The most advanced form of intelligence on earth is the human brain. The soft tissue encased inside the skull can control all the physiological functions of the body, create thoughts, emotions and reach stored information we call memories. All these processes are performed by over 100 billion neurons (the primary brain cell), each of them being capable of fire instructions in thousand directions simultaneously.
Starting with November 2, this fantastic thinking machine made by nature has a somewhat smaller scale counterpart – created by man.
Meet SpiNNaker (Spiking Neural Network Architecture) the first supercomputer that mimics the functioning of the human brain.
What Is SpiNNaker?
SpiNNaker is a supercomputer developed by and is located at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom.
This supercomputer has one million processing cores and 1,200 interconnected circuit boards. By comparison, the top-of-the-line Intel I7 personal computer has only 8 processing cores.
Just looking at the specifications of this supercomputer is enough to realize that this is a fantastic achievement for the team of scientists working on it:
• 7 terabytes of RAM (this means 7,000 gigabytes)
• 57,000 nodes
• 200 trillion steps per second
The cost to put together so many advanced components? 15 million British pounds (close to 20 million USD)!
What Makes SpiNNaker Different from Other Supercomputers and AI Entities?
People have been working tirelessly to create smart tools to help them perform complex and time-consuming tasks. Various advanced science institutions such as CERN in Europe and NASA in the United States have supercomputers that can perform incredibly tricky calculations. Just think of the recent launch of the Mars probe – its trajectory and flight were calculated and monitored by NASA specialists with the help of a supercomputer.
So, why does SpiNNaker make the headlines?
What is so special about it?
I will let one of its creators, Professor of Computer Engineering Steve Furber, explain: “SpiNNaker completely re-thinks the way conventional computers work. We’ve essentially created a machine that works more like a brain than a traditional computer, which is extremely exciting”.
In other words, SpiNNaker does not only perform the calculations like a human brain. It has neural processes that are just like the ones produced by our brains. A traditional computer, for instance, sends information from one physical location to another at one time, using one single network (for instance, the LAN protocol for local networks or the HTTP protocol for the internet).
SpiNNaker sends billions of information segments at the same time to many different end locations. This is similar to the behavior of the brain. Just think that you are reminding yourself to write an email while drinking coffee. Your brain is:
• operating the muscles in your arms to lift the cup from the table to the mouth,
• activating the taste buds in your tongue so you can enjoy the taste of coffee,
• storing the information concerning the email,
all at the same time (apart from the other operations it performs to maintain your vital signals).
If the brain operated as a traditional computer, each of the operations would be performed one at a time so, technically, you would be unable to remind yourself of the email at the same time as drinking the coffee.
The Journey from Theoretical Concept to the Creation of SpiNNaker
This supercomputer is the result of over two decades of theoretical thinking and actual development work. The concept for SpiNNaker has been elaborated on 20 years ago and took 12 years to put together.
The research team received funding first from the EPSRC and later from the European Human Brain Project. By April 2016, SpiNNaker was operating on 500,000 processing cores. It took only two years to double this capacity and allow the team to make the official announcement about their achievement.
Why Do We Need the SpiNNaker?
As fascinating as it is, this supercomputer would not have been built for the sake of an experiment or for breaking a record.
According to professor Steve Furber: “Its primary task is to support partial brain models: for example, models of the cortex of basal ganglia, or multiple regions, expressed typically as networks of spiking [or firing] neurons.”
He went on to explain that: “Conventional supercomputers have connectivity mechanisms that are much less well-suited to real-time brain modeling. SpiNNaker is, I believe, capable of modeling larger spiking neural networks in real biological time than any other machine.”
These simulations are used to help scientists understand how the human brain functions and how to treat some of the conditions afflicting it. For example, the basal ganglia simulation can be used to study the causes of Parkinson’s disease.
The supercomputer is also used to control a mobile robot called SpOmniBot.
SpiNNaker interprets the visual signals sent by the vision sensors of the robot and creates real-time navigation paths. This capability will help scientists develop neural networks to scale and integrate them into mobile robots that will act even more human-like than they do now.
These robots will be able to fluid movements and perform simultaneous tasks like walking and talking at the same time.
So, Is SpiNNaker a Computer Version of the Human Brain?
No, not by far.
“Even with a million processors, we can only approach 1 percent of the scale of the human brain, and that’s with a lot of simplifying assumptions,” explained Professor Steve Furber.
With the current capacity, the SpiNNaker is capable of mimicking all the functions of the brain of a mouse, which is 1,000 times smaller than the human brain.
However, the fact that we have this small-scale model of a brain created from human-made components means that we ate on the right track to unlocking the mysteries of the most complex biological organ in the world.
What do you think? Will scientists develop SpiNNaker enough to create a perfect model of the human brain? Leave your impressions and thoughts in the comments below.
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