To most people, a computer is nothing more than a functional box. You can use it to surf the Web, stream a movie, and maybe crunch some numbers at work, but the thing doesn't have a mind of its own. At least not yet. But IBM researchers are getting closer: the company has unveiled a new chip that promises to make computers a whole lot smarter.  

TrueNorth is wholly unlike traditional computer chips, which use the 1940s-era Von Neumann structure, says Horst Simon, deputy director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Inspired by the brain, the chip comes equipped with one million electronic "neurons" and relies on interconnected webs of transistors, like a brain's neural networks. I spoke with Simon and Cornell Tech professor Rajit Manohar, who played a key role in developing TrueNorth, to learn more about what this technology can do. Here are five potential applications it may soon enable.  


To Catch a Thief

When the idea was proposed six years ago, IBM and university researchers felt the purpose of creating the chip should be to mimic human biology, which is more efficient than computers at doing certain things, like spotting patterns. Unlike a conventional microprocessor, TrueNorth can "execute algorithms that can be expressed using connections between neurons," Manohar says, just like a brain. Given the proper algorithm, the chip can group data by patterns and identify, for example, that two people aren't alike, that the light's growing dim, or that a threatening predator is nearby. In this way, the chip might be used strategically in a business to determine when something (or someone) is out of place and alert a store owner to act. 

A Doctor and Lifeguard

Consider the possibilities of using the chip's smarts in medical situations and emergencies. If someone, say, swims too far out to sea, a sensor-embedded buoy could alert a lifeguard. Similarly, a thermometer using the chip could sense odors from certain bacteria. At the scene of a building collapse, a sensor-enabled rubber sphere may determine who's trapped in the rubble, sparing search and rescue workers from danger. 

Parking and Credit Assistance 

Since the chip knows when something looks out of place, it could be useful for scanning credit applications and raising a red flag when something looks fishy. When embedded in cars and synched with a smartphone app, meanwhile, it could also serve as a parking assistant. The same technology may also be used in self-driving cars, which sense traffic and the road on their own.  

The Next Watson 

IBM's artificially intelligent computer made headlines when it competed on Jeopardy! in 2011. But with the new chip, Watson won't be alone for much longer. According to IBM, the chip may be combined with other cognitive computing technologies to create "systems that learn, reason, and help humans make better decisions." "These neuro-type architectures [in TrueNorth] are very good at doing complicated classification tasks," says Manohar. "If you give [the chip] a lot of examples, saying 'This is a book, etc.,' you can write algorithms to distinguish between [different things]." 

A Smarter Cloud 

A smarter chip could create a more efficient cloud, says Manohar. The chip contains 5.4 billion transistors, but only draws 70 milliwatts of power, whereas a modern Intel processor with 1.4 billion transistors takes far more power--up to 140 watts. Since the modern data center, which runs cloud computing, is limited by how much you can cool and power the microprocessors, Manohar says, "you could do the same computation for some of these tasks using way less power." Translation? Lower energy costs.