It has long been fashionable to talk about the brain as the best computer the world has ever seen. But researchers are going a step further by using the brain to inform how computers operate. In the process, this work also might inform our understanding of how the brain actually works.
IBM is using the brain as a template for innovative thinking such as the idea of using fluids both to cool the computer and to distribute electrical power. At the same time, the company is supplying computing equipment to a $1.3 billion European effort called the Human Brain Project, which helps understand the brain through computer simulation.
"If we want to make an impact in the cognitive systems era, we need to understand how the brain works," said Matthias Kaiserswerth, a computer scientist and director of IBM Research in Zurich.
One issue it is working on is matching the brain’s awe-inspiring energy efficiency. The IBM Watson supercomputer that won the TV show Jeopardy a few years back was a high-profile step in the direction of computer intelligence. But it should not be missed that Watson used 85 kilowatts worth of power, whereas the human brain requires only 20 watts.
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Part of this is scale—the human brain is densely packed, which helps both with energy efficiency and processing power. IBM is working on 3D chip stacking configurations that help computers try to match the density of the human brain. The technology is called through-silicon via (TSV).
"In a computer, processors occupy one-millionth of the volume. In a brain, it's 40 percent. Our brain is a volumetric, dense object," said Bruno Michel of IBM.
Overheating is one challenge with such 3D stacking.
IBM is modeling the brain for this, too. It is experimenting with a branching network of liquid cooling channels that move fluid into increasingly smaller tubes. The liquid through the chip, drawing away heat in the thousandth of a second it takes to make the trip, according to Michel.
IBM is working on a redox flow battery that uses this same fluid to distribute power instead of using wires, too. Two electrolytes, each with oppositely charged electrical ions, circulate through the system to distribute power.
The company also has the Blue Brain project, which is working on simulating an entire brain to help understand it better. Right now the company is trying to mimic a mouse brain, but eventually it hopes to move to mimicking the human brain.
"If you can't experimentally map the brain, you have to predict it – the numbers of neurons, the types, where the proteins are located, how they'll interact," said Henry Markram of the Blue Brain project. "We have to develop an entirely new science where we predict most of the stuff that cannot be measured."
Edited by Alisen Downey