August 9, 2014 at 1:00 am

IBM builds chip that acts like brain

It could help processor industry, which wants its products to go faster

IBM’s engineers have come up with a way computer chips can think more like humans.

International Business Machines Corp. said it has produced a chip that more closely replicates the way the human brain operates than traditional processors do. The new architecture is better at tasks like image recognition in video data — which could be a new way to help computers sense movement. On top of that, the chip uses less energy than traditional designs.

If the design eventually turns into a product, it could help the processor industry, which is searching for new ways to make its products run computers faster. It’s increasingly turning to new methods of trying to perform multiple tasks at the same time, since traditional designs that simply counted faster have led to overheating.

IBM said that traditional computer science, which uses linear logic to process data, is inefficient. Processors basically perform one operation at a time, then react to the result of the previous calculation. The computer chip IBM has developed, described in a paper in the journal Science, has 1 million programmable neurons based on 5.4 billion transistors. Its “neurosynaptic” cores can each compute and communicate in parallel, rather than in a row.

IBM’s statement on the chip design didn’t contain information about when the technology would go into commercial production or go on sale.

The company’s labs are so renowned in the industry that titans like Samsung use its technology for their production. That reputation in research hasn’t translated to a leadership position in the chip business, which is dominated by Intel Corp.

IBM has had to balance two distinct needs when it comes to its semiconductor business: having control over chip design to make its hardware products better and more efficient, though wanting to get the money-losing manufacturing unit off its books. The division loses as much as $1.5 billion a year.

The company was willing to pay Globalfoundries Inc. about $1 billion to take the chip-manufacturing unit off its hands — an offer that was turned down for being $1 billion too short, a person familiar with the talks said.