IBM has always been at the forefront of cutting-edge technology. Whether it was with the development computers that could guide ICBMs and rockets into space during the Cold War, or the creation of the Internet during the early 90’s, they have managed to stay on the vanguard by constantly looking ahead. So it comes as no surprise that they had plenty to say last month on the subject of the next of the next big leap.
During a media tour of their Zurich lab in late October, IBM presented some of the company’s latest concepts. According to the company, the key to creating supermachines that 10,000 faster and more efficient is to build bionic computers cooled and powered by electronic blood. The end result of this plan is what is known as “Big Blue”, a proposed biocomputer that they anticipate will take 10 years to make.
Intrinsic to the design is the merger of computing and biological forms, specifically the human brain. In terms of computing, IBM is relying the human brain as their template. Through this, they hope to be able to enable processing power that’s densely packed into 3D volumes rather than spread out across flat 2D circuit boards with slow communication links.
On the biological side of things, IBM is supplying computing equipment to the Human Brain Project (HBP) – a $1.3 billion European effort that uses computers to simulate the actual workings of an entire brain. Beginning with mice, but then working their way up to human beings, their simulations examine the inner workings of the mind all the way down to the biochemical level of the neuron.
It’s all part of what IBM calls “the cognitive systems era”, a future where computers aren’t just programmed, but also perceive what’s going on, make judgments, communicate with natural language, and learn from experience. As the description would suggest, it is closely related to artificial intelligence, and may very well prove to be the curtain raiser of the AI era.
One of the key challenge behind this work is matching the brain’s power consumption. The ability to process the subtleties of human language helped IBM’s Watson supercomputer win at “Jeopardy.” That was a high-profile step on the road to cognitive computing, but from a practical perspective, it also showed how much farther computing has to go. Whereas Watson uses 85 kilowatts of power, the human brain uses only 20 watts.
Already, a shift has been occurring in computing, which is evident in the way engineers and technicians are now measuring computer progress. For the past few decades, the method of choice for gauging performance was operations per second, or the rate at which a machine could perform mathematical calculations.
But as a computers began to require prohibitive amounts of power to perform various functions and generated far too much waste heat, a new measurement was called for. The new measurement that emerged as a result was expressed in operations per joule of energy consumed. In short, progress has come to be measured in term’s of a computer’s energy efficiency.
But now, IBM is contemplating another method for measuring progress that is known as “operations per liter”. In accordance with this new paradigm, the success of a computer will be judged by how much data-processing can be squeezed into a given volume of space. This is where the brain really serves as a source of inspiration, being the most efficient computer in terms of performance per cubic centimeter.
As it stands, today’s computers consist of transistors and circuits laid out on flat boards that ensure plenty of contact with air that cools the chips. But as Bruno Michel – a biophysics professor and researcher in advanced thermal packaging for IBM Research – explains, this is a terribly inefficient use of space:
In a computer, processors occupy one-millionth of the volume. In a brain, it’s 40 percent. Our brain is a volumetric, dense, object.
In short, communication links between processing elements can’t keep up with data-transfer demands, and they consume too much power as well. The proposed solution is to stack and link chips into dense 3D configurations, a process which is impossible today because stacking even two chips means crippling overheating problems. That’s where the “liquid blood” comes in, at least as far as cooling is concerned.
This process is demonstrated with the company’s prototype system called Aquasar. By branching chips into a network of liquid cooling channels that funnel fluid into ever-smaller tubes, the chips can be stacked together in large configurations without overheating. The liquid passes not next to the chip, but through it, drawing away heat in the thousandth of a second it takes to make the trip.
In addition, IBM also is developing a system called a redox flow battery that uses liquid to distribute power instead of using wires. Two types of electrolyte fluid, each with oppositely charged electrical ions, circulate through the system to distribute power, much in the same way that the human body provides oxygen, nutrients and cooling to brain through the blood.
The electrolytes travel through ever-smaller tubes that are about 100 microns wide at their smallest – the width of a human hair – before handing off their power to conventional electrical wires. Flow batteries can produce between 0.5 and 3 volts, and that in turn means IBM can use the technology today to supply 1 watt of power for every square centimeter of a computer’s circuit board.
Already, the IBM Blue Gene supercomputer has been used for brain research by the Blue Brain Project at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Lausanne, Switzerland. Working with the HBP, their next step ill be to augment a Blue Gene/Q with additional flash memory at the Swiss National Supercomputing Center.
After that, they will begin simulating the inner workings of the mouse brain, which consists of 70 million neurons. By the time they will be conducting human brain simulations, they plan to be using an “exascale” machine – one that performs 1 exaflops, or quintillion floating-point operations per second. This will take place at the Juelich Supercomputing Center in northern Germany.
This is no easy challenge, mainly because the brain is so complex. In addition to 100 billion neurons and 100 trillionsynapses, there are 55 different varieties of neuron, and 3,000 ways they can interconnect. That complexity is multiplied by differences that appear with 600 different diseases, genetic variation from one person to the next, and changes that go along with the age and sex of humans.
As Henry Markram, the co-director of EPFL who has worked on the Blue Brain project for years:
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. We have to develop an entirely new science where we predict most of the stuff that cannot be measured.
With the Human Brain Project, researchers will use supercomputers to reproduce how brains form in an virtual vat. Then, they will see how they respond to input signals from simulated senses and nervous system. If it works, actual brain behavior should emerge from the fundamental framework inside the computer, and where it doesn’t work, scientists will know where their knowledge falls short.
The end result of all this will also be computers that are “neuromorphic” – capable of imitating human brains, thereby ushering in an age when machines will be able to truly think, reason, and make autonomous decisions. No more supercomputers that are tall on knowledge but short on understanding. The age of artificial intelligence will be upon us. And I think we all know what will follow, don’t we?