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China Develops Darwin Neuromorphic Chip

darwinResearchers from Zhejiang University and Hangzhou Dianzi University in China have developed the Darwin Neural Processing Unit (NPU), a neuromorphic hardware co-processor based on Spiking Neural Networks, fabricated by standard CMOS technology.

With the rapid development of the Internet-of-Things and intelligent hardware systems, a variety of intelligent devices are pervasive in today’s society, providing many services and convenience to people’s lives, but they also raise challenges of running complex intelligent algorithms on small devices. Sponsored by the college of Computer science of Zhejiang University, the research group led by Dr. De Ma from Hangzhou Dianzi university and Dr. Xiaolei Zhu from Zhejiang university has developed a co-processor named as Darwin. The Darwin NPU aims to provide hardware acceleration of intelligent algorithms, with target application domain of resource-constrained, low-power small embedded devices. It has been fabricated by 180nm standard CMOS process, supporting a maximum of 2048 neurons, more than 4 million synapses and 15 different possible synaptic delays. It is highly configurable, supporting reconfiguration of SNN topology and many parameters of neurons and synapses.

An Artificial Neural Network (ANN) is a type of information processing system based on mimicking the principles of biological brains, and has been broadly applied in application domains such as pattern recognition, automatic control, signal processing, decision support system and artificial intelligence. Spiking Neural Network (SNN) is a type of biologically-inspired ANN that perform information processing based on discrete-time spikes. It is more biologically realistic than classic ANNs, and can potentially achieve much better performance-power ratio.

The successful development of Darwin demonstrates the feasibility of real-time execution of Spiking Neural Networks in resource-constrained embedded systems. It supports flexible configuration of a multitude of parameters of the neural network, hence it can be used to implement different functionalities as configured by the user. Its potential applications include intelligent hardware systems, robotics, brain-computer interfaces, and others. Since it uses spikes for information processing and transmission, similar to biological neural networks, it may be suitable for analysis and processing of biological spiking neural signals, and building brain-computer interface systems by interfacing with animal or human brains.

This video shows a prototype application in Brain-Computer Interfaces–recognizing the user’s motor imagery intention via real-time decoding of EEG signals, i.e., whether he is thinking of left or right, and using it to control the movement direction of a basketball in the virtual environment. Different from conventional EEG signal analysis algorithms, the input and output to Darwin are both neural spikes: the input is spike trains that encode EEG signals; after processing by the neural network, the output neuron with the highest firing rate is chosen as the classification result.

Darwin currently supports a maximum of 2048 neurons, 20482 = 4,194,304 synapses, and 15 possible synaptic delays. As part of future work, the researchers plan to use it as a Processing Element in a Network-on-Chip (NoC) architecture, using the AER format for input and output spikes, in order to scale up the SNN size to potentially millions of neurons.

Download the paper, Darwin: a Neuromorphic Hardware Co-Processor based on Spiking Neural Networks

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