DARPA funds Kendall Square startup to develop probability chip

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Timothy Prickett Morgan has a really interesting article over at The Register this morning about a new startup called Lyric that is coming out of stealth mode today. Lyric is creating a new processor for probabilistic (fuzzy) calculations, where the answer isn’t a 1 or a 0, but something in between

Lyric Semiconductor logoThe probability processing that Lyric has invented doesn’t do the on/off processing of a normal logic circuit, but rather makes transistors function more like tiny dimmer switches, letting electron flow rates represent the probability of something happening. When you want to reckon the probability of multiple possible events happening, you measure the electrons and that give you the probability, which falls somewhere between 0 and 1. A digital processor has to figure out probabilities, and they do so today in great numbers.

…The five in GP5 is meant to designate that this probability processor is the fifth kind of general purpose processor, coming after central processors (CPUs), digital signal processors (DSPs), field programmable gate arrays (FPGAs), and graphics processing units (GPUs). Each of these other types of processors have specialized architectures, circuits, and programming languages to match. The GP5 will have circuits dedicated to probability-based inference and optimizations for speeding up that processing, as well as its own PSBL programming language.

The work grows out of a PhD dissertation, and the company is (happily) situated on Kendall Square in Cambridge. You can probably think of a few potential applications for such a chip, from the mundane to the explosive

Spam and email filtering use probability algorithms to try to figure out what to let through to you, as does credit card and other financial transaction fraud detection. And obviously, hedge funds and other financial services firms use all kind of complex probability algorithms, as do weapons systems. Hence DARPA’s keen interest from the get-go in Lyric.

DARPA put in $18M in 2006 and 2007 to get things started, and the company has now picked up a small amount of venture funding. Lyric expects to be sampling the PB5 in 2013, which will likely debut as a PCI-attached card. Along the way Lyric also has to develop a new programming language to go with the chip

The current Lyric product roadmap calls for the first iteration of the PSBL language, the 1.0 release, to be available for licensing to selected partners by the end of the year. The LEC 2 ECC circuit is ready now, and the third-generation LEC 3 chip will sample using TSMC’s 180 nanometer process in the second quarter of 2011. PSBL 2.0 debuts in the fourth quarter of 2011, with a 65 nanometer LEC 4 chip sampling in the first quarter of 2012.

More in the article, which is an interesting read (Michael Feldman also has an article on Lyric this week). I know my friend Joe always says that volume wins over niche products (thus he correctly predicted NVIDIA would stomp all over ClearSpeed in HPC), but I’m glad that there are people still willing to bang their heads against the wall. Every once in a great while the wall does crack, and something new slips through.


  1. […] DARPA funds Kendall Square startup to develop probability chip (insidehpc.com) […]


  1. Lyric is creating a new processor for probabilistic (fuzzy) calculations, where the answer isn’t a 1 or a 0, but something in between

    How can 42 be between 0 and 1 ? 😉

  2. Score for the douglas Adams reference 🙂

  3. John

    I’d like to see if these folks could get to commercial viability. The view is you have to target ubiquity, which drives your unit costs down. If they can find a set of markets which are both willing to pay for this, and for which they would be considered reasonably priced, they might be successful.

    I’ll put up a post later on this subject … probably today or tomorrow.


  4. Joe – you probably recognized yourself in my post…”my friend Joe”… 🙂