Does This New Computer Chip from IBM Really Function Like a Brain?

IBM says its new chip functions like a human brain, but some skeptics doubt its full capabilities.

Aug 12, 2014 at 2:18PM

Source: IBM.

While consumer tech devices often focus on incremental changes -- think Apple's upcoming larger iPhone -- IBM (NYSE:IBM) has been busy working on a new chip that processes information like a human brain.

The TrueNorth chip has the potential to vastly change how future computers work, how much energy they use, and what type of tasks they can handle. However, more than a few skeptics question whether IBM has created the most advanced neurosynaptic computer chip, so let's look at exactly what it is and why it's important.

How it works
Here are the specs for the TrueNorth chip:

  • Non-von Neumann computer architecture
  • 5.4 billion transistors
  • 4,096 neurosynaptic cores
  • One million neurons and 256 million synapses
  • Built on Samsung's 28nm process technology
  • Consumes 70mW during operation

Really exciting stuff, right?

Let's boil all this down for those who don't know much about neurons or computer architecture.

For the past 70 years or so, computer chips have processed information in basically the same way--they send data back and forth linearly between a memory chip and processor. This system works well when processing calculations, but when things start getting complex -- say, for facial recognition or sounds -- it's not so great. The back and forth between the memory chip and processor can cause the data to bottleneck and slow down the process.

IBM says TrueNorth achieves cognitive computing, in which the chip mimics a brain's ability for perception, cognition, and action. To do this, the chip emulates the brain's neurons and synapses.

Neurons are brain cells that process electrical signals and send them to other parts of the brain. Human brains have about 100 billion of them. Synapses help those signals connect to other neurons, passing along the information, and we have about 100 trillion of these.

IBM says traditional computers focus on language and analytical thinking, while neurosynaptic chips like TrueNorth "address the senses and pattern recognition." The new chip achieves this, in part, by using cores that have memory, computation, and communication built into the same system. 

Here's IBM's description of how it works:

Ibm Truenorth
Source: IBM..

Why this is better
The benefit of processing information in this fashion, rather than like traditional computers, is twofold: IBM's TrueNorth can process much more difficult tasks and it uses less energy.

An MIT Technology Review article published earlier this year mentioned Qualcomm's neuromorphic chips, which act in a similar way to TrueNorth. The article said chips like this "encode and transmit data in a way that mimics the electrical spikes generated in the brain as it responds to sensory information." These chips can learn how to recognize an object, like a dog, by seeing one first and then identifying other dogs after that. This comes instead of needing to be programmed and told exactly what a dog is.

The other advantage with TrueNorth is its minimal power consumption. Current computer chips run all the time, whether processing information or not. But IBM's new chip has cores that only run when processing information, then shut off when not being used. The company says TrueNorth uses the same amount of battery power as a hearing aid -- which is just a fraction of the power consumed by today's computer chips.

Ibm Truenorth
Source: IBM.

A few skeptics
Not everyone is completely convinced of TrueNorth's capabilities. Yann LeCun, Facebook's director of artificial intelligence research, told The New York Times, "The chip appears to be very limited in many ways, and the performance is not what it seems." He said testing that showed the chip detects pedestrians and cars "won't impress anyone in computer vision or machine learning." He also followed up some of this thoughts in a Facebook post.

Nayaran Srinivasa, a researcher at HRL Laboratories who is working on a similar chip, said in a Wired article, "It's definitely an achievement to make a chip of that scale ... but I think the claims are a bit stretched because there is no learning happening on chip."

But if there's one group that believes in the TrueNorth's potential, it's the U.S. government. The Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has poured $53 million into the TrueNorth project, run by Cornell University researchers and IBM, since 2008.

IBM's chip is closer to production readiness than others like it, but it's likely years away from any commercial application. The company says TrueNorth could be used for public safety, health monitoring, transportation, and even vision assistance for the blind.

While IBM says TrueNorth processes information like a human brain, and in some respects it does, it appears the chip may have a large learning curve. As it continues to be developed and undergoes more testing, TrueNorth's real-world capabilities should become more apparent.

Leaked: Apple's next smart device (warning, it may shock you)
Apple recently recruited a secret-development "dream team" to guarantee its newest smart device was kept hidden from the public for as long as possible. But the secret is out, and some early viewers are claiming its everyday impact could trump the iPod, iPhone, and the iPad. In fact, ABI Research predicts 485 million of this type of device will be sold per year. But one small company makes Apple's gadget possible. And its stock price has nearly unlimited room to run for early in-the-know investors. To be one of them, and see Apple's newest smart gizmo, just click here!


Chris Neiger has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Apple and Facebook. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple, Facebook, International Business Machines, and Qualcomm. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

Money to your ears - A great FREE investing resource for you

The best way to get your regular dose of market and money insights is our suite of free podcasts ... what we like to think of as “binge-worthy finance.”

Feb 1, 2016 at 5:03PM

Whether we're in the midst of earnings season or riding out the market's lulls, you want to know the best strategies for your money.

And you'll want to go beyond the hype of screaming TV personalities, fear-mongering ads, and "analysis" from people who might have your email address ... but no track record of success.

In short, you want a voice of reason you can count on.

A 2015 Business Insider article titled, "11 websites to bookmark if you want to get rich," rated The Motley Fool as the #1 place online to get smarter about investing.

And one of the easiest, most enjoyable, most valuable ways to get your regular dose of market and money insights is our suite of free podcasts ... what we like to think of as "binge-worthy finance."

Whether you make it part of your daily commute or you save up and listen to a handful of episodes for your 50-mile bike rides or long soaks in a bubble bath (or both!), the podcasts make sense of your money.

And unlike so many who want to make the subjects of personal finance and investing complicated and scary, our podcasts are clear, insightful, and (yes, it's true) fun.

Our free suite of podcasts

Motley Fool Money features a team of our analysts discussing the week's top business and investing stories, interviews, and an inside look at the stocks on our radar. The show is also heard weekly on dozens of radio stations across the country.

The hosts of Motley Fool Answers challenge the conventional wisdom on life's biggest financial issues to reveal what you really need to know to make smart money moves.

David Gardner, co-founder of The Motley Fool, is among the most respected and trusted sources on investing. And he's the host of Rule Breaker Investing, in which he shares his insights into today's most innovative and disruptive companies ... and how to profit from them.

Market Foolery is our daily look at stocks in the news, as well as the top business and investing stories.

And Industry Focus offers a deeper dive into a specific industry and the stories making headlines. Healthcare, technology, energy, consumer goods, and other industries take turns in the spotlight.

They're all informative, entertaining, and eminently listenable. Rule Breaker Investing and Answers are timeless, so it's worth going back to and listening from the very start; the other three are focused more on today's events, so listen to the most recent first.

All are available for free at

If you're looking for a friendly voice ... with great advice on how to make the most of your money ... from a business with a lengthy track record of success ... in clear, compelling language ... I encourage you to give a listen to our free podcasts.

Head to, give them a spin, and you can subscribe there (at iTunes, Stitcher, or our other partners) if you want to receive them regularly.

It's money to your ears.


Compare Brokers