After the team constructed the chip, Modha halted work for a month and offered a $1,000 bottle of champagne to any team member who could find a bug in the device. But nobody found one, he said.
The new chip is not only much more efficient than conventional computer chips, it also produces far less heat, the researchers said.
Today's computers - laptops, smartphones and even cars - suffer from visual and sensory impairment, Modha said. But if these devices can function more like a human brain, they may eventually understand their environments better, he said. For example, instead of moving a camera image onto a computer to process it, "the sensor becomes the computer," he said.
Building a brain IBM researchers aren't the only ones building computer chips that mimic the brain. A group at Stanford University developed a system called "Neurogrid" that can simulate a million neurons and billions of synapses.
But while Neurogrid requires 16 chips linked together, the IBM chip can simulate the same number of neurons with only a single chip, Modha said. In addition, Neurogrid's memory is stored off-chip, but the new IBM system integrates both computation and memory on the same chip, which minimizes the time needed to transmit data, Modha said.
Kwabena Boahen, an electrical engineer at Stanford who led the development of the Neurogrid system, called the IBM chip "a very impressive achievement." (Several of Boahen's colleagues on the Neurogrid project have gone on to work at IBM, he said.)
The IBM team was able to fit more transistors onto a single chip, while making it very energy efficient, Boahen told Live Science. Greater energy efficiency means you could compute things directly on your phone instead of relying on cloud computing, the way Apple's voice-controlled Siri program operates, he said. That is, Siri outsources the computation to other computers via a network instead of performing it locally on a device.
IBM created the chip as part of DARPA's SyNAPSE program (short for Systems of Neuromorphic Adaptive Plastic Scalable Electronics). The goal of this initiative is to build a computer that resembles the form and function of the mammalian brain, with intelligence similar to acat or mouse.
"We've made a huge step forward," Modha said. The team mapped out the wiring diagram of a monkey brain in 2010, and produced a small-scale neural core in 2011. The current chip contains more 4,000 of these cores.
Still, the IBM chip is a far cry from a human brain, which contains about 86 trillion neurons and 100 trillion synapses. "We've come a long way, but there's a long way to go," Modha said.
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