A commercial version of a revolutionary computer chip will be launched by Qualcomm in 2014, The New York Times reported today, and not only will automated tasks no longer require programming, but the new chip might also enable intelligent sensor networks that mimic our human ability to perceive, act, and even think. Inspired by nothing less than the brain, the new technology has been primarily developed by IBM and collaborators, which include Cornell University and iniLabs, Ltd., on commissions from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) for the experimental Systems of Neuromorphic Adaptive Plastic Scalable Electronics (SyNAPSE) project, originally launched in 2009.

“Architectures and programs are closely intertwined and a new architecture necessitates a new programming paradigm,” Dr. Dharmendra S. Modha, principal investigator and senior manager, IBM Research, stated earlier this year. The goal of SyNAPSE is to “create a system that not only analyzes complex information from multiple sensory modalities at once, but also dynamically rewires itself as it interacts with its environment.” Additionally, the scientists designing the system hope to mimic the compact size and low power usage of the brain.

The new technology will allow computers to absorb new information while carrying out a task, and adjust what they do based on the changing signals. Based on the biological nervous system, it mimics the way neurons react to stimuli and connect with other neurons to interpret information. In this way it is unlike conventional, contemporary home computers, say, which can only do what they have been programmed to do, such as perform calculations or recognize objects based on a set of instructions provided them by their programs. With the newly developed technology, a next generation computer will truly become an artificial intelligence system, able to perform tasks as well as cognitive functions similar to humans, including seeing, speaking, listening, navigating, and manipulating. Designers suggest the new technology has prepared the way if not for cyborgs, at least for robots which will be able to move about the world much as we do, even if they do so without real consciousness or what we know as thought.

IBM first introduced its brain-inspired chip architecture in 2011, and it was based on a configurable network developed by the company. Borrowing the language of biology, IBM describes the chip as working from neurosynaptic cores; each core brings memory (synapses), processors (neurons), and communication (axons) within close proximity in order to execute activity in an event-driven fashion — similar to how the human brain processes information. IBM also developed support technologies within the programming cycle, including "neuromorphic processors," to enable the new architecture. A commercial version of this technology is the new product that Qualcomm will be introducing in 2014. Qualcomm, along with Stanford and others, collaborated with IBM on much of the research behind the new chip. Although it is intended for commercial use, most expect the chip to be used mainly for further research and development, which is ongoing at various companies and universities.