While neuromorphic computing remains under research for the time being, efforts into the field have continued to grow over the years, as have the capabilities of the specialty chips that have been developed for this research. Following those lines, this morning Intel and Sandia National Laboratories are celebrating the deployment of the Hala Point neuromorphic system, which the two believe is the highest capacity system in the world. With 1.15 billion neurons overall, Hala Point is the largest deployment yet for Intel’s Loihi 2 neuromorphic chip, which was first announced at the tail-end of 2021.

The Hala Point system incorporates 1152 Loihi 2 processors, each of which is capable of simulating a million neurons. As noted back at the time of Loihi 2’s launch, these chips are actually rather small – just 31 mm2 per chip with 2.3 billion transistors each, as they’re built on the Intel 4 process (one of the only other Intel chips to do so, besides Meteor Lake). As a result, the complete system is similarly petite, taking up just 6 rack units of space (or as Sandia likes to compare it to, about the size of a microwave), with a power consumption of 2.6 kW. Now that it’s online, Hala Point has dethroned the SpiNNaker system as the largest disclosed neuromorphic system, offering admittedly just a slightly larger number of neurons at less than 3% of the power consumption of the 100 kW British system.

A Single Loihi 2 Chip (31 mm2)

Hala Point will be replacing an older Intel neuromorphic system at Sandia, Pohoiki Springs, which is based on Intel’s first-generation Loihi chips. By comparison, Hala Point offers ten-times as many neurons, and upwards of 12x the performance overall,

Both neuromorphic systems have been procured by Sandia in order to advance the national lab’s research into neuromorphic computing, a computing paradigm that behaves like a brain. The central thought (if you’ll excuse the pun) is that by mimicking the wetware writing this article, neuromorphic chips can be used to solve problems that conventional processors cannot solve today, and that they can do so more efficiently as well.

Sandia, for its part, has said that it will be using the system to look at large-scale neuromorphic computing, with work operating on a scale well beyond Pohoiki Springs. With Hala Point offering a simulated neuron count very roughly on the level of complexity of an owl brain, the lab believes that a larger-scale system will finally enable them to properly exploit the properties of neuromorphic computing to solve real problems in fields such as device physics, computer architecture, computer science and informatics, moving well beyond the simple demonstrations initially achieved at a smaller scale.

One new focus from the lab, which in turn has caught Intel’s attention, is the applicability of neuromorphic computing towards AI inference. Because the neural networks themselves behind the current wave of AI systems are attempting to emulate the human brain, in a sense, there is an obvious degree of synergy with the brain-mimicking neuromorphic chips, even if the algorithms differ in some key respects. Still, with energy efficiency being one of the major benefits of neuromorphic computing, it’s pushed Intel to look into the matter further – and even build a second, Hala Point-sized system of their own.

According to Intel, in their research on Hala Point, the system has reached efficiencies as high as 15 TOPS-per-Watt at 8-bit precision, albeit while using 10:1 sparsity, making it more than competitive with current-generation commercial chips. As an added bonus to that efficiency, the neuromorphic systems don’t require extensive data processing and batching in advance, which is normally necessary to make efficient use of the high density ALU arrays in GPUs and GPU-like processors.

Perhaps the most interesting use case of all, however, is the potential for being able to use neuromorphic computing to enable augmenting neural networks with additional data on the fly. The idea behind this being to avoid re-training, as current LLMs require, which is extremely costly due to the extensive computing resources required. In essence, this is taking another page from how brains operate, allowing for continuous learning and dataset augmentation.

But for the moment, at least, this remains a subject of academic study. Eventually, Intel and Sandia want systems like Hala Point to lead to the development of commercial systems – and presumably, at even larger scales. But to get there, researchers at Sandia and elsewhere will first need to use the current crop of systems to better refine their algorithms, as well as better figure out how to map larger workloads to this style of computing in order to prove their utility at larger scales.

Source: Intel, Sandia National Laboratories

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  • GeoffreyA - Wednesday, April 17, 2024 - link

    If I understand correctly, neuromorphic chips are hardware, and normal neural networks are software, so to speak. In the brain, hardware and software are tied together, or are one and the same, similar to early computers' code being the physical wiring. To enable "rewiring" in neuromorphic chips, arguably what's needed is the biological approach, with some sort of biological transistor and neuron. Then, the neural networks could be tied to them more closely; indeed, becoming them.
  • Dr_Mobeyos - Wednesday, April 17, 2024 - link

    what you are describing, are dynamic data flow architecture, which where proposed in the 80's, or at least until they found out, that a practical DFA processor wound need a impractical amount of content addressable memory.
  • GeoffreyA - Wednesday, April 17, 2024 - link

    Thanks! I'll read up about that.
  • nandnandnand - Wednesday, April 17, 2024 - link

    "at less than 3% of the 100 kW British system"

    At less than 3% the power consumption of the 100 kW Bri'ish system
  • Orfosaurio - Wednesday, April 17, 2024 - link

    There are two unnecessary characters after the last period, I quote: "to prove their utility at larger scales.CP".
    Thanks for the article nonetheless.

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