Neuromorphic Brain-Chip Takes Flight

The boffin-wranglers at DARPA have challenged researchers to create neuromophic chips that could make sense of video and sensor data from planes and drones right on board.


(Quadcopter chip has 576 'neurons')

Now a neuromorphic chip has been untethered from the lab bench, and tested in a tiny drone aircraft that weighs less than 100 grams.

In the experiment, the prototype chip, with 576 silicon neurons, took in data from the aircraft’s optical, ultrasound, and infrared sensors as it flew between three different rooms.

The first time the drone was flown into each room, the unique pattern of incoming sensor data from the walls, furniture, and other objects caused a pattern of electrical activity in the neurons that the chip had never experienced before. That triggered it to report that it was in a new space, and also caused the ways its neurons connected to one another to change, in a crude mimic of learning in a real brain. Those changes meant that next time the craft entered the same room, it recognized it and signaled as such.

The drone, custom built for the test by drone-maker company Aerovironment, based in Monrovia, California, is six inches square, 1.5 inches high, and weighs only 93 grams, including the battery. HRL’s chip made up just 18 grams of the craft’s weight, and used only 50 milliwatts of power. That wouldn’t be nearly enough for a conventional computer to run software that could learn to recognize rooms, says [Narayan Srinivasa, who leads HRL’s Center for Neural and Emergent Systems].

The drone, custom built for the test by drone-maker company Aerovironment, based in Monrovia, California, is six inches square, 1.5 inches high, and weighs only 93 grams, including the battery. HRL’s chip made up just 18 grams of the craft’s weight, and used only 50 milliwatts of power. That wouldn’t be nearly enough for a conventional computer to run software that could learn to recognize rooms, says Srinivasa.

Science fiction writer Peter Watts decided you could try giving a plane the brains of a pilot. Literally. In his 1999 novel Starfish, sf author Peter Watts describes what he calls "head cheese":

The Pacific Ocean slopped two kilometers under his feet. He had a cargo of blank-eyed psychotics sitting behind him. And the lifter was being piloted by a large pizza with extra cheese...

Ray had been in this very cockpit, watching the pizza being installed and no doubt wondering when the term "job security" had become an oxymoron... The techs were playing with a square vanilla box, half a meter on a side and about twice as thick as Kita's wrist.

Humans had always been able to integrate 3-D spatial information better than the machines that kept trying to replace them...

Until now, apparently...

"It's one of those smart gels," Ray said at last... "Head cheese. Cultured brains on a slab. The same things they've been plugging into the Net to firewall infections."
(Read more about Watts head cheese)

From Technology Review.

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