A new NASA-developed computing device allows machines to work much like the brain.

This technology may allow fast-thinking machines to make decisions based on what they
see. A planetary rover might use this technology to avoid obstacles, select scientifically
interesting spots to explore just by what it sees and navigate through terrain on its own without
review from ground controllers. A spacecraft might use the technology to avoid hazards and
identify a pre-selected landing site with very high precision.

“This may well be recognized as a quantum leap in the pursuit of intelligent vision,
allowing machines to be significantly more autonomous,” said Dr. Anil Thakoor, supervisor of
the Bio-Inspired Technology and Systems Group at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in
Pasadena, Calif.

The device works much like the brain, whose power comes from the complex networks
of interconnections called synapses between brain cells. Networks of these brain cells, called
neurons, allow humans to make instant decisions based on an observed image or scene. The new
processor captures the same capability to process images in real time as a scene unfolds.

The Three-Dimensional Artificial Neural Network processor is capable of recognizing
objects in real time and in highly cluttered background scenes. It can process an image and is
capable of a certain degree of judgment about the objects, much the same way as a person looks
at a variety of objects and makes judgments about the nature of those objects.

Two technologies give the compact processor an unprecedented ability to process a
stream of images in a way similar to that used by the human eye-brain combination. One is the
JPL-pioneered, highly interconnected networks of ultra-low-power electronic synapses on very-
large-scale-integrated (VLSI) chips that mimic the core of a brain. The other is the three-
dimensional stacking of those chips in a sugar-cube sized package developed by Irvine Sensors
Corporation, Costa Mesa, Calif.

The device achieves a computing speed of more than a trillion operations per second
using only 8 watts of power. That is more than a thousand times faster than a typical
commercially available desktop computer that consumes more than 100 watts of power.
Engineers believe potential commercial benefits for the new technology may be found in
public safety and in creating a personal computer that can respond to users’ emotional states by
simply recognizing the users’ facial expressions. The development may also be useful to the
video game industry in improving interactive technologies.

JPL’s Center for Space Microelectronics Technology, under sponsorship from the
Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, developed the processor. The processor allows real time
onboard target recognition by an interceptor for missile defense. Managed for NASA by the
California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, JPL is the lead U.S. center for robotic
exploration of the solar system.