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Cars That Think Like You

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Car makers are checking out neuromorphic technology to implement AI–powered features such as keyword spotting, driver attention, and passenger behavior monitoring.

Imitating biological brain processes is alluring because it promises to enable advanced features without adding significant power draw at a time when vehicles are trending towards battery–powered operation. Neuromorphic computing and sensing also promise benefits like extremely low latency, enabling real–time decision making in some cases. This combination of latency and power efficiency is extremely attractive.

Here’s the lowdown on how the technology works and a hint on how this might appear in the cars of the future.

With the rise of artificial intelligence, technologies claiming to be “brain-inspired” are abundant. We examine what neuromorphic means today in our Neuromorphic Computing Special Project.

Spiking Networks

The truth is there are still some things about how the human brain works that we just don’t understand. However, cutting–edge research suggests that neurons communicate with each other by sending electrical signals known as spikes to each other, and that the sequences and timing of spikes are the crucial factors, rather than their magnitude. The mathematical model of how the neuron responds to these spikes is still being worked out. But many scientists agree that if multiple spikes arrive at the neuron from its neighbors at the same time (or in very quick succession), that would mean the information represented by those spikes is correlated, therefore causing the neuron to fire off a spike to its neighbor.

This is in contrast to artificial neural networks based on deep learning (mainstream AI today) where information propagates through the network at a regular pace; that is, the information coming into each neuron is represented as numerical values and is not based on timing.

Making artificial systems based on spiking isn’t easy. Aside from the fact we don’t know exactly how the neuron works, there is also no agreement on the best way to train spiking networks. Backpropagation — the algorithm that makes training deep learning algorithms possible today — requires computation of derivatives, which is not possible for spikes. Some people approximate derivatives of spikes in order to use backpropagation (like SynSense) and some use another technique called spike timing dependent plasticity (STDP), which is closer to how biological brains function. STDP, however, is less mature as a technology (BrainChip uses this method for one–shot learning at the edge). There is also the possibility of taking deep learning CNNs (convolutional neural networks), trained by backpropagation in the normal way, and converting them to run in the spiking domain (another technique used by BrainChip).

SynSense Speck

SynSense is working with BMW to advance the integration of neuromorphic chips into smart cockpits and explore related fields together. BMW will be evaluating SynSense’s Speck SoC, which combines SynSense’s neuromorphic vision processor with a 128 x 128–pixel event–based camera from Inivation. It can be used to capture real–time visual information, recognize and detect objects, and perform other vision–based detection and interaction functions.

“When BMW replaces RGB cameras with Speck modules for vision sensing, they can replace not just the sensor but also a significant chunk of GPU or CPU computation required to process standard RGB vision streams,” Dylan Muir, VP global research operations at SynSense, told EE Times.

Using an event–based camera provides higher dynamic range than standard cameras, beneficial for the extreme range of lighting conditions experienced inside and outside the car.

BMW will explore neuromorphic technology for car applications, including driver attention and passenger behavior monitoring with the Speck module.

“We will explore additional applications both inside and outside the vehicle in coming months,” Muir said.

SynSense’s neuromorphic vision processor has a fully asynchronous digital architecture. Each neuron uses integer logic with 8–bit synaptic weights, a 16–bit neuron state, 16–bit threshold, and single–bit input and output spikes. The neuron uses a simple integrate–and–fire model, combining the input spikes with the neuron’s synaptic weights until the threshold is reached, when the neuron fires a simple one–bit spike. Overall, the design is a balance between complexity and computational efficiency, Muir said.

SynSense model of the neuron
SynSense’s electronic neuron is based on the integrate–and–fire model. (Source: SynSense)

SynSense’s digital chip is designed for processing event–based CNNs, with each layer processed by a different core. Cores operate asynchronously and independently; the entire processing pipeline is event driven.

“Our Speck modules operate in real–time and with low latency,” Muir said. “We can manage effective inference rates of >20Hz at <5mW power consumption. This is much faster than what would be possible with traditional low–power compute on standard RGB vision streams.”

While SynSense and BMW will be exploring neuromorphic car use cases in the “smart cockpit” initially, there is potential for other automotive applications, too.

“To begin with we will explore non–safety–critical use cases,” Muir said. “We are planning future versions of Speck with higher resolution, as well as revisions of our DynapCNN vision processor that will interface with high–resolution sensors. We plan that these future technologies will support advanced automotive applications such as autonomous driving, emergency braking, etc.”

SynSense Speck Module
SynSense and Inivation Speck module — an event–based camera module which incorporates sensor and processor. (Source: SynSense)

BrainChip Akida

The Mercedes EQXX concept car, debuted at CES 2022, features BrainChip’s Akida neuromorphic processor performing in–cabin keyword spotting. Promoted as “the most efficient Mercedes–Benz ever built,” the car takes advantage of neuromorphic technology to use less power than deep learning powered keyword spotting systems. This is crucial for a car that is supposed to deliver a 620–mile range (about 1,000 km) on a single battery charge, 167 miles further than Mercedes’ flagship electric vehicle, the EQS

Mercedes said at the time that BrainChip’s solution was 5 to 10× more efficient than conventional voice control when spotting the wake word “Hey Mercedes”.

Neuromorphic Car Mercedes EQXX
Mercedes’ EQXX concept EV has a power efficiency of more than 6.2 miles per kWh, almost double that of the EQS. (Source: Mercedes)


“Although neuromorphic computing is still in its infancy, systems like these will be available on the market in just a few years,” according to Mercedes. “When applied at scale throughout a vehicle, they have the potential to radically reduce the energy needed to run the latest AI technologies.”

“[Mercedes is] looking at big issues like battery management and transmission, but every milliwatt counts, and the context of [BrainChip’s] inclusion was that even the most basic inference, like spotting a keyword, is important when you consider the power envelope,” Jerome Nadel, chief marketing officer at BrainChip, told EE Times.

Nadel said that a typical car in 2022 may have as many as 70 different sensors. For in–cabin applications, these sensors may be enabling facial detection, gaze estimation, emotion classification, and more.

“From a systems architecture point of view, we can do it in a 1:1 way, there’s a sensor that will do a level of pre–processing, and then the data will be forwarded,” he said. “There would be AI inference close to the sensor and… it would pass the inference meta data forward and not the full array of data from the sensor.”

The idea is to minimize the size and complexity of data packets sent to AI accelerators in automotive head units, while lowering latency and minimizing energy requirements. With a potential for 70 Akida chips or Akida–enabled sensors in each vehicle, Nadel said each one will be a “low–cost part that will play a humble role,” noting that the company needs to be mindful of the bill of materials for all these sensors.

BrainChip Akida neuromorphic processor in car system
BrainChip sees its neuromorphic processor next to every sensor in a car. (Source: BrainChip)

Looking further into the future, Nadel said neuromorphic processing will find its way into ADAS and autonomous vehicle systems, too. There is potential to reduce the need for other types of power–hungry AI accelerators.

“If every sensor had a limited, say, one or two node implementation of Akida, it would do the sufficient inference and the data that would be passed around would be cut by an order of magnitude, because it would be the inference metadata… that would have an impact on the horsepower that you need in the server in the trunk,” he said.

BrainChip’s Akida chip accelerates spiking neural networks (SNNs) and convolutional neural networks (via conversion to SNNs). It is not tailored for any particular use case or sensor, so it can work with vision sensing for face recognition or person detection, or other audio applications such as speaker ID. BrainChip has also demonstrated Akida with smell and taste sensors, though it’s more difficult to imagine how these sensors might be used in automotive (smelling and tasting for air pollution or fuel quality, perhaps).

Akida is set up to process SNNs or deep learning CNNs that have been converted to the spiking domain. Unlike native spiking networks, converted CNNs retain some information in spike magnitude, so 2– or 4–bit computation may be required. This approach, hwoever, allows exploitation of CNNs’ properties, including their ability to extract features from large datasets. Both types of networks can be updated at the edge using STDP — in the Mercedes example, that might mean retraining the network to spot more or different keywords after deployment.

Neuromorphic Car Mercedes EQXX interior
Mercedes used BrainChip’s Akida processor to listen for the keyword “Hey Mercedes” in the cabin of its EQXX concept EV. (Source: Mercedes)

Mercedes has confirmed that “many innovations”, including “specific components and technologies” from the EQXX concept car, will make it into production vehicles, reports Autocar. There is no word yet on whether new models of Mercedes will feature artificial brains.

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