Neuromorphic computing is a process in which computer chips are designed and engineered to mirror the structure and function of the human brain.
Using artificial neurons and synapses, neuromorphic computers simulate the way our brains process information, allowing them to solve problems, recognize patterns and make decisions more quickly and efficiently than the computers we commonly use today.
“It’s brain-inspired hardware and algorithms,” Andreea Danielescu, an associate director at tech research firm Accenture Labs, told Built In.
What Is Neuromorphic Computing?
Neuromorphic computing is an emerging process that aims to mimic the structure and operation of the human brain, using artificial neurons and synapses to process information.
The field of neuromorphic computing is still relatively new. It has very few real-world applications beyond the research being carried out by universities, governments and large tech companies like IBM and Intel Labs. Even so, neuromorphic computing shows a lot of promise — particularly in areas like edge computing, autonomous vehicles, cognitive computing and other applications of artificial intelligence where speed and efficiency are imperative.
Today, the scale of the largest AI computations doubles every three to four months, according to Stanford University professor and neuromorphic computing expert Kwabena Boahen. Many experts believe that neuromorphic computing could provide a way around the limits of Moore’s Law, which only doubles every two years.
“AI is not going to progress to the point it needs to with the current computers we have,” tech consultant Daniel Bron told Built In. “Neuromorphic computing is way more efficient at running AI. Is it necessary? I can’t say that it’s necessary yet. But it’s definitely a lot more efficient.”
How Does Neuromorphic Computing Work?
To understand how neuromorphic computing works, you must first understand the cognitive processes it seeks to emulate.
Neuromorphic architectures are most often modeled after the neocortex in the brain, Bron said. That’s where higher cognitive functions like sensory perception, motor commands, spatial reasoning and language are thought to occur. The neocortex’s layered structure and intricate connectivity are critical to its ability to process complex information and enable human thinking.
The neocortex is made up of neurons and synapses that send and carry information from the brain with near-instantaneous speed and incredible efficiency. It’s what tells your foot to immediately move if you accidentally step on a sharp nail.
Neuromorphic computers try to replicate that efficiency. They do so by forming what are called spiking neural networks. These are formed when spiking neurons, which hold data as if they were biological neurons, are connected via artificial synaptic devices that transfer electrical signals between them.
A spiking neural network is essentially the hardware version of an artificial neural network, which is a series of algorithms run on a regular computer that mimics the logic of how a human brain thinks.
How Neuromorphic Computing Differs From Traditional Computing
Neuromorphic computing architecture is a departure from the traditional computer architecture we commonly use today, which is called von Neumann architecture.
Von Neumann computers process information in binary, meaning everything is either a one or a zero. And they are inherently sequential, with a clear distinction between data processing (on CPUs) and memory storage (RAM).
Meanwhile, neuromorphic computers can have millions of artificial neurons and synapses processing different information simultaneously. This gives the system a lot more computational options than von Neumann computers. Neuromorphic computers integrate memory and processing more closely, too, speeding up more data-intensive tasks.
Von Neumann computers have been the standard for decades, and are used for a wide range of applications, from word processing to scientific simulations. But they’re energy inefficient, and often run into data transfer bottlenecks that slow down performance. And as time goes on, von Neumann architectures will make it increasingly more difficult to deliver increases in compute power that we need. This has led researchers to pursue alternative architectures like neuromorphic and quantum.
Neuromorphic Computing vs. Quantum Computing
Neuromorphic computing and quantum computing are two emerging approaches to computation, each with its own distinct set of characteristics, advantages and applications.
- is inspired by the structure and functionality of the human brain;
- uses artificial neurons and synapses to accomplish parallel processing and real-time learning;
- is well suited for tasks involving pattern recognition and sensory processing;
- is logistically easier to accomplish than quantum computing;
- is more energy efficient than quantum computing.
- leverages principles of quantum mechanics to process information;
- relies on qubits (quantum bits) to run and solve multidimensional quantum algorithms;
- is especially good at efficiently solving complex problems like cryptography and molecular simulation;
- requires lower temperatures and uses more power than neuromorphic computers.
Although they are quite different from one another, both neuromorphic and quantum computing hold significant promise in their own rights, and are still very much in the early stages of development and application.
Benefits of Neuromorphic Computing
Neuromorphic computing offers a wide range of benefits, positioning it to be a transformative addition to the world of advanced computing.
Faster Than Traditional Computing
Neuromorphic systems are designed to imitate the electrical properties of real neurons more closely, which could speed up computation and use less energy. And because they operate in an event-driven way, where neurons only process information when relevant events occur, they can generate responses “pretty much instantly,” Alexander Harrowell, a principal analyst at tech consultancy Omdia, told Built In.
Low latency is always beneficial, but it can make a big difference in tech that relies on real-time sensor data processing, like IoT devices.
Excellent at Pattern Recognition
Because neuromorphic computers process information in such a massively parallel way, they are particularly good at recognizing patterns. By extension, this means they’re also good at detecting anomalies, Accenture Labs’ Danielescu said, which can be useful in anything from cybersecurity to health monitoring.
Able to Learn Quickly
Neuromorphic computers are also designed to learn in real-time and adapt to changing stimuli, just as humans can, by modifying the strength of the connections between neurons in response to experiences.
“Neural networks are made to constantly adjust,” Bron said. “They’re made to constantly progress and change, which allows it to get better and better.”
This versatility can be valuable in applications that require continuous learning and quick decision-making, whether that’s teaching a robot to function on an assembly line or having cars navigate a busy city street autonomously.
One of the most prominent advantages of neuromorphic computing is its energy efficiency, which could be especially beneficial in the making of artificial intelligence — a notoriously wasteful industry.
Neuromorphic computer chips can process and store data together on each individual neuron, as opposed to having separate areas for each the way von Neumann architectures do. This parallel processing allows multiple tasks to be performed simultaneously, which can lead to faster task completion and lower energy consumption. And spiking neural networks only compute in response to spikes, meaning only a small portion of a system’s neurons use power at any given time while the rest remain idle.
Challenges of Neuromorphic Computing
While neuromorphic computing has the potential to revolutionize applications of artificial intelligence, data analysis and even our understanding of human cognition, its development faces several challenges.
No Benchmarks or Standardization
Because neuromorphic computing is still a relatively new technology, there are no standard benchmarks for this technology, making it difficult to assess its performance and prove its efficacy outside of a research lab. And the lack of standardized architectures and software interfaces for neuromorphic computing can make it difficult to share applications and results. But Danielescu said there is a “big push” among academic and industry leaders to change this.
Limited Hardware and Software
Designing and manufacturing neuromorphic hardware that can effectively mimic the complexity of the human brain is a major challenge. That’s because all of the established conventions in computing (how data is encoded, for example) have predominantly evolved within the framework of the von Neumann model.
For example, frame-based cameras understand visual input as a series of individual frames, and process it as such. But event-based cameras with a neuromorphic processor would encode such information as changes in a visual field over time. This lets you pick up motions much faster than you would on a regular camera with a von Neumann architecture, but it would require new generations of memory, storage and sensory tech to be created to take full advantage of the neuromorphic device.
The same goes for software. Most neuromorphic computing being done today is conducted using standard programming languages and algorithms developed for von Neumann hardware, which can limit the results.
“The proper software building tools don’t really exist for these things,” Bron said. “It’s still very hard to build for it.”
Difficult to Learn
As of now, neuromorphic computers are only available to experts, and can only be found at multi-billion dollar companies and government-funded research labs. And the technology is not easy to use, Danielescu said, even for people with extensive AI and machine learning backgrounds. It requires extensive knowledge in various domains, including neuroscience, computer science and physics.
In fact, Danielescu estimates there are only a few hundred neuromorphic computing experts globally. “Bridging that gap to allow people with a more traditional computational AI background to move into neuromorphic computing, there just aren’t very many resources for them.”
Neuromorphic Computing Uses
Despite these challenges, neuromorphic computing is still a highly funded field — projected to be worth some $8 billion, according to one report. And experts are enthusiastic about its potential to revolutionize various tech fields thanks to its unique ability to mimic the brain’s information processing and learning capabilities.
Neuromorphic computing’s energy efficiency, adaptability and ability to process data in real-time make it well-suited for edge AI, where computations are done locally on a machine (like a smart device or autonomous vehicle) rather than in a centralized cloud computing facility or offsite data center, requiring the real-time processing of data from things like sensors and cameras.
With its event-driven and parallel-processing capabilities, neuromorphic computing can enable quick, low-latency decision-making. And its energy efficiency can extend the battery life of these devices, reducing the need to recharge or replace edge devices around the home. In fact, Bron said some studies have found neuromorphic computing to be 100-times more effective in terms of battery efficiency than normal computing.
Neuromorphic systems can enhance the sensory perception and decision-making capabilities of robots, enabling them to better navigate complex environments (like a factory floor), recognize objects and interact with humans more naturally.
Neuromorphic computing excels at recognizing complex patterns, and could therefore identify subtle patterns indicative of fraudulent activity or security breaches, such as unusual spending behavior, unauthorized or counterfeit login attempts. Plus, the low latency processing of neuromorphic computing could enable a swifter response once the fraud has been detected, such as freezing accounts or alerting the proper authorities in real time.
Through its use of brain-inspired neural networks, neuromorphic computing hardware is used to advance our understanding of human cognition. As researchers try to recreate our thought processes in electronics, they may learn more about the brain’s inner workings.
In 2020, Intel partnered with Cornell University to essentially teach its neuromorphic computer chip Loihi how to identify smells. Eventually the researchers said they would like to extend their approach to processes like sensory scene analysis and decision-making, helping them to understand how the brain’s neural circuits solve complex computational problems.
The Human Brain Project, an EU-funded group made up of some 140 universities, teaching hospitals and research centers, spent ten years attempting to create a human brain using two neuromorphic supercomputers. It concluded its work in September of 2023.
Frequently Asked Questions
How does neuromorphic computing work?
Neuromorphic computing uses artificial neurons and synapses to process data in a similar way the human brain does. It relies on parallel processing, allowing multiple tasks to be handled simultaneously. And its adaptable nature enables real-time learning and low-latency decision-making.
What is the difference between AI and neuromorphic computing?
AI is a broad field, encompassing various techniques and technologies used to replicate human-like intelligence in computers. Neuromorphic computing is a specialized approach to computing that is inspired by the brain’s structure and functioning. For now, artificial intelligence is made and run on traditional computers, but neuromorphic computing has been shown to be particularly well suited for AI applications that require energy efficiency, parallel processing and adaptability, making it a promising environment for AI’s continued evolution.