Cognitive Computing Pioneer
Named 2016 Scientist of the Year
The IBM Chief Scientist has been recognized by R&D Magazine for his advancements in the
field of cognitive computing, as well as his dedication to making the world a better place.
July 16, 2004. That’s the day everything changed for Dharmendra Modha.
Most people don’t remember the exact day they realized what they wanted
to do with the rest of their lives. Maybe
it was a crisp fall day halfway through
high school, or college or even middle
But that’s not the case for Modha.
His “day” was July 16, 2004—and he
remembers it vividly.
By 2004, Modha was already well on
his way to being considered a computing pioneer. He joined IBM after
receiving his bachelor’s degree from
the India Institute of Technology in computer science and his Ph.D. in electrical
computing engineering at the University
of California, San Diego.
Once at IBM, Modha worked on a
series of extremely successful projects.
He invented a code that went into every
IBM disk drive; he invented algorithms
to visualize data in tens of thousands
of dimensions, which eventually became part of Watson; and he invented
caching algorithms for large storage
systems, which has generated billions
of dollars for IBM over the years.
“But then, I became acutely aware of
the finiteness of life,” Modha told R&D
Magazine. “I wanted to do something
that could have a paradigm-shifting
effect on the field of computing. Some-
thing that would make the world better
in a deep sense. But it had to have just
a sliver of a chance of working. A very
high-risk, high-leverage project.”
After meditating for a year on what
to do next, Modha came up with just
what he wanted—the crazy, almost im-
possible idea to build a brain-inspired
Emulating the human brain
But, can someone really build a computer inspired by the brain? After all,
the human brain boasts about 100
trillion (1014) synapses and 100 billion
(1011) neurons firing anywhere from
five to 50 times per second.
The point was never to compete with
existing computers, Modha added. “It
was always, how can we complement
Cognitive computing, or brain-in-
spired computing, aims to emulate the
human brain’s abilities for perception,
action and cognition. Traditional com-
puters are symbolic, fast and sequential
with a focus on language and analytical
thinking—much like the left brain.
The neurosynaptic chips Modha and
his team design are much more like
the right brain—slow, synthetic, and
capable of addressing the five senses
as well as pattern recognition.
Today’s chip—called TrueNorth—
features 1 million neurons, 256 million
synapses, consumes 17 milliwatts of
power and is about 4 square centimeters in size.
Based on an innovative algorithm
just published in September, TrueNorth
can efficiently implement inference with
deep networks to classify image data
at 1,200 to 2,600 frames per second
while consuming a mere 25 to 275 Photo Credit: