To spike or not to spike: That is the question

W. Maass


Both the brain and digital computers process information, but they do this in completely different ways. Neurons in the brain transmit information not through bits, but through spikes. Spikes are short voltage increases that are generated near the cell body of a neuron, with average spike rates below 10 Hz. These spikes are transmitted via fine axonal fibers and synapses to about 10 000 other neurons. Neurons also differ in another fundamental aspect from processors in a digital computer: they produce spikes according to stochastic rather than deterministic rules. This article discusses recent progress in understanding how complex computations can be carried out with such stochastically spiking neurons. Other recent developments suggest that spike-based neural networks can be emulated by neuromorphic hardware at a fraction of the energy consumed by current digital computing hardware. Can both developments be merged to provide a blueprint for substantially more energy-efficient computing devices? Explores these issues and examines the viability of such a merger.

Reference: W. Maass. To spike or not to spike: That is the question. Proceedings of the IEEE, 103(12):2219-2224, 2015.