IBM Corp. announced Thursday that it has built two prototype chips that it says process data more like the way humans digest information than do the chips that now power PCs and supercomputers.
The chips represent a significant milestone in a six-year-long project that has involved 100 researchers and about $41 million in funding from the government's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, the Pentagon arm that focuses on long-term research and that brought the world the Internet. IBM has also committed an undisclosed amount of money.
The prototypes offer further evidence of the growing importance of "parallel processing," or computers doing multiple tasks simultaneously. That is important for rendering graphics and crunching large amounts of data.
The uses of the IBM chips so far are prosaic, such as steering a simulated car through a maze, or playing video games. It may be a decade or longer before the chips make their way out of the lab and into actual products.
But what's important is not what the chips are doing, but how they're doing it, said Giulio Tononi, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who worked with IBM on the project.
The new chips' ability to adapt to types of information that they weren't specifically programmed to expect is a key feature.
"There's a lot of work to do still, but the most important thing is usually the first step," Tononi said in an interview. "And this is not one step, it's a few steps."
Technologists have long imagined computers that learn like humans. Your iPhone or Google's servers can be programmed to predict certain behavior based on past events. But the techniques being explored by IBM and other companies and university research labs around "cognitive computing" could lead to chips that are better able to adapt to unexpected information.