BY Sally Adee // November 2009
18 November 2009—Scientists and engineers at IBM’s Almaden Research Center, in San Jose, Calif., announced today at the Supercomputing Conference (SC09) in Portland, Ore., that they have created the largest brain simulation to date on a supercomputer. The number of neurons and synapses in the simulation exceed those in a cat’s brain; previous simulations have reached only the level of mouse and rat brains. Experts predict that the simulation will have profound effects in two arenas: It will lead to a better understanding of how the brain’s architecture leads to cognition, and it should inspire the design of electronics that mimic the brain’s as-yet-unmatched ability to do complex computation and learn using a small volume of hardware that consumes little power.
The cortical simulator, called C2, integrates research from the fields of computation, computer memory, communication, and neuroscience to re-create 1 billion neurons connected by 10 trillion individual synapses. C2 runs on “Dawn,” a BlueGene/P supercomputer at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, in Livermore, Calif.
The research was funded by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which is spending at least US $40 million to develop an electronic processor that mimics the mammalian brain’s function, size, and power consumption. The DARPA project, called Systems of Neuromorphic Adaptive Plastic Scalable Electronics, or SyNAPSE, was launched late last year and will continue until 2015 with a goal of a prototype chip simulating 10 billion neurons connected via 1 trillion synapses. The device must use 1 kilowatt or less (about what a space heater uses) and take up less than 2 liters in volume. IBM is one of three groups involved in the project. In addition to $21 million in funds for IBM, DARPA also funded HRL Labs, in Malibu, Calif., and HP Labs, in Palo Alto, Calif.
“Real brains are so impressive to computer scientists,” says Jim Olds, a neuroscientist who directs George Mason University’s Krasnow Institute. “Instead of banging our heads against Moore’s Law, why not build computers more like the brain and get them to solve problems the way the brain does?” Right now, Roadrunner, the supercomputer that comes closest to replicating a human’s ability to drive in rush-hour traffic, weighs 227 metric tons and requires a diet of about 3 megawatts. By contrast, the brain regularly handles rush-hour driving on 20 watts (comparable to the power consumption of a Nintendo Wii), and its 1.5 kilograms fit neatly into a handbag.