April 29, 2014


Our brains are biological computers. More than that, our biological brains are the most powerful, energy efficient computers on the planet and because of that, it should come as no surprise that there has been a lot of work done to try and emulate this power and efficiency in something technological rather than biological. Trying to copy the computing power and energy efficiency of the human brain is no small task, as it requires somehow mimicking the data processing capabilities of billions of neurons. There have been many attempts thus far, including the European Union’s Human Brain Project, which hopes to simulate the human mind using a supercomputer, the US BRAIN Project (Brain Research through Advanced Innovative Neurotechnologies), IBM‘s SyNAPSE Project, Heidelberg University’s BrainScales project, and many more.

There is now a new contender in the race to emulate the powerful processing power of the human brain, and that is the Neurogrid.

Created by a research team led by Kwabena Boahen, associate professor of bioengineering, Stanford University, the Neurogrid is a circuit board about the size of a modern iPad. It is made up of 16 custom-made “Neurocore” chips that, when combined, can simulate one million neurons and billions of synaptic connections. Powered just like an iPad and using the same amount of energy, this single device is far more powerful than your average (and even above average) personal computers while using only a fraction of the same power. Even so, it is still a far off contender to our own biological computers we keep tucked inside our skulls.

At present, the design is not all that user friendly. Costing around 40,000 dollars, the device requires someone who knows how the human brain works just to program it. Since its completion, the team’s next task has been lower costs and simplify its programming without losing any of its processing power. This will involve the creation of all-new compiler software that should allow people who do not have degrees in advanced neuroscience to use this amazing device. The technology used to create the prototype Neurogrid is now 15 years old. The hope is that, once they are able to use modern manufacturing processes to fabricate the Nuerocore chips, they should be able to reduce the cost 100-fold, down to around 400 dollars per device.

As for what these devices could be used for, they will have many possible applications. Among these, the one that stands out the most is in cybernetic prosthetic limbs. As the Neurogrid works just like the human brain, the idea is to use Neurogrid to interpret signals sent by the brain, translate them, and send them to an attached artificial limb, giving that limb a similar responsiveness to ordinary ones, all without having to be tethered to some sort of external power source. There are a great many limitations on this potential application at present, some of which include being able to translate the brain’s signals into something a computer can read as well as designing an artificial limb with the same flexibility and strength as an organic one, but it is far from impossible. If anything, the Neurogrid has given us a great step forward into putting this sort of technology into our reach.

We live in an exciting time when it comes to technological marvels like the Neurogrid, and I am incredibly excited to see just where it will take us.

Image Credit: Thinkstock

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