yoda from starwars said, “Feel the force”, He meant, “Feel the gradients.” A water wheel converts the energy gradient of water flowing from high to low into useful work. Similarly, our intent is to harness the external gradients that exist in the society and the universe--- social, economic, political, technological, physical gradients--- to create beneficial structures and to manifest constructive complexity. Unlocking and harnessing these gradients requires us to apply the infinite and inexhaustible tools of creativity, awareness, and imagination while leading us to discovering and extending the frontiers of mathematics, science, and technology in the process. In my case, the gradient that led to the notion of brain-inspired computers was the observation that there was a billion-fold disparity between the function, the size, the energy, and the speed of the brain as compared to today’s computers.

Second, let us talk about purpose.

Discovery of external frontiers, first and foremost, starts with the internal discovery of our own authentic self. From this place of inner integrity, we pick problems of universal importance and establish audacious goals to solve them while matching these goals to our specific individual gifts. We then work backwards from the end goals and chart a course to achieve these goals. As facts change, we never compromise on the destination but continually revise the path. In any situation, we do not react but rather we consciously act because there is always room for creative response. In every moment, in every interaction, in every relationship, we bring all the positivity of our entire existence to bear — and then we do it again and again and again. To truly win, we put not just our skin in the game--- rather, we put our soul in the game. While it’s important to strive to succeed at work, it’s equally important to maintain work-life balance and choose an inner state of happiness despite life’s paradoxes and challenges. And, regardless of success or failure, we win, personally, by finishing what we start. By graduating, all of you have demonstrated that you are winners!

Lastly, let us talk about the villain.

The 2nd Law of thermodynamics essentially says that if a hot room is connected to a cold room then over time the temperature difference will disappear. So, the 2nd Law of thermodynamics serves to efface all gradients over time leaving increased entropy, random motion, chaos, and disorder behind. Left to its own un-engineered devices, the 2nd Law will produce only heat and waste. It is not possible, regrettably, to fight or defy the second law at a global, macroscopic level, but within the confines of local space and time it is indeed possible to engineer means by which gradients produce useful work. Some engineer had to purposefully do the hard work of inventing and perfecting the waterwheel to exploit the potential energy of water that otherwise would have remained stagnant. The 2nd Law will have its way eventually. The waterwheel, for example, requires maintenance to keep running and ultimately will decay and descend into ruin. But while it lasts, it will enhance human life and perhaps serve as a step stone to greater progress. This is the eternal essence of engineering. This is why fighting the 2nd law is so worthwhile. The ring, in my mind, symbolizes our resolve to courageously stand up to the 2nd Law in all its manifestations.

So, in conclusion, next time that we meet the 2nd Law of thermodynamics, let us rub our magic rings, and let us look at the 2nd Law in the eye, and say, not today, my friend, you are dealing with a graduate of the UCSD’s Jacobs School of Engineering!

Congratulations again, my friends, and I wish you the very best of luck! Thank you!

June 23, 2017

A Scale-Out Scale-up Synaptic Supercomputer (NS16e-4)

Today, Air Force Research Lab (AFRL) and IBM announce the development of a new Scale-out, Scale-up Synaptic Supercomputer (NS16e-4) that builds on previous NS16e system for LLNL. Over the last six years, IBM has expanded the number of neurons per system from 256 to more than 64 million – an 800 percent annual increase over six years!

Don't miss the story in TechCrunch and a video.

Enclosed below is a perspective from my colleagues.

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Guest Blog by Bill Risk, Camillo Sassano, Mike DeBole, Ben Shaw, Aaron Cox, and Kevin Schultz.

The IBM TrueNorth Neurosynaptic System NS16e-4 is the latest hardware innovation designed to exploit the capabilities of the TrueNorth chip. Through a combination of “scaling out” and “scaling up,” we now have increased the size of TrueNorth-based neurosynaptic systems by 64x from the original single-chip systems (Figure 1).

Scale-out and Scale-up
Figure 1. Scale-out and scale-up of systems based on the TrueNorth chip.

The NS1e board included a single TrueNorth chip and was designed to jump start learning about and using the TrueNorth system. The first “scale out” step—the NS1e-16— put sixteen of these boards in a single enclosure, which permitted running multiple jobs in parallel. The first “scale up” system—the NS16e—exploited the built-in ability of the TrueNorth chip to tile seamlessly and communicate directly with other TrueNorth chips. Where both the NS1e-16 and NS16e offered the same number of neurons and synapses, the NS1e-16 was essentially 16 separate 1-million neuron systems working in parallel, while the NS16e was a single 16-million neuron system, allowing the exploration of substantially larger neurosynaptic networks. The NS16e-4 is the next step in this evolution, bringing four NS16e systems together in parallel to provide 64 million neurons and 16 billion synapses in a single enclosure.

As announced today, the U.S. Air Force Research Lab has ordered the first NS16e-4 system. To deliver this system, we needed to devise a way to put four NS16e systems in the same enclosure, subject to the following constraints:

  • It must fit in a 4U-high (7”) by 29” deep enclosure that can be mounted in a standard equipment rack
  • All related components required by the system—power supplies, cabling, connectors, etc., (other than a separate 2U server that acts as a gateway for the system)—must be contained within the same 4U space
  • It must be possible to easily remove each NS16e sub-system so that it can be serviced, transferred to a different identical enclosure, or used independently as a standalone system

Given the size of the previous enclosure, it was not feasible to simply put four NS16e systems in a 4U-high box and meet these constraints. Instead, we first had to redesign some aspects of the NS16e circuit boards to permit a more compact form factor. In concert, we redesigned the NS16e case to match the new form factor, while retaining the original design’s signature angular shapes.

This smaller form factor allowed us to consider several different ways that four NS16e sub-systems could be efficiently placed in the allotted space. The one we settled on places them in a unique V-shaped arrangement in a drawer (Figure 2a), which, when extended, provides easy access to the individual NS16e sub-systems. Empty spaces under the V provide room to route cables and move air for ventilation. A docking structure (not visible in the Figure 2) holds the NS16e’s in place when in use, provides power and signal connections, and permits them to be released and removed when necessary. This arrangement provides a view of all 64 TrueNorth chips. A transparent window and interior accent lighting permit the chips to be seen even when the drawer is closed. (Figure 2b). Multiple NS16e-4 systems can be placed in the same rack; the novel front panel shape creates an intriguing 3D geometric pattern (Figure 3).

NS16e-4 system with drawer open.
Figure 2a. NS16e-4 system with drawer open.

NS16e-4 system with drawer closed.
Figure 2b. NS16e-4 system with drawer closed.

Meeting all the technical requirements required creative industrial design. We designed for utility, but were pleased that a measure of beauty and elegance emerged through the design process. We now look forward to building and delivering it!

Two 4U-high NS16e-4 systems stacked above a 2U-high server.
Figure 3. Two 4U-high NS16e-4 systems stacked above a 2U-high server.

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The following timeline provides context for today's milestone in terms of the continued evolution of our project.

Illustration Credit: William Risk