More power efficient deep learning through IBM and PCM

Read an article today from MIT Technical Review (TR) (AI could get 100 times more efficient with IBM’s new artificial synapses). Discussing the power efficiency of a new analog approach to neural nets and deep learning.

We have talked about IBM’s TrueNorth and Synapse neuromorphic devices  and PCM neural nets before (see: Parts 1, 2, 3, & 4).

The paper in Nature (Equivalent accuracy accelerated neural training using analogue memory ) referred to by the TR article is behind a pay wall. However, another ArsTechnica (Ars) article (Training a neural network in phase change memory beats GPUs) on the new research was a bit more informative.

Both articles discuss a new analog approach, using phase change memory (PCM) which has significant power/training efficiency when compared to today’s standard GPU AI processor. Both the TR and Ars papers report on IBM developments simulating a new (PCM based) neuromorphic device that reduces training  power consumption AND training time by a factor of 100.   But the Nature paper abstract says it reduces both power consumption and computational space (computations per sq mm) by a factor of 100, not exactly the same.


PCM is a nonvolatile memory technology (see part 4 above for more info) that uses electronically induced phase changes in a material to establish a 1’s or 0’s state for a PCM bit.

However, another advantage of PCM is that it also can take on a state between 0 and 1. This is bad for data memory/storage but good for neural nets.

For a PCM based neural net you could have a layer of PCM (neuron) structures and standard wiring that wires all the PCM neurons to the next layer down, for however many layers required for your neural net. The PCM value would indicate the strength of the connection between neurons (synapses).

But, the problem with a PCM neural net is that PCM states don’t provide enough graduations of values between 0 and 1 to fully map today’s neural net weights.

IBM’s latest design has two different tiers of neural nets

According to Ars article, IBM’s latest design has a two tier approach to using PCM in its neural net. The first, top tier uses a PCM structure and the second lower tier uses a more traditional, silicon based structure and together they implement the neural net.

The Ars article speaks of the new two tier design as providing two digit resolution for the weight between  neuron. The structure implemented in PCM determines the higher order digit and the more traditional, silicon based, neural net segment determines the lower order digit in the two digit neural net weight.

With this approach, training occurs mostly in the more traditional, silicon layer neural net, but every 100 or so training events (epochs),  information is used to modify the PCM structure as well. In this fashion, the PCM-silicon neural net is fine tuned using 1 out of 100 or so training events to correct the PCM layer and the other 99 or so training events to modify the silicon layer.

In addition, the silicon layer is apparently implemented in silicon to mimic the PCM layer, using capacitors and transistors.


I wonder why not just use two tiers of PCM to do the same thing but it’s possible that training the silicon layer is more power efficient, speedy or both than the PCM layer.

The TR and Ars articles seem to make a point of saying this is analogue computing. And I would guess because the PCM and the silicon layer can take on many values between 0 and 1 that means it’s not digital.

Much of the article is based on combined hardware (built using 90nm technology) and software simulations of the new PCM-silicon neuromorphic device. However, simulations like this are a standard step in ASIC design process, and if successful, we would expect an chip to emerge from foundry within 6-12 months from now.

The Nature paper’s abstract indicated that they simulated the device using standard (MNIST, MNIST-backrand, CIFAR-10 and CIFAR-100) training datasets for handwritten digit recognition and color image classification/recognition. The new device was able to approach within 1% accuracy of software trained neural net with 1% the power and (when updated to latest foundry technologies) in 1% the space.

Furthermore, the abstract said that the current device supports ~205K synapses. The previous generation, IBM TrueNorth (see part 2 above) had the “equivalent of 1M neurons” and their earlier IBM SYNAPSE (see part 1 above) chip had “256K programable synapses” and 256 computational elements. But I believe both of those were single tier devices.

I’d also be very interested in whether the neuromorphic device is compatible with and could be programmed with PyTorch or TensorFlow but I didn’t see any information on how the devices were programmed.


Photo Credit(s): neuron by mararie 

3D CrossPoint graphic, taken from Intel-Micron session at FMS16

brain-neurons by Fotis Bobolas

IBM Research creates PCM synapses – cognitive computing, round 4

Flaming Lotus Girls Neuron by SanFranAnnie (cc) (from Flickr)

Last year we reported on IBM’s progress in taking PCM (phase change memory) and using it to create a new, neuromorphic computing architecture (see Phase Change Memory (PCM) based neuromorphic processors). And earlier we discussed IBM’s (2nd generation), True North chip and IBM’s (1st generation) Synapse Chip.

This past week IBM made another cognitive computing announcement. This time they have taken their neuromorphic technologies another step closer to precise emulation of neurological processing of the brain.

Their research paper was not directly available, but IBM Research has summarized its contents in a short web article with a video (see IBM Scientists imitate the functionality of neurons with Phase-Change device).
Continue reading “IBM Research creates PCM synapses – cognitive computing, round 4”