Qualcomm's (NASDAQ:QCOM) Zeroth neuromorphic chip program is focused on signing up researchers this year to test its technology as the company eyes the commercial introduction of brain-mimicking chips as soon as 2015. But early robotics applications show how far Qualcomm's technology development has already come.
The Zeroth neural-networking chips program was named after science fiction writer Isaac Asimov's zeroth law of robotics, which directs: "A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm." So it makes sense that an early demo features a robot equipped with a Qualcomm "neural processing unit" (NPU) and specialized software.
As reported by MIT Technology Review, the demo stars a small robot named Pioneer, which rolled up to a Captain America action figure placed on the carpet, picked it up with its front-mounted scoop and pushed it along toward a set of three pillars meant to represent toy bins. Upon "seeing"--via its camera--a Qualcomm engineer sweep his arms toward a pillar where Captain America should be placed, Pioneer complied and subsequently proceeded to also pick up and deposit in the same place a Spider-Man action figure.
Not only was this impressive because Pioneer had already learned its clean-up chore, but the robot was also able to discern the difference between the action figures and a nearby chessboard, which it ignored.
Deep learning applications that enable cutting-edge object identification in smartphones already exist. One example is the Deep Belief Object Recognition app from Jetpac, which enables smartphones to identify objects in photos. But neuromorphic computing platforms go beyond mere object recognition to enable devices to take action based on information they have learned.
Qualcomm's Zeroth project is not the only high-profile effort aimed at creating neuromorphic computing platforms. According to Technology Review, IBM Research and HRL Laboratories are each working on neuromorphic chips under a $100 million project for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
Europe also has numerous neuromorphic projects going on, including efforts that are part of the 10-year-long Human Brain Project, which aims to make fundamental contributions to neuroscience, medicine and future computing technology. "Devices and systems, modeled after the brain, will overcome fundamental limits on the energy-efficiency, reliability and programmability of current technologies, clearing the road for systems with brain-like intelligence," according to the project's website.
One of the HBP's programs includes the design, implementation and operation of a neuromorphic computing platform that allows experiments with configurable neuromorphic computing systems.
Qualcomm's NPUs could be used in medical devices that not only track a person's vital signs but adjust medication dosages in response. Similarly, the new processing architecture would enable smartphones to become smarter, adapting to their owner's habits. For instance, a handset might perceive when the owner usually goes to bed, so it automatically sends calls to voice mail at that time. Smartphones could also become situationally aware, so they know not to ring when their owner is in a conference room, even if their "silent" button has not been manually switched on.
"If you and your device can perceive the environment in the same way, your device will be better able to understand your intentions and anticipate your needs," Samir Kumar, a business development director at Qualcomm's research lab, told Technology Review.
"We're blurring the boundary between silicon and biological systems," noted Qualcomm CTO Matthew Grob.
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