IBM Computers to Create Virtual Brain

The question has been proposed: When will computer hardware rival the human brain? In the 1980's futurist Vernor Vinge popularized the notion of a technological singularity where artificial intelligence will one day overtake the human brain and even foil any attempt to comprehend its complexity. That may yet happen, but for the time being, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

IBM, in partnership with scientists at Switzerland's Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne's (EPFL) Brain and Mind Institute will begin simulating the brain's biological systems and output the data as a working 3-dimensional model that will recreate the high-speed electro-chemical interactions that take place within the brain's interior.

These include cognitive functions such as language, learning, perception and memory in addition to brain malfunction such as psychiatric disorders like depression and autism.

"Modeling the brain at the cellular level is a massive undertaking because of the hundreds of thousands of parameters that need to be taken into account," said Professor Henry Markram, the EPFL project leader.

"IBM has unparalleled experience in biological simulations and the most advanced supercomputing technology in the world. With our combined resources and expertise we are embarking on one of the most ambitious research initiatives ever undertaken in the field of neuroscience."

At EPFL, over a decade of knowledge accumulated from wet lab experiments has been consolidated into a set of empirical data on the Microsoft-architecture of brain's neocortex. The first phase of the project -- nicknamed "Blue Brain" -- will focus directly on the neocortex, which makes up approximately 85 percent of the human brain.

From there, the modeling will expand to other regions of the brain and, if successful, shed light on the relationships between genetic, molecular and cognitive functions of the brain.

IBM will equip Blue Brain with four Blue Gene super computer racks. The system will occupy the floor space of roughly four refrigerators with a peak performance of 22.8 teraflops.

IBM's Blue Gene systems are presently the world's fastest supercomputers, achieving a peak performance of 5.7 teraflops per single rack system. Each rack occupies one square meter and energy consumption is reduced from previous IBM systems, changing the economics of super computing and prompting IBM to start its Capacity on Demand service where computing power is leased out to customers in a time share type model.

Under its agreement with IBM, EPFL has entered into a Capacity on Demand type sharing arrangement were IBM says computing power will be leased out to other research projects ranging from post-CMOS technology studies to build smaller transistors to examining folding proteins and their role in diseases like Creutzfeldt-Jakob.

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