Not everyone is impressed by IBM researchers’ claim that they are on track to develop a supercomputer that can simulate the human brain.
At the Supercomputing show Nov. 18, IBM scientists said they had reached two milestones by simulating a brain similar to that of a cat. In their presentation, the researchers also said they had developed an algorithm that makes use of IBM’s Blue Gene supercomputer to map connections between cortical and subcortical areas in the human brain.
However, a researcher with another, similar project called the presentation a “scam,” a “hoax” and a “PR stunt.”
In a letter to IBM CTO Bernard Meyerson, Henry Markram, the lead on the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne’s Blue Brain project, said the presentation at Supercomputing by Dharmendra Modha, manager of cognitive computing at IBM Research-Almaden, was a mass deception played upon the public, adding that the research did not support Modha’s findings.
“This is light years away from a cat brain, not even close to an ant’s brain in complexity,” Markram said in his Nov. 23 letter. “It is highly unethical of Modha to mislead the public in making people believe they have actually simulated a cat’s brain. Absolutely shocking.”
Modha’s project includes not only IBM scientists, but also researchers from Stanford, the University of Wisconsin, Cornell, Columbia University Medical Center and the University of California-Merced.
The scientists’ work is part of a DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) initiative called SYNAPSE (Systems of Neuromorphic Adaptive Plastic Scalable Electronics). For the first phase of the project, the researchers built a cortical simulator that was run on IBM’s Dawn Blue Gene/P supercomputer at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
The algorithm, called BlueMatter, when combined with the cortical simulator, lets scientists experiment with mathematical hypotheses about how brain structure affects function, according to the researchers.
Markram’s Blue Brain project also aims to build a synthetic brain through reverse-engineering a mammal’s brain and also uses an IBM Blue Gene/L computer. Markram is director of the EPFL’s Brain Mind Institute, which founded the project.
In his letter to Meyerson, Markram dismissed Modha’s contentions, saying his project and others could easily do the same work but would not call it a simulation of a cat’s brain.
“It is really no big deal to simulate a billion points interacting if you have a big enough computer,” Markram wrote. “The only step here is that they have at their disposal a big computer. For a grown up ‘researcher’ to get excited because one can simulate billions of points interacting is ludicrous.”
Markram also referred to what appears to be an earlier point of contention, saying Modha previously had erroneously claimed to have simulated a mouse’s brain.
He said it was “shocking” that IBM and DARPA had supported Modha’s claims at the Supercomputing show, and that it was surprising that the research was awarded the Gordon Bell Prize at the conference.
“I never realized that such trivial and unethical behavior would actually be rewarded,” Markram wrote.