IBM’s complicated silicon story: It’s designing brainiac chips while trying to shed its chip making biz

You could be forgiven for thinking that IBM(s ibm) is of two minds when it comes to chips.

On the one hand, it’s obvious that Big Blue is trying to offload its chip-making business. It may even have offered to pay GlobalFoundries $1 billion to take that operation off its hands, according to Bloomberg, which cited an unidentified source. That seems crazy until you realize that it’s a money-loser — by some estimates, the chip business costs IBM $1.5 billion a year, and CEO Ginni Rometty is trying to shed unprofitable businesses. Neither IBM nor GlobalFoundries would comment for this story.

On the other hand, check out all the headlines — including our own — about the brainiac chip IBM Researchers have designed. As summarized in the journal Science the researchers “applied our present knowledge of the structure and function of the brain to design a new computer chip that uses the same wiring rules and architecture. The flexible, scalable chip operated efficiently in real time, while using very little power.”

IBM promises a chip that thinks like a brain

By mimicking the way that neurons, synapses and other parts of the brain work to solve problems, IBM said this “SyNAPSE” silicon can recognize patterns and classify objects in a very power-efficient way. This silicon, which IBM claims is the world’s first “neurosynaptic” computer chip, can combine a million programmable neurons, 256 million programmable synapses and 46 billion synaptic operations per second per watt, according to a press release. That technology would enable a postage-stamp-sized computer using this chip could run on the amount of energy supplied by a hearing aid battery.

And, harnessing an array of these chips together in a neural network could solve all sorts of complex problems.the_neural_network2_by_rajasegar-d2xx41q

Primary researcher Dharmendra Modha told Gigaom’s Signe Brewster that applications for the chip range from  cloud computing to wearable electronics. And, small robots armed with new brain-chips could roam long distances crunching tons of data without needing to recharge.

IBM chip plan: Stick with R&D, dump manufacturing?

So that’s some smart silicon, but how does it square with talk about IBM getting out of the chip-making business? It may not be that much of a contradiction. IBM has said it will continue to invest in chip R&D — last month it announced a $3 billion investment to create chip technologies for next-gen computing, big data and cognitive systems.

There’s a distinction between designing chips for the future and manufacturing those chips once that’s done for broader use. Why not offload that capital-intensive fab work to companies specializing in it?

The bigger worry about IBM is that the R&D that the company is so famous for has been deemphasized and cut back. I suspect that this is the case, although breakthroughs like this one allay some of those concerns.

Note: this story was updated at 7:23 a.m. PST to reflect that neither IBM nor GlobalFoundries would respond for comment.