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IBM Simulates a Cat-Like Brain: AI or Shadow Minds for Humans?

IBM's new cat brain simulation is both more — and less — than it seems.


A real-time computer-simulated cat brain? Could IBM have come up with a project more likely to trigger Internet excitement?

For the handful of you who missed the news, IBM's Almaden Research Center announced this week that it had produced a "cortical simulation" of the scale and complexity of a cat brain. This simulation ran on one of IBM's "Blue Gene" supercomputers, in this case at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL). (An aside: LLNL is best known as the center for ongoing research into advanced nuclear weapons and related projects; if the lab is now turning its attention to brain simulations, I don't know whether to be happy that it's moving away from weapons or worried that it will try to weaponize AI.)

Worries about the Robopocalypse may be only partially tongue-in-cheek, but it's worth taking a moment to examine what exactly has happened here. This is what the IBM press release says about the simulation:

Scientists, at IBM Research - Almaden, in collaboration with colleagues from Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, have performed the first near real-time cortical simulation of the brain that exceeds the scale of a cat cortex and contains 1 billion spiking neurons and 10 trillion individual learning synapses.

This isn't a simulation of a cat brain, it's a simulation of a brain structure that has the scale and connection complexity of a cat brain. It doesn't include the actual structures of a cat brain, nor its actual connections; the various experiments in the project filled the memory of the cortical simulation with a bunch of data, and let the system create its own signals and connections. Put simply, it's not an artificial (feline) intelligence, it's a platform upon which an A(F)I could conceivably be built.

Long-time readers may be having a deja vu moment here, and for good reason. The same team responsible for the cat-scale brain sim created a mouse-scale brain sim a few years ago. One of the researchers, Dharmendra Modha, runs a blog on cognitive computing, and has posted a PDF of the research paper on this project. If you want the hard-core science, not just a press release, have fun.

brain bluegene

Ultimately, this is a very interesting development, both for the obvious reasons (an artificial cat brain!) and because of its associated "Blue Matter" project, which uses supercomputers and magnetic resonance to non-invasively map out brain structures and connections. The cortical sim is intended, in large part, to serve as a test-bed for the maps gleaned by the Blue Matter analysis. The combination could mean taking a reading of a brain and running the shadow mind in a box.

Science fiction writers will have a field day with this, especially if they develop a way to "write" neural connections, and not just read them. Brain back-ups? Shadow minds in a box, used to extract secret knowledge? Hypercats, with brains operating at a thousand times normal speed? The mind reels.

But the reality is that in many ways the IBM team has done the easy part, and still has a far greater challenge ahead of them. As I said in response to the mouse sim announcement in 2007, the brain isn't simply a haphazard mass of neural junctions; a functional structure simulation may well prove to be a far greater task than simply getting the neural connection sim working. Don't expect to be able to upload your cat's brain into your Roomba any time soon.


I CAN HAS SINGULARITY? by Jamais Cascio, Creative Commons Licensed
Brain meets BlueGene from "The Cat Is Out of the Bag: Cortical Simulations with 109 Neurons, 1013 Synapses" by Rajagopal Ananthanarayanan, Steven K. Esser, Horst D. Simon, and Dharmendra S. Modha.