Date of Award

Spring 5-22-2021

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Electrical Engineering and Computer Science


Qinru Qiu


Deep Learning, Neuromorphic Computing, Spiking Neural Networks, Unsupervised Learning

Subject Categories

Computer Engineering | Engineering


Neuromorphic computing is a computing field that takes inspiration from the biological and physical characteristics of the neocortex system to motivate a new paradigm of highly parallel and distributed computing to take on the demands of the ever-increasing scale and computational complexity of machine intelligence esp. in energy-limited systems such as Edge devices, Internet-of-Things (IOT), and cyber physical systems (CPS). Spiking neural network (SNN) is often studied together with neuromorphic computing as the underlying computational model . Similar to the biological neural system, SNN is an inherently dynamic and stateful network. The state and output of SNN do not only dependent on the current input, but also dependent on the history information. Another distinct property of SNN is that the information is represented, transmitted, and processed as discrete spike events, also referred to as action potentials. All the processing happens in the neurons such that the computation itself is massively distributed and parallel. This enables low power information transmission and processing.

However, it is inefficient to implement SNNs on traditional Von Neumann architecture due to the performance gap between memory and processor. This has led to the advent of energy-efficient large-scale neuromorphic hardware such as IBM's TrueNorth and Intel's Loihi that enables low power implementation of large-scale neural networks for real-time applications. And although spiking networks have theoretically been shown to have Turing-equivalent computing power, it remains a challenge to train deep SNNs; the threshold functions that generate spikes are discontinuous, so they do not have derivatives and cannot directly utilize gradient-based optimization algorithms for training. Biologically plausible learning mechanism spike-timing-dependent plasticity (STDP) and its variants are local in synapses and time but are unstable during training and difficult to train multi-layer SNNs.

To better exploit the energy-saving features such as spike domain representation and stochastic computing provided by SNNs in neuromorphic hardware, and to address the hardware limitations such as limited data precision and neuron fan-in/fan-out constraints, it is necessary to re-design a neural network including its structure and computing. Our work focuses on low-level (activations, weights) and high-level (alternative learning algorithms) redesign techniques to enable inference and learning with SNNs in neuromorphic hardware.

First, we focused on transforming a trained artificial neural network (ANN) to a form that is suitable for neuromorphic hardware implementation. Here, we tackle transforming Long Short-Term Memory (LSTM), a version of recurrent neural network (RNN) which includes recurrent connectivity to enable learning long temporal patterns. This is specifically a difficult challenge due to the inherent nature of RNNs and SNNs; the recurrent connectivity in RNNs induces temporal dynamics which require synchronicity, especially with the added complexity of LSTMs; and SNNs are asynchronous in nature. In addition, the constraints of the neuromorphic hardware provided a massive challenge for this realization. Thus, in this work, we invented a store-and-release circuit using integrate-and-fire neurons which allows the synchronization and then developed modules using that circuit to replicate various parts of the LSTM. These modules enabled implementation of LSTMs with spiking neurons on IBM’s TrueNorth Neurosynaptic processor. This is the first work to realize such LSTM networks utilizing spiking neurons and implement on a neuromorphic hardware. This opens avenues for the use of neuromorphic hardware in applications involving temporal patterns.

Moving from mapping a pretrained ANN, we work on training networks on the neuromorphic hardware. Here, we first looked at the biologically plausible learning algorithm called STDP which is a Hebbian learning rule for learning without supervision. Simplified computational interpretations of STDP is either unstable and/or complex such that it is costly to implement on hardware. Thus, in this work, we proposed a stable version of STDP and applied intentional approximations for low-cost hardware implementation called Quantized 2-Power Shift (Q2PS) rule. With this version, we performed both unsupervised learning for feature extraction and supervised learning for classification in a multilayer SNN to achieve comparable to better accuracy on MNIST dataset compared to manually labelled two-layered networks.

Next, we approached training multilayer SNNs on a neuromorphic hardware with backpropagation, a gradient-based optimization algorithm that forms the backbone of deep neural networks (DNN). Although STDP is biologically plausible, its not as robust for learning deep networks as backpropagation is for DNNs. However, backpropagation is not biologically plausible and not suitable to be directly applied to SNNs, neither can it be implemented on a neuromorphic hardware. Thus, in the first part of this work, we devise a set of approximations to transform backprogation to the spike domain such that it is suitable for SNNs. After the set of approximations, we adapted the connectivity and weight update rule in backpropagation to enable learning solely based on the locally available information such that it resembled a rate-based STDP algorithm. We called this Error-Modulated STDP (EMSTDP). In the next part of this work, we implemented EMSTDP on Intel's Loihi neuromorphic chip to realize online in-hardware supervised learning of deep SNNs. This is the first realization of a fully spike-based approximation of backpropagation algorithm implemented on a neuromorphic processor. This is the first step towards building an autonomous machine that learns continuously from its environment and experiences.


Open Access