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Qualcomm's brain chip could turn your phone into a robot butler

Mark Hachman | Oct. 14, 2013
If a cell phone can essentially see, hear, and detect movement like a person, shouldn't it start to think like a person, too? That's the basis of Qualcomm's Zeroth processor, designed to emulate millions of the billions of neurons within the human brain.

Qualcomm's neural-processing units pass data in very small "spikes" of information, Lewis said, rather than the 32- or 64-bit chunks most processors are used to. But run in parallel, these small spikes of data can transmit large amounts of information—and, Qualcomm hopes, run cool enough to serve as a coprocessor of a phone or a data center.

The problem with dealing with parallel processors is that the notion of programming them is relatively new, while programming in a serial fashion is well understood. To help solve this problem, Qualcomm plans to release a tool chain next year. "The quick-start guide shouldn't say, step one—earn a degree in neuroscience. Step two, program the chip," Lewis said.

Qualcomm also built a version of the Zeroth chip into a small wheeled robot that the company trained to move around a small playfield, stopping at certain squares along the way, as shown above. The robot wasn't ordered to move to specific squares, but when it did so, being told "Good robot" helped teach it what it was supposed to do.

And that same model could be used to "train" a future cell phone. "A cell phone is kind of like a robotic device," Lewis said. "It lacks arms and legs, but it's a robot in everything but name."


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