“Zeroth Neural Processing Unit” – ‘coup de maitre’ from Qualcomm.

     Central Nervous System has been our Communication center for ages.   Smartphones (mobile devices) will soon be taking that place in our lives.  Can you imagine a smartphone which can see, hear and detect movement like an individual ? How will it be if it can mimic perception,  cognition,  emotion,  visual processing, recognition,  orientation,  memory,  higher information processing, reasoning,  …  ?  A new class of Processors mimicking  Human Perception and  Cognition called Neural Processing Units (NPUs) is set to revolutionize and alter the landscape of Computing with ‘serial architecture’  advancing to ‘parallel architecture’  with unlimited possibilities.  The Company in the center of focus is “QUALCOMM” which is on course to make Computer chips  with a new processor design  “mimicking the human Brain and the Nervous System.”

     That nimble robots engaged in some basic human activities is just a portent.  Use of processors/chips to aid several activities is also known. Scientists have also been attempting to build artificial neural networks which seek to mimic brain processes since the 1940s when Donald Hebb articulated the Hebbian Learning Process. It is becoming a reality now.

     The NPUs are branded  “Zeroth”  after the  Zeroth law from Isaac  Asimov’s Robot novels.  It will enable applications ranging from Artificial Vision sensors to Robot Controllers and even Brain Implants – Qualcomm Chief Technology Officer  Matt Grobb said in a talk during MIT Tech Review’s  EmTech  Conference 10 – 12 days ago.  The ‘neuromorphic’  hardware is biologically inspired – a completely different architecture – and can solve a different class of problems that conventional architecture cannot.  It really uses  physical structures derived from neurons  – parallel and distributed –  Grobb said.  What is new is the ability to drop down large numbers of these structures on silicon.  It is teaching by means of dopaminer based learning a.k.a. positive reinforcement – not by programming lines of code. The processor will characterize neuron behavior while they send, receive, or process information.  It will also replicate the efficiency with which our senses and brain communicate information, assez bien.

     A version has been already built in to a robotic platform that learns by being encouraged & not by programming.  It already built  a version of chip in to a small wheeled robot that the company trained to move around a playfield stopping at some squares along the way.  Parallel processors are the Future enabling work on a multitude of tasks at once.  Qualcomm sees this new  ‘Zeroth’  sitting aside the  ‘Snapdragon’ processing what our eyes, ears, skin, nose and mouth all produce giving the real sensory experience of the Brain enabled one in us. Human brain uses neurons to  to pass information.  Zeroth, they claim is scalable to 10 million neurons at present. It passes data in the form of small ‘spikes’ – akin to neurons sending electrical impulses in brain –   and when they run in parallel   (parallel processing  as opposed to serial processing) it becomes a large amount of information.

     Qualcomm Director of Business Development,  Samir Kumar said that they will “define and standardize”  an NPU architecture which could be used in stand-alone devices or in conjunction with traditional microprocessors and even live  side-by-side in future system-on-chips. They vouch that the model can be used to  ‘train’  a future cellphone. A cellphone is a kind of robotic device but only it lacks arms and legs,  they also claim.

     Will this give a leg up to Qualcomm in their race with other mobile chip makers ?   IBM and research partners Cornell University and iniLabs have now completed the second phase of their $53 million systems of  ‘Neuromorphic  Adaptive Plastic Scalable Electronics (SyNAPSE) project.  With $12 million in new funding  from the  Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)  IBM said work was set to commence on Phase 3  which involves developing intelligent sensor networks built on a “brain-inspired chip architecture”  using a scalable interconnected, configurable network of  “neurosynaptic cores.” Also refer : ” IBM scientists show Blueprint for Brainlike Computing.” Aug 8, 2013; Computing News.

     Intel is also developing similar technologies. Also refer : ” Intel reveals Neuromorphic Chip Design.” – Computing News, June 2012.

     I always remain captivated by Technological advances and I am a fan of Qualcomm too.  Will the  ‘zeroth’  chip narrow the gap between human brain and computer in the race to supremacy?  Will ‘zeroth’ take the consumers’  admiration to a new high?  Will the reviewers,  journalists, and users be impressed?  These are what  many will be eagerly looking forward to in the coming months.

     I’ll keep a watch and follow it with interest to post further.


     “Dieu  avec  nous”


     October 25,  2013 ;    Friday;    4.20 p.m.  (IST)



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