Spiking neural networks for a low-energy future

Spiking neural networks (SNNs) have some disadvantages compared to artificial neural networks (ANNs) but they have the potential to run for a fraction of the energy. Whether SNNs will be able to replace ANNs and how much energy they will be using depends on many engineering and neuroscience advances. Here I will go through some of the technical background of the SNN energy advantages and some of the current numbers.

Energy efficient SNN features

The energy efficiency of SNNs comes primarily from two features. Firstly, the spike is a discrete event and energy is only used when a spike occurs. This is probably the most fundamental feature that distinguishes SNNs from ANNs. This means that the energy efficiency of a SNN depends not only on the number of neurons but also on the number of spikes the model requires to perform. The second feature is local memory. At the heart of all models are parameters. On traditional hardware such as CPUs and GPUs, the part of the chip that performs the calculations is not the same that remembers the parameters. Loading the parameters onto the chip is much more energy intensive than the computation itself. Therefore, when the parameters can be stored locally on the chip that computes, efficiency advantages result. This is not something unique to spiking neural networks. Some tensor processing units (TPUs) also feature local memory and they are specifically designed for ANNs. When most people speak about the energy advantages of SNNs, they assume local memory.

SNNs also require specialized hardware to run efficiently. That hardware is called neuromorphic. It makes efficient use of the binary nature of spikes and local memory. Neuromorphic hardware is so far only available for research purpose and making it more widely available will be one of the challenges to SNN adoption. Next will be some numbers on energy efficiency.

How efficient are we talking?

How much more efficient SNNs are depends on many factors of the comparison. What is the task, what are the model architectures and what is the hardware. Making projections into the future is even harder, since machine learning advances are made quickly on both SNNs and ANNs. Projecting the absolute amount of energy that could be saved is then even harder because it requires AI demand predictions which can change non-linearly with technical advances. I would be interested in finding formal work on some of these uncertainties or work on some myself but for now here are some numbers.

The Loihi processor from Intel Labs is a recent piece of neuromorphic hardware. Depending on the size of their example problem they find that Loihi is 2.58x, 8.08x or 48.74x more energy efficient than a 1.67-GHz Atom CPU (Davies et al. 2018).

Yin et al. (2020) present a method to train SNNs (backpropagation of surrogate gradients). They calculate the theoretical energy consumption for a spiking recurrent network they train with the method and some ANN architectures. Depending on the task, their SNN was 126.2x, 935x, 1602x, 1776x or 3353.3x more efficient than a Long Short-Term Memory network (LSTM; also depends on some details of the LSTM implementation). Their network was 41.3x more efficient compared to a recurrent ANN. Here is a talk from the last author Sander Bohte where he summarizes the findings as >100x more efficient than best recurrent ANN and 1000x more efficient than LSTM. All their calculations assume local memory.

Panda et al. (2012) tried several methods to generate SNNs for image classification and calculated theoretical energy consumption. They estimate better efficiencies of SNNs of 6.52x, 7.7x, 10.6x, 74.9x, 81.3x, 104.8x depending on model architecture and parameter space.

Merolla et al. (2014) present the TrueNorth neuromorphic architecture. They compare synaptic operations per second (SOPS) of their architecture to floating-point operations per second (FLOPS) of traditional chips. They say that TrueNorth can deliver 46 billion SOPS per watt. The most energy-efficient supercomputer they say (at time of their writing) generates 4.5 billion FLOPS per watt.

These numbers highlight the potential for some massive energy savings but benchmarks are always complicated. Making good comparisons can be hard, especially since the unit of computational efficiency is fundamentally different. Either way, SNNs on neuromorphic hardware are extremely energy efficient but to truly save energy they must become better at the tasks ANNs already solve.


Davies et al. 2018. Loihi: A Neuromorphic Manycore Processor with On-Chip Learning. IEEE Micro. 10.1109/MM.2018.112130359

Yin, Corradi & Bohte 2020. Effective and Efficient Computation with Multiple-timescale Spiking Recurrent Neural Networks. https://arxiv.org/abs/2005.11633

Panda, Aketi & Roy, 2012. Towards Scalable, Efficient and Accurate Deep Spiking Neural Networks with Backward Residual Connections, Stochastic Softmax and Hybridization. https://arxiv.org/abs/1910.13931.

Merolla et al. (2014). A million spiking-neuron integrated circuit with a scalable communication network and interface. https://science.sciencemag.org/content/345/6197/668

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