IBM Researchers Look to Build 'Global Brain' Computer

IBM researchers and scientists from several major universities, with the aid of a $4.9 million grant from DARPA, will look to use nanoscale technology to create new types of computers capable of cognitive thinking. The goal of the IBM research is to find whether new types of IT infrastructure and computers can not only collect data but use that data to solve problems and make decisions in the same way the human brain solves problems.

While a computer with artificial intelligence such as HAL of "2001: A Space Odyssey" remains the stuff of science fiction, IBM researchers are looking to develop technologies that will bring cognitive abilities to a new class of computers.

IBM researchers, along with scientists from several major universities, have been awarded a $4.9 million grant from DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) to see if they can develop computers with the ability to not only collect data but solve problems in much the same way a human brain does.

IBM, along with Stanford University, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Cornell University, Columbia University Medical Center and the University of California-Merced, announced the DARPA grant Nov. 20.

During the next nine months, IBM and its research partners will use a number of technologies, including cutting-edge nanoscale technology and IBM's BlueGene supercomputers, to begin the work of building a machine capable of cognitive thinking.

While computers can record and store data, it is the human brain that analyzes that massive amount of data and then makes a decision. The type of computer IBM is looking to develop would essentially become a "global brain" that could collect data from a number of different sources and make decisions or help people make better decisions.

"The end goal: ubiquitously deployed computers imbued with a new intelligence that can integrate information from a variety of sensors and sources, deal with ambiguity, respond in a context-dependent way, learn over time and carry out pattern recognition to solve difficult problems based on perception, action and cognition in complex, real-world environments," said an IBM statement.

To attempt to build a computer with the ability to handle cognitive thinking, IBM researchers plan to turn to the human brain as the best example. For example, IBM hopes to use nanoscale technology and devices to recreate the synapses and neurons of the human brain. This would allow IBM to create a computer that is small and uses little power.

"Nanotechnology is becoming sophisticated, to the point where designing and manufacturing atomic-scale neurological components are a real possibility," Charles King, an analyst with Pund-IT Research, wrote in a research note. "This is no simple task, and it is understandably (and financially) infeasible to deploy BlueGene/L supercomputing systems as 'global brains.' Instead, the success of cognitive computing will require novel, even unique computing architectures and programming tools."

The official title of the IBM project is "Cognitive Computing via Synaptronics and Supercomputing (C2S2)."

Editor's Note: This article was updated to include analyst comments.