The Desktop Brain

A microchip that outpaces supercomputers

In 2005, IBM’s $2-million BlueGene supercomputer took 80 minutes to process the same data that eight million cerebral-cortex neurons—a fraction of the brain’s total—handle in one second. Now bioengineer Kwabena Boahen of Stanford University has built a microchip that could help computers catch up.

BlueGene’s downfall was that it ran data through each of its 1,000 chips before computing even the simplest command. When completed this month, Boahen’s device, called the Neurogrid, will contain one million simple silicon circuits working in parallel. When data hits one “neuron,” it relays the info to all of the circuits, and the best neuron for the job generates the response. Each neuron is slower than BlueGene’s chips, but this approach will allow the Neurogrid to bear the same workload as one million cortex neurons. More important, it does so in real time, which could help scientists follow how brains afflicted with epilepsy or schizophrenia process information and to then develop treatments. Boahen says it will cost $60,000-—cheap enough to put one on every lab bench.