The Quest to Build a Silicon Brain

An engineer's revolutionary new chip, inspired by how our own brains work, could turn computing on its head.

RELATED TAGS: BRAIN, COMPUTERS

The day he got the news that would transform his life, Dharmendra Modha, 17, was supervising a team of laborers scraping paint off iron chairs at a local Mumbai hospital. He felt happy to have the position, which promised steady pay and security — the most a poor teen from Mumbai could realistically aspire to in 1986. 

Modha’s mother sent word to the job site shortly after lunch: The results from the statewide university entrance exams had come in. There appeared to be some sort of mistake, because a perplexing telegram had arrived at the house. 

Modha’s scores hadn’t just placed him atop the city, the most densely inhabited in India — he was No. 1 in math, physics and chemistry for the entire province of Maharashtra, population 100 million. Could he please proceed to the school to sort it out? 

Back then, Modha couldn’t conceive what that telegram might mean for his future. Both his parents had ended their schooling after the 11th grade. He could count on one hand the number of relatives who went to college. 

But Modha’s ambitions have expanded considerably in the years since those test scores paved his way to one of India’s most prestigious technical academies, and a successful career in computer science at IBM’s Almaden Research Center in San Jose, Calif. 

Recently, the diminutive engineer with the bushy black eyebrows, closely cropped hair and glasses sat in his Silicon Valley office and shared a vision to do nothing less than transform the future of computing. “Our mission is clear,” said Modha, now 44, holding up a rectangular circuit board featuring a golden square.

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