Scientists from IBM have unveiled a neurosynaptic computer chip modeled on the human brain that contains one million programmable neurons and 256 million programmable synapses. The chip features 5.4 billion transistors, and consumes only 70 milliwatts.

IBM claims the chip is the first to achieve this level of scale and complexity. The chip's architecture features an on-chip two-dimensional mesh network of 4,096 digital, distributed neurosynaptic cores. Each core module is capable of integrating memory, computation, and communication.

This technology will enable computers to not only process, but interpret data, which will make it possible for them to learn and evolve over time.

What this means

IBM hopes to build on this research by ultimately building "a neurosynaptic chip system with ten billion neurons and a hundred trillion synapses, all while consuming only one kilowatt of power and occupying less than two liters of volume," says IBM Communications Manager Christopher Sciacca.

"Computers today are very large, very fast number crunchers and information manipulators," Sciacca adds. "They can process lots of data, but they really don't think." With this new processing technology, "programmers won't have to anticipate every procedure and every rule that will be required."

The chip was fabricated using Samsung's 28 nanometer process technology. Its power density of 20mW/cm2 is nearly four orders of magnitude less than today's microprocessors.

The chip required almost a decade of research and development, including $53 million from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency since 2008.

IBM sets records

IBM has been aggressive in pushing new research and setting new limits for storage and processing technology.

In July, AT&T, IBM and Applied Communication Sciences (ACS) unveiled technology that is designed to connect multiple clouds in 40 seconds. The prototype will enable organizations that seek to connect disparate cloud environments to reduce the labor, cost and time it takes to integrate.

In May, IBM researchers and Fujifilm created an advanced prototype tape that can hold 85.9 billion bits per square inch. This advancement enables a standard LTO size cartridge to store up to 154 terabytes of uncompressed data.

Three months earlier IBM broke the record for data transfer speeds over a multimode optical fibre by sending data at a speed of 64Gb/s over a 57 meter-long cable. The speed is 14% faster than the previous record and 2.5 times faster than commercially available technology.

IBM's chip business

IBM has pledged to invest $3 billion (about £1.75 billion , AU$ 3.20 billion) over the next five years in research and development to, in its own words, push the limits of chip technology with a clear focus on big data and cloud computing.

However, IBM currently loses $1.5 billion (£900 million, $1.70 billion) on its chipmaking business each year and it is rumored to be in the process of selling the unit. Last month, a report circulated that GlobalFoundries was attempting to acquire IBM's chipmaking engineers and intellectual property. The deal was squashed last month.