Scientific American has a blog post this week about the IEEE’s 125th anniversary event. During the event one of the scientists present commented on his DARPA-funded research to reverse-engineer the brain’s computational abilities
Computers are lauded for their speed and accuracy, but they don’t hold a candle to the human brain when it comes to tackling complex mathematical problems, Dharmendra Modha, director of cognitive computing at the IBM Almaden Research Center, said at today’s event. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the U.S. Defense Department’s research arm, last year gave Modha and his colleagues $4.9 million for a project called “SyNAPSE,” through which they are trying to reverse-engineer the brain’s computational abilities to better understand its ability to sense, perceive, act, interact, and understand different stimuli.
“We have no computers today that can begin to approach the awesome power of the human mind,” Modha said. A computer comparable to the human brain, he added, would need to be able to perform more than 38 thousand trillion operations per second [[http://www.petaflop.info/]] and hold about 3,584 terabytes of memory. (IBM’s BlueGene supercomputer, one of the worlds’ most powerful, has a computational capability of 92 trillion operations per second and 8 terabytes of storage.)
And those numbers are probably “raw performance” numbers for the brain. There are those who hypothesize that even if we can bring that much raw processing power together in a computer it still won’t be able to achieve all that humans can achieve, because we have not yet fully characterized the nature of memory, let alone consciousness. We won’t have to wait long to find out: Modha predicts that we’ll be able to simulate the workings of the brain by 2018. All of this may have more than esoteric implications
In addition to boosting computer performance, enhanced understanding of the brain will enable people to communicate directly with machines, whether they are robots or mechanized prosthetic limbs. Primates have already proved that such brain-machine interfaces are possible, Miguel Nicolelis, co-director of Duke University Medical Center’s Center for Neuroengineering, said during the conference. The researcher and his colleagues last year successfully implanted electrodes in the brain of a monkey in North Carolina that enabled him to control a robot on a treadmill in Kyoto, Japan.