The Race to Reverse Engineer the Human Brain

Cat brain technology

IBM’s Dharmendra Modha has a vision. “Cognitive computing seeks to engineer the mind by reverse engineering the brain,” says Modha, a researcher at IBM’s Almaden Research Center, just south of San Francisco. “The mind arises from the brain, which is made up of billions of neurons that are linked by an Internet-like network.” Here’s a video of Dr. Modha explaining his vision of building the computer of the future by modeling the brain:

Modha’s future computer may have taken a giant leap forward with the recent announcement at the SC09 high-performance computing conference in Portland, Ore., of a joint IBM project led by Modha with researchers from five universities and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Dubbed “Blue Matter,” a software platform for neuroscience modeling, it pulls together archived magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan data and assembles it on a Blue Gene/P Supercomputer. IBM has essentially simulated a brain with 1 billion neurons and 10 trillion synapses — one they claim is about the equivalent of a cat’s cortex, or 4.5% of a human brain.

The funding for the project comes from Phase 1 of the U.S. DARPA SyNAPSE project that seeks “to discover, demonstrate, and deliver algorithms of the brain via a combination of (computational) neuroscience, supercomputing, and nanotechnology.” IBM’s announcement signals significant progress towards creating Modha’s future computer, one that will simulate and emulate the brain’s abilities for sensation, perception, action, interaction and cognition, and rivaling the brain’s low power, energy consumption, and compact size.

This starts to raise interesting questions, as several bloggers noted somewhat tongue-in-cheek after the announcement. “So, will Blue Gene get the sudden urge to lick itself,” says one blogger. “I find myself feeling sorry for the virtual ‘cat,’ says another. “If you create an animal-brain-based system that’s capable of learning from experience, feeling basic emotions, then shouldn’t it have the same rights as a flesh-and-blood pet?”

Giving the virtual “cat” senses is actually part of Modha’s vision. And these senses go beyond the five familiar ones of vision, hearing, taste, smell, and feeling. Blue Gene/P’s ability to parse enormous streams of data in real time aligns with IBM’s so-called "smarter planet" initiative, a method of integrating sensors into infrastructure and analyzing the data they produce to optimize systems like the electrical grid, water systems, and traffic. Modha’s computer of the future will be able to “sense” changes in the complex human ecology of the biosphere itself.

Overview. Photo credit:

Reverse engineering is a common practice, especially in the software industry. By modeling the behavior of a piece of software, engineers are able to recreate it and then produce almost identical computer code. Modha’s vision, however, goes far beyond cracking the code behind the latest version of Microsoft’s Windows 7 or Apple’s Snow Leopard.

“The purpose of reverse engineering the human brain is to understand the basic principles of intelligence,” says inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil. “Once you have a simulation working, you can start modifying things and certain things may not matter, some things may be very critical, and you learn what’s important and what the basic principles by which the human brain handles hierarchies, and variance, properties of patterns, and high-level features and so on.”

The “cat” simulator on the Dawn Blue Gene/P supercomputer runs with 147,456 CPUs and 144TB of main memory, and simulates the activity of 1.617 billion neurons connected in a network of 8.87 trillion synapses.

Supercomputer technology appears to be advancing exponentially in accordance with Kurzweil’s “Law of Accelerating Returns.” (See the h+ article “Brain on a Chip” from earlier this year to get a sense of quickly the technology is changing.) IBM’s Blue Gene/P is only the fourth fastest supercomputer available today, although IBM’s press release claims that its architecture is well-suited “to noninvasively measure and map the connections between all cortical and sub-cortical locations within the human brain using magnetic resonance diffusion weighted imaging. Mapping the wiring diagram of the brain is crucial to untangling its vast communication network and understanding how it represents and processes information.”

The “cat” simulator on the Dawn Blue Gene/P supercomputer runs with 147,456 CPUs and 144TB of main memory, and simulates the activity of “1.617 billion neurons connected in a network of 8.87 trillion synapses," according to the IBM press release. The human cortex, in contrast, is estimated to have about 22 billion neurons and 220 trillion synapses.

Henry Markram, head of the Blue Brain project at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, is also attempting to reverse-engineer the mammalian brain using a Dawn Blue Gene/P supercomputer. Among the challenges he faces is “recreating the three-dimensional structure of the brain in a 2-D piece of silicon.” Markram admits that the simulations of biological brain functions using a silicon chip are still crude. “It’s not a brain. It’s more of a computer processor that has some of the accelerated parallel computing that the brain has," he says. Here’s a video of a recent TED talk given by Dr. Markram:

In an article published in the New York Times, Dr. Markram questioned the authenticity of Dr. Modha’s claims that IBM actually exceeded the scale of a cat’s cortex. “This is light years away from a cat brain, not even close to an ant’s brain in complexity," says Markram. Modha acknowledges that his computer simulation is “not as powerful as a cat’s brain in terms of function.” However, IBM voiced support for Modha’s team in a statement to Network World. “IBM stands by the scientific integrity of the announcement on cognitive computing in collaboration with Stanford University, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Cornell University, Columbia University Medical Center, University of California-Merced and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory,” reads the statement.

Blue Matter. Photo credit: modha.orgThe newest version of the twice-yearly supercomputer TOP500 list was formally presented at the SC09 Conference. IBM’s supercomputer nicknamed “Roadrunner” was knocked off the top perch by the Cray XT5 supercomputer known as “Jaguar.” Jaguar, located at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility, was upgraded earlier this year and posted a 1.75 petaflop/sec performance speed running the Linpack benchmark. A petaflop is a thousand trillion floating point operations per second.

The Chinese took the number five spot with new Tianhe-1 (“River in Sky”) system installed at the National Super Computer Center in Tianjin, China. It is being used to research problems in petroleum exploration and for simulating large aircraft designs. It is the highest ranked Chinese system ever, although it uses U.S. manufactured chipsets at its core. Tianhe-1 is a hybrid design with Intel Xeon processors and AMD GPUs used as accelerators. Each node consists of two AMD GPUs attached to two Intel Xeon processors.

With rapidly accelerating advances in supercomputer architectures and competing teams on both sides of the Atlantic speeding to develop cognitive computing by reverse engineering the human brain, can a simulated human brain be far off?

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