20 November 2009

More On IBM's BlueMatter "Brain Simulation"

Popular Mechanics provides information on a recent IBM "brain simulation" of 1.6 billion simulated neurons -- an attempt to "simulate the human visual cortex". Here are some fascinating details from PM:
Modha's billion-neuron virtual cortex is so massive that running it required one of the fastest supercomputers in the world—Dawn, a Blue Gene/P supercomputer at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California.

Dawn hums and breathes inside an acre-size room on the second floor of the lab's Terascale Simulation Facility. Its 147,456 processors and 147,000 gigabytes of memory fill 10 rows of computer racks, woven together by miles of cable. Dawn devours a million watts of electricity through power cords as thick as a bouncer's wrists—racking up an annual power bill of $1 million. The roar of refrigeration fans fills the air: 6675 tons of air-conditioning hardware labor to dissipate Dawn's body heat, blowing 2.7 million cubic feet of chilled air through the room every minute.

Dawn was installed earlier this year by the Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which conducts massive computer simulations to ensure the readiness of the nation's nuclear weapons arsenal. Modha's team worked with Dawn for a week before it was transitioned to NNSA's classified nuclear work. For all of its legendary computing power, Dawn still ran Modha's 1.6 billion neurons at only one-six-hundredth the speed of a living brain. A second simulation, with 1 billion neurons, ran a little faster—but still only at one-eighty-third of normal brain speed.

These massive simulations are merely steps toward Modha's ultimate goal: simulating the entire human cortex, about 25 billion neurons, at full speed. To do that, he'll need to find 1000 times more computing power. At the rate that supercomputers have expanded over the last 20 years, that super-super computer could exist by 2019. "This is not just possible, it's inevitable," Modha says. "This will happen." _PM
Can you imagine $1 million a year just to power the processors? 6675 "tons" of air conditioning to keep the hardware cool? All to run a very poor simulation of a human visual cortex at 1 / 600 th the speed of a human brain?

You have to admire Modha's optimism when he claims that it is inevitable that the human level artificial cortex will be operating in real time by the year 2019. As I said a couple of days ago, the estimation is preposterous.

First of all, the current simulation is of the most basic cortical neural architecture. It is the easiest, least complex type of neural simulation problem to solve. In fact, an insect brain is more complex -- with far fewer neurons, at much faster speeds, in a far smaller space, with a far lower energy budget -- than the monstrosity that IBM has strung together at Livermore.

It looks as if Modha's team is in a race with Henry Markram's Swiss team, and other teams around the world to simulate the human cortex the soonest. Perhaps there is an X prize for that achievement. But it seems to Al Fin engineers that this brute force approach is best adapted for burning up research funds, rather than actually coming close to simulating a human brain.

Yes, you must crawl before you can walk, walk before you can run.  But it seems as if what the IBM team is doing is moving two fingers in the air in a crawling motion, and calling it crawling.  Time will tell.

As I said before, the achievement of simulating some basic quasi-physiologic responses to simulated input stimuli -- on this scale -- is remarkable.  This platform will provide for some fascinating lab experiments in artificial neuronal networks.  There is a lot to be learned.

But please go easy on the claims.  The field of artificial intelligence has left a junkyard of exaggerated claims and absurd unfulfilled predictions across the landscape of the past 50 years.  Stick to the facts.

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