Over the last eight years, IBM researcher Modha has been working on a new type of digital AI chip for neural inference, which he calls NorthPole. It’s an extension of TrueNorth, the last brain-inspired chip that Modha worked on prior to 2014. In tests on the popular ResNet-50 image recognition and YOLOv4 object detection models, the new prototype device has demonstrated higher energy efficiency, higher space efficiency, and lower latency than any other chip currently on the market, and is roughly 4,000 times faster than TrueNorth.
The first promising set of results from NorthPole chips were published today in Science. NorthPole is a breakthrough in chip architecture that delivers massive improvements in energy, space, and time efficiencies, according to Modha. Using the ResNet-50 model as a benchmark, NorthPole is considerably more efficient than common 12-nm GPUs and 14-nm CPUs. (NorthPole itself is built on 12 nm node processing technology.) In both cases, NorthPole is 25 times more energy efficient, when it comes to the number of frames interpreted per joule of power required. NorthPole also outperformed in latency, as well as space required to compute, in terms of frames interpreted per second per billion transistors required. According to Modha, on ResNet-50, NorthPole outperforms all major prevalent architectures — even those that use more advanced technology processes, such as a GPU implemented using a 4 nm process.
How does it manage to compute with so much efficiency than existing chips? One of the biggest differences with NorthPole is that all of the memory for the device is on the chip itself, rather than connected separately. Without that von Neumann bottleneck, the chip can carry out AI inferencing considerably faster than other chips already on the market. NorthPole was fabricated with a 12-nm node process, and contains 22 billion transistors in 800 square millimeters. It has 256 cores and can perform 2,048 operations per core per cycle at 8-bit precision, with potential to double and quadruple the number of operations with 4-bit and 2-bit precision, respectively. “It’s an entire network on a chip,” Modha said.
“Architecturally, NorthPole blurs the boundary between compute and memory,” Modha said. “At the level of individual cores, NorthPole appears as memory-near-compute and from outside the chip, at the level of input-output, it appears as an active memory.” This makes NorthPole easy to integrate in systems and significantly reduces load on the host machine.
But the biggest advantage of NorthPole is also a constraint: it can only easily pull from the memory it has onboard. All of the speedups that are possible on the chip would be undercut if it had to access information from another place. Via an approach called scale-out, NorthPole can actually support larger neural networks by breaking them down into smaller sub-networks that fit within NorthPole’s model memory, and connecting these sub-networks together on multiple NorthPole chips. So while there is ample memory on a NorthPole (or collectively on a set of NorthPoles) for many of the models that would be useful for specific applications, this chip is not meant to be a jack of all trades. “We can’t run GPT-4 on this, but we could serve many of the models enterprises need,” Modha said . “And, of course, NorthPole is only for inferencing.”
Potential applications for NorthPole
While research into the NorthPole chip is still ongoing, its structure lends itself to emerging AI use cases, as well as more well-established ones.
In testing, NorthPole team focused primarily on computer vision-related uses, in part because funding for the project came from the U.S. Department of Defense. Some of the primary applications in consideration were detection, image segmentation, and video classification. But it was also tested in other arenas, such as natural language processing (on the encoder-only BERT model) and speech recognition (on the DeepSpeech2 model). The team is currently exploring mapping decoder-only large language models to NorthPole scale-out systems.
When you think of these AI tasks, all sorts of fantastical use cases spring to mind, from autonomous vehicles, to robotics, digital assistants, or spatial computing. Many sorts of edge applications that require massive amounts of data processing in real time could be well-suited for NorthPole. For example, it could potentially be the sort of device that’s needed to move autonomous vehicles from machines that require set maps and routes to operate on a small scale, to ones that can think and react to the rare edge-case situations that make navigating in the real world so challenging even for proficient human drivers. These sorts of edge-cases are the exact sweet spot for future NorthPole applications. NorthPole could enable satellites that monitor agriculture and manage wildlife populations, monitor vehicle and freight for safer and less congested roads, operate robots safely, and detect cyber threats for safer businesses.
This is just the start of the work for Modha on NorthPole. The current state of the art for CPUs is 3 nm — and IBM itself is already years into research on 2 nm nodes. That means there’s a handful of generations of chip processing technologies NorthPole could be implemented on, in addition to fundamental architectural innovations, to keep finding efficiency and performance gains.
Brian Wang is a Futurist Thought Leader and a popular Science blogger with 1 million readers per month. His blog Nextbigfuture.com is ranked #1 Science News Blog. It covers many disruptive technology and trends including Space, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Medicine, Anti-aging Biotechnology, and Nanotechnology.
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