Skip
Current Issue
This Month's Print Issue

Follow Fast Company

We’ll come to you.

3 minute read

Technology

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.

I CAN HAS SINGULARITY?

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.

Images:

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.

ARE YOU REGISTERED TO VOTE?
Register now to make sure you have a voice in the election.
loading