IBM's Billion-Neuron Simulation Can Match a Cat's Brainpower

By Andrew Moseman | November 20, 2009 10:52 am

BlueMatter220An artificial brain as powerful as a human’s remains a distant goal, but scientists are inching closer. This week IBM announced that by using a brain-simulating algorithm called BlueMatter, researchers created an artificial brain simulation that packs more brainpower than a cat.

Researchers used an IBM supercomputer at the Lawrence Livermore Lab to model the movement of data through a structure with 1 billion neurons and 10 trillion synapses, which allowed them to see how information “percolates” through a system that’s comparable to a feline cerebral cortex [San Jose Mercury News]. The team’s previous effort two years ago, modeled after a rat brain, simulated only about 55 million neurons.

The staggering surge in computing power has engineers like IBM’s Dharmendra Modha drooling over the possibilities for more brain-like computers. By reverse engineering [the] cortical structure, Modha says, researchers could give machines the ability to interpret biological senses such as sight, hearing and touch. And artificial machine brains could process, intelligently, senses that don’t currently exist in the natural world, such as radar and laser range-finding [Popular Mechanics].

It should come as no surprise that the design suggests such military applications, as DARPA provided much of the funding. But like the Internet and other technologies originally developed for the military, BlueMatter’s abilities could lead in a multitude of directions. “As our digital and physical worlds collide, there is a tsunami of information,” Modha said. “There is a need for a new kind of intelligence that can sort through, prioritize and extract the most important information, much like how the brain deals with sight, sounds, tastes, touch and smell” [San Jose Mercury News].

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Image: IBM Almaden research lab, Stanford University

  • Romeo Vitelli

    But can it purr?

  • Sir Franklin Humphrey

    So it won’t attack my exposed foot from the blanket in the morning?

  • Jason

    When can I just upload my mind into a computer and get rid of this whole physical thing?

  • Psych

    My god, imagine what we will learn when they match the human mind, no, surpass it. The things that could be done, the things that could go wrong.
    And Jason dude, that might actually be doable. There were some cartoons on a while ago that used to explore that concept. I don’t remember them at all but I do remember they played with the whole ‘digital imaging of yourself’ element.
    In them, you’d pretty much upload yourself to a digital world to do things. This might be the start of that technology. Btw did I mention that I really look forward to video games of the future? lol.

    Speculation is so pointless. But so fun.

  • Dennis

    From Deep Blue to BlueMatter: My cat can already beat me at chess. Mostly because I don’t understand his rules. You can see the disgust in his face.

  • Daniel J. Andrews

    Having owned a few cats, I think a Commodore 64 could match the brain power of a cat. :)

  • Romeo Vitelli

    “Having owned a few cats, I think a Commodore 64 could match the brain power of a cat. :)”

    Ceiling Cat will get you for that.

  • Cory

    Wow.. 55 million to a billion in two years is one helluva jump.

  • Bill

    Did it go after the mouse?

  • Tim

    If it’s a computer that is like a cat, will it need a MOUSE? Get it?

  • Jose

    Psych, you wouldn’t be talking about ‘Ghost in the Shell’ would you?

  • Mike

    If the goal was to coax billions of neurons to randomly communicate with each other, IBM has eminently succeeded. This reminds me of a billion monkeys randomly pounding on typewriters while their keeper waits for “to be or not to be, that is the question”. I hope there is more to this story.

  • Aussie John

    I hope they manufacture intelligent life on earth soon, as seems to be disappearing fast.

  • rasselas21

    “If the goal was to coax billions of neurons to randomly communicate with each other, IBM has eminently succeeded. This reminds me of a billion monkeys randomly pounding on typewriters while their keeper waits for “to be or not to be, that is the question”. I hope there is more to this story.”

    This computer has the Brain POWER (ie, capacity/potential) of a cat… but it wouldn’t have the algorithms of a cat. For example, a cat might be better at avoiding danger or hunting prey, than a similar robot with a BlueMatter CPU/Brain. Even the basic learning algorithms of a cat are probably much better (in many areas) than BlueMatter. A cat can shake hands, but few poeple know how to go about teaching, or programming, a cat as to how to do that, or to use the toilet, etc.

    So the CPU power isn’t everything, but it does offer potential. On the other hand, PERHAPS as stated earlier, even a Commodore 64 (or such) with the PROPER algorithms would exceed a cat’s abilities in all areas, though it certainly has less CPU power.

    After all, some smalled brained animals/peoples are smarter in ACTIVE abilities than larger brained creatures.

    The article above doesn’t seem to differientiate between potential and actualized ability, or between CPU Power and Algorithmic Power.

  • Ellen McKeon

    Most of my cats were always waiting at the window of my apartment as I drove into the parking lot. Can Blue Matter anticipate my arrival, as well?

  • bob peters

    read wired why the future does not need us by bill joy or age of the spiritual machine by ray kurzweil. by the end of this century man and machine will merge

  • Catty
  • Henry Markram

    IBM’s claim is a HOAX.

    This is a mega public relations stunt – a clear case of scientific deception
    of the public. These simulations do not even come close to the complexity of
    an ant, let alone that of a cat. IBM allows Mohda to mislead the public into
    believing that they have simulated a brain with the complexity of a cat –
    sheer nonsense.

    Here are the scientific reasons why this is a hoax and misleading PR stunt:

    How complex is their model?
    They claim to have simulated over a billion neurons interacting. Their so
    called “neurons” are the tiniest of points you can imagine, a microscopic
    dot. Over 98% of the volume of a neuron is branches (like a tree). They just
    cut off all the branches and roots and took a point in the middle of the
    trunk to represent a entire neuron. In real life, each segment of the
    branches of a neuron contains dozens of ion channels that powerfully
    controls the information processing in a neuron. They have none of that.
    Neurons contain 10’s of thousands of proteins that form a network with 10’s
    of millions of interactions. These interactions are incredibly complex and
    will require solving millions of differential equations. They have none of
    that. Neurons contain around 20’000 genes that produce products called mRNA,
    which builds the proteins. The way neurons build proteins and transport them
    to all the corners of the neuron where they are needed is an even more
    complex process which also controls what a neuron is, its memories and how
    it will process information. They have none of that. They use an alpha
    function (up fast down slow) to simulate a synaptic event. This is a
    completely inaccurate representation of a synapse. There are at least 6
    types of synapses that are highly non-linear in their transmission (i.e.
    that transform inputs and not only transmit inputs). In fact you would need
    a 10’s of thousands of differential equations to simulate one synapse.
    Synapses are also extremely complex molecular machines that would themselves
    require thousands of differential equations to simulate just one. They
    simulated none of this. There are complex differential equations that must
    be solved to simulate the ionic flow in the branches, to simulate the ion
    channels biophysics, the protein-protein interactions, as well as the
    complete biochemical and genetic machinery as well as the synaptic
    transmission between neurons. 100’s of thousands of more differential
    equations. They have none of this. Then there are glia – 10 times more than
    neurons..And the blood supply…and more and more. These “points” they
    simulated and the synapses that they use for communication are literally
    millions of times simpler than a real cat brain. So they have not even
    simulated a cat’s brain at more than one millionth of it’s complexity.

    Is it nonetheless the biggest point neuron simulation ever run?
    No. These people simulated 1 billion points interacting. They used a
    formulation to model the summing up and threshold spiking of the “points”
    called the Izhikevik Formulation (an extremely simple equation). Eugene
    Izhikevik himself already in 2005 ran a simulation with 100 billion such
    points interacting just for the fun of it: (over 60 times larger than
    Modha’s simulation). This simulation ran on a cluster of desktop PCs and
    which every graduate student can run This is no technical achievement and
    certainly not even a record number of point neurons. That model exhibited
    oscillations, but that always happens so even simulating 100 Billion such
    points interacting is light years away from a brain.

    Is the simulator they built a big step?
    Not even close. There are numerous proprietary and peer-reviewed
    neurosimulators (e.g., NCS, pNEURON, SPLIT, NEST) out there that can handle
    very large parallel models that are essentially only bound by the available
    memory. The bigger the machine you have available, the more neurons you can
    simulate. All these simulators apply optimizations for the particular
    platform in order to make optimal use of the available hardware. Without any
    comparison to existing simulators, their publication is a non-peer reviewed

    Did they learn anything about the brain?
    They got very excited because they saw oscillations. Oscillations are an
    obligatory artifact that one always gets when many points interact. These
    findings that they claim on the neuroscience side may excite engineers, but
    not neuroscientists.

    Why did they get the Gordon Bell Prize?
    They submitted a non-peer reviewed paper to the Gordon Bell Committee and
    were awarded the prize almost instantly after they made their press release.
    They seem to have been very successful in influencing the committee with
    their claim, which technically is not peer-reviewed by the respective
    community and is neuroscientifically outrageous.

    But is there any innovation here?
    The only innovation here is that IBM has built a large supercomputer – which
    is irrelevant to the press release.

    Why did IBM let Mohda make such a deceptive claim to the public?
    I don’t know. Perhaps this is a publicity stunt to promote their
    supercompter. The supercomputer industry is suffering from the financial
    crisis and they probably are desperate to boost their sales. It is so
    disappointing to see this truly great company allow the deception of the
    public on such a grand scale.

    But have you not said you can simulate the Human brain in 10 years?
    I am a biologist and neuroscientist that has studied the brain for 30 years.
    I know how complex it is. I believe that with the right resources and the
    right strategy it is possible. We have so far only simulated a small part of
    the brain at the cellular level of a rodent and I have always been clear
    about that.

    Would other neuroscientists agree with you?
    There is no neuroscientist on earth that would agree that they came even
    close to simulating the cat’s brain – or any brain.

    But did Mohda not collaborate with neuroscientists?
    I would be very surprised if any neuroscientists that he may have had in his
    DARPA consortium realized he was going to make such an outrages claim. I
    can’t imagine that that the San Fransisco neuroscientists knew he was going
    to make such a stupid claim. Modha himself is a software engineer with no
    knowledge of the brain.

    But did you not collaborate with IBM?
    I was collaborating with IBM on the Blue Brain Project at the very beginning
    because they had the best available technology to faithfully allow us to
    integrate the diversity and complexity found in brain tissue into a model.
    This for me is a major endeavor to advance our insights into the brain and
    drug development. Two years ago, when the same Dharmendra Mhoda claimed the
    “mouse-scale simulations”, I cut all neuroscience collaboration with IBM
    because this is an unethical claim and it deceives the public.

    What IBM allowed Modha to do here is not only wrong, but outrageous. They
    deceived millions of people.

    Henry Markram
    Blue Brain Project

  • Angie

    I wanted to say the same thing Vitello did (thus that comment made me laugh). Tough luck, ey? Apart from that, this seems to be a vital discovery. Artificial human intelligence will obviously be the next goal. Looking forward to it!

  • Fatkid

    Thanks a lot Henry, and besides, how good will a computer taste in a burrito from my favorite mexican joint?

  • Hairy Patter

    Poor Henry – The cat went fishing and caught you hook, line and sinker.
    Or is Henry part of the spoof?….

  • Rob

    How much energy did that supercomputer require to simulate something that should only require a can of cat food?

  • Tarik

    Plain bulls***. If they were even close to a cat’s brain, they would use armies of robots to fight their wars (as their soldiers do not have much more than cats’ brains).

    [Moderator’s note: edited the cuss word.]

  • Jimmy

    IBM is just hyping itself by not telling the whole truth. A human Neuron, ONE human neuron can have thousands of connections with thousands of other neurons which are 3Dimensional AND Plastic..meaning they constantly change. To Replicate the capacity of 1 NEURON, it requires a “CPU” that is multidimensional and changes its interface and connections with a million other CPUs. That is ONE Neuron. I dont think science has even come close to build a computer that can
    act or think the way a common housefly does.

  • Gearldine Poolheco

    With every little thing that appears to be building throughout this specific area, a significant percentage of points of view are rather radical. Nevertheless, I appologize, because I can not subscribe to your whole idea, all be it exciting none the less. It appears to me that your opinions are not totally rationalized and in fact you are generally yourself not completely convinced of your point. In any event I did take pleasure in looking at it.

  • Maxine Brun

    I think one of your commercials caused my internet browser to resize, you might want to put that on your blacklist.


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