A li teral brain box


Our brains are thought to be made of around 100 bil­lion neu­rons, while the big­gest com­puter chips top out at tens of bil­lions of tran­sis­tors. Mean­while, each neu­ron can be con­nected to as many as 10,000 oth­ers, mak­ing for up to 1,000 tril­lion synap­tic con­nec­tions. By some met­rics, the hu­man brain is equiv­a­lent to a one tril­lion bit-per­sec­ond com­puter. Add to that the fact that the brain’s peak power con­sump­tion is around 20 watts, and that makes the brain 10,000 times more ef­fi­cient than the best in­te­grated cir­cuits.

Hold that thought while we con­sider an­other. Thanks to the in­creas­ingly pow­er­hun­gry na­ture of com­puter chips, plus the ris­ing cost of en­ergy, it’s more ex­pen­sive to run a server for a few years than to buy it. Both in terms of in­creas­ing com­pute den­sity and mak­ing it af­ford­able to use, a big in­crease in ef­fi­ciency would go a long way. The ad­vanced mi­cro-in­te­gra­tion group at IBM’s re­search lab in Zurich thinks the brain has the an­swer – or rather, the brain’s frac­tally branch­ing net­work of blood ves­sels makes for a very in­ter­est­ing model.

IBM is work­ing on in-chip mi­croflu­idic chan­nels that sup­ply power and en­able cool­ing. The idea func­tions like a flow bat­tery, in which power is pro­vided by two liq­uids that pro­duce elec­tric­ity when meet­ing on ei­ther side of a mem­brane. If the idea works, it’ll be use­ful for 3D chips with mul­ti­ple lay­ers of in­te­grated cir­cuits.

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