Spiking neural network targets Arm chips

PARIS — Eta Compute, a startup that demonstrated last summer at Hot Chips a very low power microcontroller using asynchronous technology, has come up with a new spin that it calls “the industry’s first neuromorphic platform.”  

In announcing the availability of its latest SoC platform IC based on TSMC's 55nm ULP process, Paul Washkewicz, vice president of marketing and a co-founder of Eta Compute, Wednesday (March 15) pitched it as an ideal platform for “delivering neuromorphic computing based machine intelligence to mobile and edge devices.” 

But wait. When did Eta Compute’s 0.25V IoT chip, from Hot Chips last year, become a “neuromorphic computing” engine? Did the startup pivot slightly in strategy? Washkewicz explained that Eta ventured down the path of “machine intelligence,” when “customers started telling us that they want a little bit more intelligence on the edge.”

Two pillars of Eta Compute’s claim for neuromorphic computing consist of an event-driven, no-clock delay insensitive asynchronous logic (DIAL) architecture for its hardware and the company’s spiking neural network software. 

Eta Compute (Westlake Village, Calif.) had already developed DIAL, which uses a novel handshake to wake up circuits resting at a very low power level. The system quickly turns on devices without the set-up and wait times usually required for synchronous circuits.

The key for startup’s course correction was adding more intelligence, in part through luring Nara Srinivasa away from Intel last fall. Srinivasa was senior principal engineer and chief scientist at Intel Labs. At Intel, Srinivasa was working to develop self-learning, neuromorphic architecture, seeking to tackle a broader class of AI problems.  Last September when Srinivasa was still at Intel, Intel announced a neuromorphic artificial intelligence test chip named Loihi. Intel said the test chip was designed to mimic brain functions by absorbing data gained from its environment.

Srinivasa, now CTO of Eta Compute, said in a statement: “Our patented event driven processor architecture, DIAL, is combined with our fully customizable neuromorphic algorithms.” He said, “These will be the foundation of a diverse and wide-ranging set of applications that deliver machine intelligence to the network edge.”

The concept of a computer that mimics the brain isn't new. But Intel’s Loihi AI chip should not be confused with Eta Comupte’s IP, because the startup is not offering exactly that. Eta Compute’s intention is to marry asynchronous, no-clock, event-driving DIAL hardware architecture with spiking neural model-based algorithms developed by Srinvasa and his team, explained Washkewicz.

Linley Gwennap, principal analyst at the Linley Group, is skeptical. Admitting that he hasn’t talked to Eta, he deemed its announcement “confusing.”

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