Cognitive Computing and IBM's Plan For Chips With Brainpower

The “TrueNorth” brain-inspired chip marks a key milestone in a new era of computing.

Aug 14, 2014 at 7:00AM

For years, International Business Machines (NYSE:IBM) has been dabbling with what it calls "cognitive computing." Now the company that brought you the Watson supercomputer believes it has a chip that can think like the human brain.

Cognitive Computing Bim Truenorth

Source: IBM.

Called TrueNorth, the chip draws on some 5.4 billion interconnected transistors to form a vast network not unlike the neural networks found in the human brain. That's a potentially massive breakthrough, especially for Internet-connected mobile devices that encounter new data every second.

A "right brain" computer
We're likely to be years away from mass production of the TrueNorth chip. And even then, experts quoted in this article in The New York Times seem to be split on its potential impact.

For its part, IBM isn't sparing the hyperbole. "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," IBM Fellow Dharmendra Modha wrote in a blog post describing the history and functions of TrueNorth.

It's a fascinating read. Modha says IBM started working on what became TrueNorth six years ago in an effort to create what he called a "brain-inspired" chip that would not only process vast amounts of data quickly but also detect patterns in the deluge.

Pattern recognition is what sets the brain apart. As Modha puts it: "If we think of today's von Neumann (i.e., traditional) 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."

Think about that for a minute. With TrueNorth, IBM isn't going for speed or processing horsepower, but adaptability. Big Blue wants to build machines that learn.

IBM's history of cognitive computing
Watson isn't that kind of system. Think of it as the computing equivalent of a force of nature, blessed with so much memory and processing horsepower as to be capable of storing and recalling a near-infinite number of facts and combinations -- just the sort of machine you'd want if your aim was to win Jeopardy! or outperform a chessmaster.

As impressive as Watson is, Modha and his team at IBM have spent years working on a successor. In 2011, they unveiled experimental "neurosynaptic" chips as part of a project partly funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA. They called it a cognitive computing system:

Systems built with these chips won't be programmed the same way traditional computers are today. Rather, cognitive computers are expected to learn through experiences, find correlations, create hypotheses, and remember -- and learn from -- the outcomes, mimicking the brains structural and synaptic plasticity.

TrueNorth is the first realization of that vision. How long will it take to reach deployment? That depends on your definition of the word "deployment." For me, TrueNorth's true potential can't be tested till we see it in mobile devices.

Doubling your brainpower
And that's not just because of its low-power footprint -- though it has one -- but because connected smartphones and tablets encounter ever-shifting amounts of new data. TrueNorth's adaptability should allow for creative output in those situations, effectively doubling your brainpower.

Say you're at a meeting that's run 30 minutes long. Your TrueNorth-powered phone, deducing the same by matching GPS data with the current time, might pre-arrange (or pre-send!) a text to your next meeting's organizer notifying them of the delay. And that's a simple example.

TrueNorth's cognitive capabilities are also meant to discern context from multidimensional sensory data: light, sound, smell, and so on. That's of huge potential value in a mobile device operating in the real world, allowing for better, faster decisions on the ground. Either way, IBM's efforts could geometrically improve our ability to process information.

What might that mean for investors? With Gartner estimating that 2.2 billion smartphones and tablets will reach market in 2015 -- and perhaps much more than that in future years -- the revenue opportunity for leading this paradigm appears to be well into the billions. (IBM's Systems and Technology Group produced $5.1 billion in 2013 revenue.)

It'll take years of hard work and luck to cash in, of course. But if anyone can, given what we already know about TrueNorth, it's probably Big Blue.

Warren Buffett: This new technology is a "real threat"
At the recent Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting, Warren Buffett admitted this emerging technology is threatening his biggest cash-cow. While Buffett shakes in his billionaire-boots, only a few investors are embracing this new market which experts say will be worth over $2 trillion. Find out how you can cash in on this technology before the crowd catches on, by jumping onto one company that could get you the biggest piece of the action. Click here to access a FREE investor alert on the company we're calling the "brains behind" the technology.

Tim Beyers is a member of the Motley Fool Rule Breakers stock-picking team and the Motley Fool Supernova Odyssey I mission. He owned shares of Berkshire Hathaway and International Business Machines at the time of publication. Check out Tim's web home and portfolio holdings or connect with him on Google+Tumblr, or Twitter, where he goes by @milehighfool. You can also get his insights delivered directly to your RSS reader.

The Motley Fool recommends Berkshire Hathaway and Gartner. The Motley Fool owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway and International Business Machines. 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