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Semiconductors and Components

Qualcomm Working on Neural Processor Core

15 October 2013

Fabless chip giant Qualcomm Inc. is working with a San Diego-based startup called Brain Corp. to develop a neural processor architecture to provide human-brain like cognition and processing for mobile computing. Qualcomm has been working on what it calls the Zeroth processor project for "a few years," according to a blog written by Samir Kumar, a director of business development who joined Qualcomm from Samsung in 2012.

The blog did not provide any detail of the architecture but indicated that internal communication is based on spiking neural networks (SNNs) as this is an energy-efficient way to encode information.

Kumar said that the project has three goals for Zeroth processors: to provide biologically inspired learning; to enable machines to perceive the world as humans do; and to create, define and standardize a neural processing architecture.

The ability of the architecture to learn is likely to be important in saving energy. Despite the challenges of developing complex neural networks computer science wisdom is starting to move towards it being a more flexible and appropriate mechanism than writing millions of lines of code that tries to predict and cater for every possible outcome.

"We envision nPU’s in a variety of different devices, but also able to live side-by-side in future system-on-chips. This way you can develop programs using traditional programing languages, or tap into the NPU to train the device for human-like interaction and behavior," said Kumar in the blog.

A video included within the blog shows a robot that contains a version of the Zeroth processor being trained to visit white squares on a floor. It is not clear whether the robot contains an FPGA implementation of the Zeroth processor or custom silicon. Similarly, it is not clear how Qualcomm intends to bring the technology to market or how soon it will include Zeroth NPUs within its own application processors.

Brain Corp. is a 2009 startup company in which Qualcomm Ventures has invested undisclosed amounts of money in a couple of rounds. Its mission is to develop algorithms based on the functioning of the nervous system, with applications to vision, motor control and autonomous navigation. It is working with partners to develop the hardware to support its algorithms.

Brain Corp. was founded by Eugene Izhikevich—who serves as CEO—and Allen Gruber, a medical doctor and founder of several successful technology companies. Izhikevich graduated from Moscow State University in 1992 and received his PhD from Michigan State University in 1996. He was a senior fellow at The Neurosciences Institute in San Diego until 2009.

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