In a conventional computer, the computational elements are mostly in the central processing unit, while the RAM sits off to one side. In the cognitive chips, the computational elements and RAM are wired together.
The theory is that the computational components act as “neurons,” while the RAM units act as the “synapses,” which connect the neurons together. In a real brain, neurons receive electrical pulses from synapses until a sufficient voltage builds up across their membrane. The neuron then discharges, sending signals to other neurons via the synapses.
The main benefit is decreasing power consumption. Because the memory and computation are intermingled, less energy is wasted shuffling electrons back and forth. The new chips have the potential to be orders of magnitude more efficient than a conventional computer, according to Rajit Manohar, an electrical and computer engineer at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., and member of the DARPA collaboration.
In terms of speed, it’s believed that the chips will be particularly good at crunching certain kinds of problems, such as pattern recognition, but they may not be as good as a regular computer at handling other tasks.