IBM Versus the Human Brain

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The human brain has been without competition in the technological world for a long time, but now, coming up against IBM’s TrueNorth chip, technology may be one step closer. When it comes to sound, sight, touch, and smell there has been little question that machines were not even close to processing the same sensory input as the human brain. This new chip, however, utilizes the power of about one million programmable “neurons” to interpret complex sensory input such as smell.

Considering that the average human brain contains billions of sensory neurons this number may seem quite small. However it must also be taken into consideration that this amazing new chip runs off about the same amount of power as a hearing aid, around 70mW (milliwatt), which is an amazing feat for the over five billion transistors that make up this little chip. All this comes just one month after IBM announced a $3 billion USD investment into chip development over the next five years. Additionally, all of this was made possible by using new 28nm (nano-meter) technology courtesy of Samsung Electro-Mechanics Co Ltd.

Each neuron in the human brain, of which there are around 85 billion, is capable of creating 1,000 connections to the other neurons around it. The “neurons” in the IBM TrueNorth chip create a system about as complex as that of an average bee. While that is nowhere near the capacity of the human brain, it is still a large jump forward in the usage of neural networks in computing.

The idea has been around since the 1940s, but until now technology had not taken the strides necessary in storage capacity as well as processing speed. In addition, research into the field of Artificial Intelligence, as well as Pattern Recognition by companies such as Microsoft, Google, and Apple have helped fuel the advancement of these technologies to where they are today. IBM has now taken the lead in the race towards getting out from under the massive shadow of, and landing the first blow against the reign of the human brain.

Being motivated is one thing, however actually achieving what the human brain does is an absolutely massive undertaking. Stephen Smith, a professor of cellular and molecular physiology said in relation to the study: “A single human brain has more switches than all the computers and routers and Internet connections on Earth.” Even as technology continues to increase in its complexity and power, it still pales by comparison to the might of the human brain.

In recent years one of the fastest supercomputers was put to its ultimate test. Simulate just one percent of human brain activity. A team from the Institute of Technology in Okinawa, working side-by-side with another team from Germany, utilized the Fujitsu K Supercomputer, then the fastest in the world, to see how 83,000 processors would handle the massive task. It took the supercomputer 40 minutes to reproduce just one percent of one second of brain activity. Standing in the shadow of such a daunting monolith, IBM may have only lit a candle in the battle against the human brain.

Opinion by Phillip Schmidt

New York Times
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