Stanford bioengineers have developed faster, more energy-efficient microchips based on the human brain – 9,000 times faster and using significantly less power than a typical PC. This offers greater possibilities for advances in robotics and a new way of understanding the brain. For instance, a chip as fast and efficient as the human brain could drive prosthetic limbs with the speed and complexity of our own actions.
Boahen and his team have developed Neurogrid, a circuit board consisting of 16 custom-designed “Neurocore” chips. Together these 16 chips can simulate 1 million neurons and billions of synaptic connections. The team designed these chips with power efficiency in mind. Their strategy was to enable certain synapses to share hardware circuits. The result was Neurogrid – a device about the size of an iPad that can simulate orders of magnitude more neurons and synapses than other brain mimics on the power it takes to run a tablet computer.
Each of the current million-neuron Neurogrid circuit boards cost about $40,000. Boahen believes dramatic cost reductions are possible. Neurogrid is based on 16 Neurocores, each of which supports 65,536 neurons. Those chips were made using 15-year-old fabrication technologies.
By switching to modern manufacturing processes and fabricating the chips in large volumes, he could cut a Neurocore’s cost 100-fold – suggesting a million-neuron board for $400 a copy. With that cheaper hardware and compiler software to make it easy to configure, these neuromorphic systems could find numerous applications.
A chip as fast and efficient as the human brain could drive prosthetic limbs with the speed and complexity of our own actions – but without being tethered to a power source. Krishna Shenoy, an electrical engineering professor at Stanford and Boahen’s neighbor at the interdisciplinary Bio-X center, is developing ways of reading brain signals to understand movement. Boahen envisions a Neurocore-like chip that could be implanted in a paralyzed person’s brain, interpreting those intended movements and translating them to commands for prosthetic limbs without overheating the brain.
A small prosthetic arm in Boahen’s lab is currently controlled by Neurogrid to execute movement commands in real time. For now it doesn’t look like much, but its simple levers and joints hold hope for robotic limbs of the future.
Of course, all of these neuromorphic efforts are beggared by the complexity and efficiency of the human brain.
In his article, Boahen notes that Neurogrid is about 100,000 times more energy efficient than a personal computer simulation of 1 million neurons. Yet it is an energy hog compared to our biological CPU.
“The human brain, with 80,000 times more neurons than Neurogrid, consumes only three times as much power,” Boahen writes. “Achieving this level of energy efficiency while offering greater configurability and scale is the ultimate challenge neuromorphic engineers face.”
In this paper, we describe the design of Neurogrid, a neuromorphic system for simulating large-scale neural models in real time. Neuromorphic systems realize the function of biological neural systems by emulating their structure. Designers of such systems face three major design choices: 1) whether to emulate the four neural elements—axonal arbor, synapse, dendritic tree, and soma—with dedicated or shared electronic circuits; 2) whether to implement these electronic circuits in an analog or digital manner; and 3) whether to interconnect arrays of these silicon neurons with a mesh or a tree network. The choices we made were: 1) we emulated all neural elements except the soma with shared electronic circuits; this choice maximized the number of synaptic connections; 2) we realized all electronic circuits except those for axonal arbors in an analog manner; this choice maximized energy efficiency; and 3) we interconnected neural arrays in a tree network; this choice maximized throughput. These three choices made it possible to simulate a million neurons with billions of synaptic connections in real time—for the first time—using 16 Neurocores integrated on a board that consumes three watts.