PCM based neuromorphic processors

Read an interesting article from Register the other day about  IBM’s Almadan Research lab using standard Non-volatile memory devices to implement a neural net. They apparently used 2-PCM (Phase Change Memory) devices to implement a 913 neuron/165K synapse pattern recognition system.

This seems to be another (simpler, cheaper) way to create neuromorphic chips. We’ve written about neuromorphic chips before (see my posts on IBM SyNAPSE, IBM TrueNorth and MIT’s analog neuromorphic chip). The latest TrueNorth chip from IBM uses ~5B transistors and provides 1M neurons with 256M synapses.

But none of the other research I have read actually described the neuromorphic “programming” process at the same level nor provided a “success rate” on a standard AI pattern matching benchmark as IBM has with the PCM device.

PCM based AI

The IBM summary report on the research discusses at length how the pattern recognition neural network (NN) was “trained” and how the 913 neuron/165K synapse NN was able to achieve 82% accuracy on NIST’s handwritten digit training database.

The paper has many impressive graphics. The NN was designed as a 3-layer network and used back propagation for its learning process. They show how the back propagation training was used to determine the weights.

The other interesting thing was they analyzed how hardware faults (stuck-ats, dead conductors, number of resets, etc.) and different learning parameters (stochasticity, learning batch size, variable maxima, etc.) impacted NN effectiveness on the test database.

Turns out the NN could tolerate ~30% dead conductors (in the Synapses) or 20% of stuck-at’s in the PCM memory and still generate pretty good accuracy on the training event. Not sure I understand the learning parameters but they varied batch size from 1 to 10 and this didn’t seem to impact NN accuracy whatsoever.

Which PCM was used?

In trying to understand which PCM devices were in use, the only information available said it was a 180nm device. According to a 2012 Flash Memory Summit Report report on alternative NVM technologies, 180nm PCM devices have been around since 2004, a 90nm PCM device was introduced in 2008 with 128Mb and even newer PCM devices at 45nm were introduced in 2010 with 1Gb of memory.  So I would conclude that the 180nm PCM device supported ~16 to 32Mb.

What can we do with todays PCM technology?

With the industry supporting a doubling of transistors/chip every 2 years a PCM device in 2014 should have 4X the transistors of the 45nm, 2010 device above and ~4-8X the memory. So today we should be seeing 4-16Gb PCM chips at ~22nm. Given this, current PCM technology should support 32-64X more neurons than the 180nm devices or ~29K to ~58K neurons or so

Unclear what technology was used for the  ‘synapses’  but based on the time frame for the PCM devices, this should also be able to scale up by a factor of 32-64X or between ~5.3M to ~10.6M synapses.

Still this doesn’t approach TrueNorth’s Neurons/Synapse levels, but it’s close. But then 2 4-16Gb PCMs probably don’t cost nearly as much to purchase as TrueNorth costs to create.

The programing model for the TrueNorth/Synapse chips doesn’t appear to be neural network like. So perhaps another advantage of the PCM model of hardware based AI is that you can use standard, well known NN programming methods to train and simulate it.

So, PCM based neural networks seem an easier way to create hardware based AI. Not sure this will ever match Neuron/Synapse levels that the dedicated, special purpose neuromorphic chips in development can accomplish but in the end, they both are hardware based AI that can support better pattern recognition.

Using commodity PCM devices any organization with suitable technological skills should be able to create a hardware based NN that operates much faster than any NN software simulation. And if PCM technology starts to obtain market acceptance, the funding available to advance PCMs will vastly exceed that which IBM/MIT can devote to TrueNorth and its descendants.

Now, what is HP up to with their memristor technology and The Machine?

Photo Credits: Neurons by Leandro Agrò

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