Analog Computing for AI: How It Could Make Us Re-Think the Future


AI complexity challenges digital computing. Analog AI offers energy efficiency, speed, and IBM's latest chip shows promise. A shift toward eco-friendly computing emerges.

In our digital-dominated world, artificial intelligence (AI) has transformed how we live, from email assistance to recommending personalized content, shaping our daily experiences in unprecedented ways. This transformation is driven by the relentless advancement of AI models, which are growing in complexity daily.

However, the digital computing systems supporting AI has struggled to keep pace, leading to slower training speeds, suboptimal performance, and increased energy consumption. This threatens AI’s future and calls for re-evaluating traditional computing systems.

Thanks to research by IBM, Analog AI emerges as a beacon of hope, offering potential solutions for efficiency and environmental responsibility.

The Digital Computing Challenges for Modern AI

AI models require extensive training on vast datasets for optimal performance as they become more complex. However, traditional digital computing, reliant on binary representations (0 and 1) and electronic components, struggles to meet the demands of modern AI. These limitations affect AI systems in the following ways:

Discrete Representation and Precision Issues: AI models often work with continuous, high-dimensional data like images and natural language. Digital computing’s reliance on discrete binary representations can introduce precision issues when converting these continuous data inputs into digital form. This quantization can lead to information loss and potentially degrade the performance of AI models, especially in tasks requiring fine-grained detail recognition.

Energy Consumption: AI models demand significant computational power. Digital computing, with its binary on-off logic gates, is power-hungry when executing complex AI computations. This high energy consumption not only results in substantial operational costs but also contributes to concerns about the carbon footprint of AI systems, especially in large-scale data centers.


Processing Speed and Parallelism: Modern AI models often involve massive datasets and intricate neural architectures with millions or billions of parameters. Digital computing, with its sequential processing nature, can struggle to efficiently handle parallelism, leading to longer training times and less responsive real-time AI applications.

Von Neumann Bottleneck: Digital computing relies on the Von Neumann architecture, where memory and processing are distinct entities. This division mandates continuous data transfer between memory and the CPU, resulting in data movement bottlenecks. This bottleneck noticeably hampers processing speed and makes the computing system less energy-efficient, mainly when AI handles extensive datasets.

Data Conversion Overheads: Many AI applications, such as computer vision and speech recognition, capture and process analog signals, like images and sound. Converting these analog signals into digital format through Analog-to-Digital Conversion (ADC) introduces overhead in terms of time and computational resources. These delays can hinder the real-time processing capabilities of AI systems, especially in applications requiring rapid decision-making.

What is Analog Computing?

Analog AI, sometimes called Neuromorphic or Brain-inspired computing, is a branch of AI and computing that draws inspiration from the structure and functioning of biological neural networks.

Unlike traditional digital AI, which processes data using discrete binary values (0s and 1s), analog AI uses continuous signals and analog components to emulate neural behavior. This approach aims to mimic how the human brain processes information, aiming to achieve certain advantages, such as improved energy efficiency and cognitive-like computing.

How Analog AI Holds the Key to Challenges of Digital AI

Amid these digital computing limitations, Analog AI is a promising solution. Unlike digital computing, which processes data discretely, Analog computers operate continuously. This distinctive approach to computing holds the key to overcoming the challenges faced by digital AI:

Energy Efficiency: Analog AI’s continuous operation consumes less power than digital AI, reducing operational costs and aligning with sustainability goals by minimizing the carbon footprint of AI systems.

Reduced Data Transfer Bottlenecks: Analog AI processes data within memory, eliminating constant data transfers between memory and the CPU. This reduction leads to faster AI training and more responsive real-time applications.

Parallel Processing: Analog AI’s natural parallelism enables it to handle multiple computations simultaneously, resulting in faster and more efficient processing, especially for complex tasks involving large datasets and intricate neural networks.

Continuous Data Processing: Analog AI’s continuous operation aligns seamlessly with many AI inputs’ continuous and high-dimensional nature, mitigating precision issues and eliminating analog-to-digital conversion overheads.

Case Study: IBM’s Breakthrough in Analog AI

IBM’s recent introduction of a 14-nanometer analog AI chip represents a groundbreaking achievement in AI technology. With 35 million memory cells, the chip aims to mimic biological neural processes in computing and data storage.

IBM employs “compute-in-memory,” executing computational operations directly within the memory subsystem. This aligns with analog computing principles and optimizes AI computations for efficiency and speed. The chip uses phase-change memory technology, transitioning between amorphous and crystalline phases when exposed to electrical pulses. This allows for intermediate states, enabling fundamental computations in AI with just a few resistors or capacitors, a complete departure from traditional methods requiring hundreds or thousands of transistors.

IBM’s analog AI chip exhibited remarkable results in speech recognition, performing on par with traditional hardware but seven times faster for voice command keyword identification and delivering a 14-fold increase in energy efficiency for complex speech-to-text transcription.

Their innovation showcases the potential of analog computing principles to enhance AI systems’ speed and efficiency. Leveraging phase-change memory and compute-in-memory concepts bridges the gap between biological neural processes and AI hardware, propelling the AI revolution to new directions.

The Bottom Line

Analog AI offers a promising solution to the limitations of traditional digital computing in the AI era. Continuous data processing, energy efficiency, reduced data bottlenecks, and natural parallelism are vital to enhancing AI performance while reducing environmental impact. IBM’s recent breakthrough in analog AI chip technology exemplifies its potential, marking a significant shift in computing toward a more efficient and sustainable future.


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Dr. Tehseen Zia
Tenured Associate Professor

Dr. Tehseen Zia has Doctorate and more than 10 years of post-Doctorate research experience in Artificial Intelligence (AI). He is Tenured Associate Professor and leads AI research at Comsats University Islamabad, and co-principle investigator in National Center of Artificial Intelligence Pakistan. In the past, he has worked as research consultant on European Union funded AI project Dream4cars.