IBM Research Shows Off New NorthPole Neural Accelerator


IBM Research recently disclosed details about its NorthPole neural accelerator. This isn’t the first time IBM has discussed the part; IBM researcher Dr. Dharmendra Modha gave a presentation last month at Hot Chips that delved into some of its technical underpinnings.

Let’s take a high-level look at what IBM announced.

A New Type of Neural Accelerator

IBM NorthPole is an advanced AI chip from IBM Research that integrates processing units and memory on a single chip, significantly improving energy efficiency and processing speed for artificial intelligence tasks. It is designed for low-precision operations, making it suitable for a wide range of AI applications while eliminating the need for bulky cooling systems.

NorthPole Architecture

NorthPole is implemented with a novel architecture that differs from traditional computer chips, allowing it to perform AI tasks more efficiently. Here’s how NorthPole works:

  • Integrated Processing and Memory: Unlike conventional chips, NorthPole integrates processing units and memory on the same chip. This integration eliminates the traditional von Neumann bottleneck, where data must be shuttled back and forth between memory and processing units, resulting in delays and increased energy consumption.
  • On-Chip Memory: All the memory required for processing is located directly on the NorthPole chip. This design eliminates the need to access external memory, reducing latency and energy consumption. It creates a network of memory and processing intertwined on the chip.
  • Efficient Inference: NorthPole is designed primarily for AI inference tasks. It excels at quickly processing data and making predictions based on pre-trained AI models. This efficiency is achieved through the integration of memory and specialized processing cores.
  • Energy Efficiency: NorthPole is highly energy-efficient, meaning it can perform many AI operations while consuming relatively little power. This efficiency makes it suitable for use in scenarios where energy consumption is a concern, such as edge computing applications.
  • Scalability: NorthPole is designed to support many practical AI applications. It can be scaled out by breaking down larger neural networks into smaller sub-networks that fit within NorthPole’s memory, and multiple NorthPole chips can be connected to handle more complex tasks.

NorthPole’s unique architecture, which integrates processing and memory on the same chip and minimizes data transfer between components, results in higher energy efficiency, lower latency, and improved performance for AI inference tasks. This chip is designed to be efficient, easy to integrate into systems, and suitable for a wide range of AI applications.

Benefits of NorthPole

IBM’s NorthPole has demonstrated exceptional performance in tasks like image recognition and object detection, outperforming existing chips in both performance and efficiency.

In tests with AI systems like ResNet 50 and Yolo-v4, IBM demonstrated that NorthPole is 25 times more energy-efficient and 22 times faster than Nvidia’s V100 GPU. Even compared to more advanced nodes like Nvidia’s H100 GPU, NorthPole is five times more energy efficient.

NorthPole’s memory is all on the chip, enabling efficient memory access for each core. This architecture also allows NorthPole to appear as an active memory chip from the outside, simplifying integration into new systems.

NorthPole is optimized for low-precision operations (2-bit, 4-bit, and 8-bit), achieving high accuracy on neural networks while avoiding the high precision required for training. It operates at a frequency range of 25 to 425 megahertz and can perform 2,048 operations per core per cycle at 8-bit precision. The prototype is built on a 12nm process node.

A standout feature of NorthPole is its ability to process data efficiently without the need for bulky liquid cooling systems, making it suitable for deployment in compact spaces. Ongoing research efforts aim to explore further innovations and advancements in chip processing technologies, promising even greater efficiency and performance gains.

Analyst’s Take

NorthPole is the culmination of nearly two decades of research at IBM Research, focused on creating digital brain-inspired chips. It represents a fusion of traditional processing devices with brain-like processing structures, where memory and processing are intricately intertwined.

The project remained shrouded in secrecy until recently, and its success reflects the dedication and collaborative efforts of the research team at IBM Research. NorthPole signifies a significant milestone in the quest for energy-efficient computing inspired by the human brain.

NorthPole’s versatility, high energy efficiency, and ability to handle low-precision operations make it well-suited for various AI applications, including image analysis, speech recognition, and large language models. Its development opens the door to further innovations in AI hardware.

NorthPole is the latest example of IBM’s rapid pace of machine learning capabilities, which includes innovations like the Tellum processor in its latest generation z-series and its impressive cadence of Watson.x developments. At the same time, there’s no word from IBM on when the technology demonstrated in North will make it into production hardware; rest assured that it’s coming.

Disclosure: Steve McDowell is an industry analyst, and NAND Research an industry analyst firm, that engages in, or has engaged in, research, analysis, and advisory services with many technology companies, which may include those mentioned in this article. Mr. McDowell does not hold any equity positions with any company mentioned in this article.

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