IBM Gets Closer to Computer That Acts Like a Human Brain

IBM researchers at the Supercomputing show say they and their university partners have hit two key milestones in their efforts to develop a computer that can monitor data and act on it in ways similar to a human brain. The development of such a computer could help businesses more logically act on the rapidly growing streams of data that are generated.

IBM researchers say they are making significant strides in creating a computer that can simulate the human brain.

At the Supercomputing show in Portland, Ore., Nov. 18, researchers working on the cognitive computing team reported that they've reached two major milestones in the project-performing the first almost real-time cortical simulation of the brain that goes beyond that of a cat cortex, and the development of an algorithm that makes use of IBM's Blue Gene supercomputing architecture to map the connections between cortical and subcortical areas in the human brain.

These developments bring the researchers-not only from IBM, but also scientists from Stanford, the University of Wisconsin, Cornell, Columbia University Medical Center and the University of California-Merced-closer to reaching the ultimate goal of creating a computer that can evaluate and act on data in the same way a human brain does.

It also would consume similar amounts of energy and space as the human brain.

"Learning from the brain is an attractive way to overcome power and density challenges faced in computing today," Josephine Cheng, IBM Fellow and lab director of IBM Research-Almaden, said in a statement. "As the digital and physical worlds continue to merge and computing becomes more embedded in the fabric of our daily lives, it's imperative that we create a more intelligent computing system that can help us make sense of the vast amount of information that's increasingly available to us, much the way our brains can quickly interpret and act on complex tasks."

IBM researchers said as the amount of critical data and information continues to rapidly grow, businesses will need to find ways to monitor, adapt and make rapid decisions based on that information. A cognitive computer that can pull together disparate information and apply such aspects as context and previous experience could help businesses more quickly and accurately come up with logical responses to the data they're getting.

The research is part of a DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) initiative called SYNAPSE (Systems of Neuromorphic Adaptive Plastic Scalable Electronics). IBM and the university scientists recently received $16.1 million from DARPA for Phase 1 of the project.

The researchers built a cortical simulator that was run on the Dawn Blue Gene/P supercomputer at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The supercomputer is powered by 147,456 processors and has 144TB of main memory.

The algorithm, called BlueMatter, when combined with the cortical simulator, lets scientists experiment with mathematical hypotheses about how brain structure affects function.

In a blog post, Dharmendra Modha, manager of cognitive computing at IBM Research-Almaden, outlined how the research could affect computing in the future:

""While we have algorithms and computers to deal with structured data (for example, age, salary, etc.) and semi-structured data (for example, text and web pages), no mechanisms exist that parallel the brain's uncanny ability to act in a context-dependent fashion while integrating ambiguous information across different senses (for example, sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell) and coordinating multiple motor modalities. Success of cognitive computing will allow us to mine the boundary between digital and physical worlds where raw sensory information abounds. Imagine, for example, instrumenting the world's oceans with temperature, pressure, wave height, humidity and turbidity sensors, and imagine streaming this information in real-time to a cognitive computer that may be able to detect spatiotemporal correlations, much like we can pick out a face in a crowd. We think that cognitive computing has the ability to profoundly transform the world and bring about entirely new computing architectures and, possibly even, industries.""