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New brain-inspired supercomputer

30 March 2016

Getting computers to work more akin to the human brain has been the holy grail of the industry for some time. This recent breakthrough holds some promise.

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) announced it will receive a first-of-a-kind brain-inspired supercomputing platform for deep learning developed by IBM Research.

Based on a breakthrough neurosynaptic computer chip called IBM TrueNorth, the scalable platform will process the equivalent of 16 million neurons and four billion synapses and consume the energy equivalent of a hearing aid battery – a mere 2.5W of power.

The brain-like, neural network design of the IBM Neuromorphic System is able to infer complex cognitive tasks such as pattern recognition and integrated sensory processing far more efficiently than conventional chips.

The new system will be used to explore new computing capabilities important to the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) missions in cybersecurity, stewardship of the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile and nonproliferation. NNSA’s Advanced Simulation and Computing (ASC) program will evaluate machine-learning applications, deep-learning algorithms and architectures and conduct general computing feasibility studies. ASC is a cornerstone of NNSA’s Stockpile Stewardship Program to ensure the safety, security and reliability of the nation’s nuclear deterrent without underground testing.

“Neuromorphic computing opens very exciting new possibilities and is consistent with what we see as the future of the high performance computing and simulation at the heart of our national security missions,” said Jim Brase, LLNL deputy associate director for Data Science. “The potential capabilities neuromorphic computing represents and the machine intelligence that these will enable will change how we do science.”

The technology represents a fundamental departure from computer design that has been prevalent for the past 70 years, and could be a powerful complement in the development of next-generation supercomputers able to perform at exascale speeds, 50 times faster than today’s most advanced petaflop (quadrillion floating point operations per second) systems. Like the human brain, neurosynaptic systems require significantly less electrical power and volume.

“The low power consumption of these brain-inspired processors reflects industry’s desire and a creative approach to reducing power consumption in all components for future systems as we set our sights on exascale computing,” said Michel McCoy, LLNL program director for Weapon Simulation and Computing.

“The delivery of this advanced computing platform represents a major milestone as we enter the next era of cognitive computing,” said Dharmendra Modha, IBM fellow and chief scientist of Brain-inspired Computing, IBM Research. “We value our partnerships with the national labs. In fact, prior to design and fabrication, we simulated the IBM TrueNorth processor using LLNL’s Sequoia supercomputer. This collaboration will push the boundaries of brain-inspired computing to enable future systems that deliver unprecedented capability and throughput, while minimising the capital, operating and programming costs – keeping our nation at the leading edge of science and technology.”

A single TrueNorth processor consists of 5.4 billion transistors wired together to create an array of one million digital neurons that communicate with one another via 256 million electrical synapses. It consumes 70mW of power running in real time and delivers 46 giga synaptic operations per second – orders of magnitude lower energy than a conventional computer running inference on the same neural network. 

The 16-chip IBM TrueNorth platform Lawrence Livermore will receive later this week. (Photo courtesy of IBM)
The 16-chip IBM TrueNorth platform Lawrence Livermore will receive later this week. (Photo courtesy of IBM)

TrueNorth was originally developed under the auspices of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Systems of Neuromorphic Adaptive Plastic Scalable Electronics (SyNAPSE) program, in collaboration with Cornell University.

Under terms of the $1 million contract, LLNL will receive a 16 chip TrueNorth system representing a total of 16 million neurons and four billion synapses. LLNL will also receive an end-to-end ecosystem to create and program energy-efficient machines that mimic the brain’s abilities for perception, action and cognition. The ecosystem consists of a simulator; a programming language; an integrated programming environment; a library of algorithms as well as applications; firmware; tools for composing neural networks for deep learning; a teaching curriculum; and cloud enablement. 

Lawrence Livermore computer scientists will collaborate with IBM Research, partners across the Department of Energy complex and universities to expand the frontiers of neurosynaptic architecture, system design, algorithms and software ecosystem.

Click here to watch a video about the new computing chip. 

For more information visit the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory website

A European project involving universities and research centres launched a range of prototype computer platforms to support brain research.

The ‘Human Brain Project’ has released six new informatics-based platforms across Europe which aim to accelerate scientific understanding of the human brain, make advances in defining and diagnosing brain disorders, and develop new brain-like technologies. The platforms are designed to help researchers advance faster and efficiently by sharing data and results, and by exploiting advanced ICT capabilities. The platforms should enable closer collaboration between scientists to create more detailed models and simulations of the brain.

For more information on this project click here.

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