Skip to Content

Brain-Inspired Chips Will Allow Smartphones to Understand Us

We should look to biology to figure out how to make smartphones more ­helpful, says M. Anthony Lewis.

December 17, 2013

A modern smartphone is the most powerful information portal the world has known, integrating a traditional telephone with a powerful Internet-connected computer capable of navigating, playing multimedia, and taking photos. I think the next major step in smartphone evolution is obvious: the devices will become intelligent assistants that can perceive the environment and follow our commands. This will become possible thanks to progress in building chips inspired by the functioning of mammalian brains (see “Thinking in Silicon”).

M. Anthony Lewis
M. Anthony Lewis

We hope to achieve what I call embedded cognition—intelligence that resides on the mobile handset itself rather than on a distant server. We want devices that are always listening, watching, and paying attention to us, without compromising battery life. We need new kinds of algorithms to process streams of sensory data from sights, sounds, physical sensations, and more. We need our phones to be capable of learning so that they can come to understand their owner. And we need to stuff this intelligence inside compact, power-efficient hardware because we don’t want to transmit data off the smartphone for processing—a requirement that causes delays for users of Apple’s Siri and the Google Now app for Android phones.

A team of engineers and neuroscientists at Qualcomm Research is working on a new type of processor to meet those challenges. It takes design cues from the human brain, which despite using only about 20 watts of power is the most impressive and efficient “computer” that we know of at processing data from the real world—the kind we want smartphones to handle too.

The Zeroth processor, as it is called, works on data using silicon “neurons” that are linked into networks and communicate via electrical spikes. A system with a Zeroth processor can learn. In one test, researchers trained a wheeled robot to favor certain areas of a room by rewarding it when it was in the correct place. We also envision sensors modeled on the nervous system. They would conserve energy by reporting only when the environment had changed, instead of transmitting data constantly at all times.

This biologically inspired approach to computing should pave the way for the next major upgrade to the 130-gram marvel we call the smartphone.

M. Anthony Lewis is lead engineer on Qualcomm’s Zeroth project.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

The Steiner tree problem:  Connect a set of points with line segments of minimum total length.
The Steiner tree problem:  Connect a set of points with line segments of minimum total length.

The 50-year-old problem that eludes theoretical computer science

A solution to P vs NP could unlock countless computational problems—or keep them forever out of reach.

section of Rima Sharp captured by the LRO
section of Rima Sharp captured by the LRO

The moon didn’t die as early as we thought

Samples from China’s lunar lander could change everything we know about the moon’s volcanic record.

conceptual illustration of a heart with an arrow going in on one side and a cursor coming out on the other
conceptual illustration of a heart with an arrow going in on one side and a cursor coming out on the other

Forget dating apps: Here’s how the net’s newest matchmakers help you find love

Fed up with apps, people looking for romance are finding inspiration on Twitter, TikTok—and even email newsletters.

ASML machine
ASML machine

Inside the machine that saved Moore’s Law

The Dutch firm ASML spent $9 billion and 17 years developing a way to keep making denser computer chips.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.