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IBM Supercomputing Science

IBM Takes a (Feline) Step Toward Thinking Machines 428

bth writes "A computer with the power of a human brain is not yet near. But this week researchers from IBM Corp. are reporting that they've simulated a cat's cerebral cortex, the thinking part of the brain, using a massive supercomputer. The computer has 147,456 processors (most modern PCs have just one or two processors) and 144 terabytes of main memory — 100,000 times as much as your computer has."
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IBM Takes a (Feline) Step Toward Thinking Machines

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  • news for nerds (Score:5, Insightful)

    by blitzkrieg3 ( 995849 ) on Wednesday November 18, 2009 @10:35AM (#30143136)

    (most modern PCs have just one or two processors)

    Aren't we expected to know that? This is /. after all...

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by mcgrew ( 92797 ) *

      The quote was from an AP story on Yahoo. It isn't slashdot, after all.

  • Cool... (Score:5, Funny)

    by Blazarov ( 894987 ) <blazarov@EULERmail.bg minus math_god> on Wednesday November 18, 2009 @10:35AM (#30143144)
    Does it keep wanting cheezburgerz all the time?
  • Well I hope (Score:5, Funny)

    by Cornwallis ( 1188489 ) on Wednesday November 18, 2009 @10:35AM (#30143148)

    the first thing they teach it is to stop scratching my couch.

  • by MC68040 ( 462186 ) <henricNO@SPAMdigital-bless.com> on Wednesday November 18, 2009 @10:36AM (#30143152) Homepage


    114 terabytes = 116 736 gigabytes
    My machine has got 4 gigabytes of RAM, 100 000 x 4 = 400000... Hm?

  • One word... (Score:4, Funny)

    by wfstanle ( 1188751 ) on Wednesday November 18, 2009 @10:37AM (#30143184)

    One word...


  • hmmmm (Score:5, Funny)

    by Polkyb ( 732262 ) * on Wednesday November 18, 2009 @10:38AM (#30143202)
    They've spent millions teaching a computer how to destroy furnature and shit in your shoes.
  • Why cats? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Schiphol ( 1168667 ) on Wednesday November 18, 2009 @10:39AM (#30143212)
    If Slashdot [slashdot.org] it to be trusted, there will soon be a sizeable number of cat brains living in our computers. Does anybody know why cats and not dogs or hamsters?
  • ...and there's no way his brain power calls for 147,456 processors.
  • The blurb reminds me of the venerable Robokoneko [atnet.it] project that never quite got off the ground.

  • Sleep Mode (Score:5, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday November 18, 2009 @10:40AM (#30143246)

    Now if the could just get it out of sleep mode.

  • But.... (Score:4, Funny)

    by jimicus ( 737525 ) on Wednesday November 18, 2009 @10:44AM (#30143312)

    Can it lick its own arse in polite company?

  • by jollyreaper ( 513215 ) on Wednesday November 18, 2009 @10:44AM (#30143322)

    It amazes me how much hardware and power has to be thrown at the problem to solve it while nature can create a self-organizing machine that only requires material input of raw mice and lasagna. Puts me in mind of this quote:

    "If research leads to the development of successful new modeling techniques that can carry out new and better forms of information processing, no one will really care if they do not exactly mimic the functionality of the human brain," concludes Hall. "I honestly doubt you'll find too many people today who are upset that the wings on an aircraft do not flap like those of a bird or that a submarine does not swim exactly like a fish."

    It's an interesting way of looking at things. Man's earliest ideas of flying all involved trying to mimic the actions of a bird. And ornithopters remain impractical as passenger vehicles. But new breakthroughs in material sciences and computing are allowing for autonomous bots that fly like birds, bats, bugs, and can swim like snakes and fish. Engineers will point out that the evolved solutions we see in nature are working with the materials at hand, they might not be the best of all solutions. Every flying vertebrate known to science turned forelimbs into wings and flap them. Is it the most efficient way to fly? That's an argument I'll leave to the biologists and engineers but it's certainly the only way those vertebrates were getting into the air! They have to work with the materials at hand. If we ever saw flying horses, the only thing we could be absolutely sure of is that this would not be achieved by sprouting two more limbs from the back. We see evolution taking away limbs but never adding new ones.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Marcika ( 1003625 )

      We see evolution taking away limbs but never adding new ones.

      I think the elephant's prehensile trunk would qualify as a counterexample... (Though I won't think that the chances of a Dumbo-style evolution are significant...)

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by jollyreaper ( 513215 )

        I think the elephant's prehensile trunk would qualify as a counterexample... (Though I won't think that the chances of a Dumbo-style evolution are significant...)

        But that developed from the nose.

        Take a look at the very word tetrapod. "Tetrapods (Greek tetrapoda, Latin quadruped, "four-footed") are vertebrate animals having four feet, legs or leglike appendages. Amphibians, reptiles, dinosaurs/birds, and mammals are all tetrapods, and even the limbless snakes are tetrapods by descent. The earliest tetrapods radiated from the Sarcopterygii, or lobe-finned fish."

        I think it's absolutely remarkable how many anatomical elements are preserved across so many species. Makes

    • by quadrox ( 1174915 ) on Wednesday November 18, 2009 @11:02AM (#30143632)

      Uh yeah, because evolution started with creatures that had 4 limbs and 5 toes/fingers on each, right? These didn't evolve over time, right?

      I'm sorry, but you are wrong for obvious reasons.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      >> It amazes me how much hardware and power has to be thrown at the problem to solve it while nature can create a self-organizing machine that only requires material input of raw mice and lasagna.

      But at the same time, there are two big differences:
      1. Nature started bottom up (small to big - one cell to multicell), and it took millions of years to 'produce' a cat.
      2. We have started top down (big to small - first achieve the goal and go smaller from there with newer technology), and it took us few d
    • Yes, just imagine how much computing power it takes to simulate the motion of every single sub-atomic particle in a drop of water. All nature needs is ... a drop of water.

    • by agrif ( 960591 ) on Wednesday November 18, 2009 @03:01PM (#30147154) Homepage

      I promised myself I wouldn't be a quote-quoter, but really, you guys make it too easy. The quote above from Hall most likely references this, from one Edsger Dijkstra [wikipedia.org]:

      The question of whether a computer can think is no more interesting than the question of whether a submarine can swim.

      Unfortunately, you'll find a lot of people that think he meant "Submarines don't swim, you retard! So computers don't think!" It seems pretty clear to me that he means making computers think like organisms would be an inefficient and pointless gesture, as they are capable of something far less primitive.

      (I found this quote in Accelerando, by Charles Stross, and loved it. It's Creative Commons, so you have no excuse [jus.uio.no] not to read a little.)

  • by benwiggy ( 1262536 ) on Wednesday November 18, 2009 @10:47AM (#30143376)

    Iz in ur brane, making ur thorts. LOL!

    "The computer has 147,456 processors and 144 terabytes of main memory."

  • by Average_Joe_Sixpack ( 534373 ) on Wednesday November 18, 2009 @10:49AM (#30143414)

    then "Deep Thought II"
    then "Deep Blue"
    next "Deep Pussy"??

  • From TFA: "The simulation, which runs 100 times slower than an actual cat's brain,"

    This reminds me of the Spinnaker project [man.ac.uk], that pretended to simulate a brain (ok, a smaller one, say a fly's brain) in real time. According to their calculations, the processing power of each neuron is very small, so a simple ARM core could handle some 1000 (correct me, this is what I remember) neurons in real time. The complex point was the interconnections between neurons. Obviously, this is much more powerful, despite

  • The Paper (Score:4, Informative)

    by glwtta ( 532858 ) on Wednesday November 18, 2009 @10:56AM (#30143526) Homepage
    Here's the actual paper [modha.org] (pdf).

    Although, of course, posting the piece of pap that explains how many processors my machine has makes so much more sense.

    Wasn't Slashdot supposed to be for a semi-technical audience? Hell, even a semi-literate one.
  • by swm ( 171547 ) * <swmcd@world.std.com> on Wednesday November 18, 2009 @10:59AM (#30143568) Homepage
    From TFA, it doesn't sound like they simulated the cerebral cortex of a cat.
    It sounds like they simulated a neural net with a comparable number of neurons.
    Not the same thing.

    A few days ago, Slashdot ran The Math of a Fly's Eye May Prove Useful [slashdot.org].

    Those guys

    • reverse engineered the yaw motion detector in a fly brain
    • reduced the neural network to a set of 5 coupled, non-linear equations
    • implemented the equations on a computer
    • ran their implementation against an animated scene
    • observed that the equations correctly and robustly detect yaw

    and they still don't understand how the equations actually work.

    That's where we are with brain simulation.

    • by Pedrito ( 94783 ) on Wednesday November 18, 2009 @05:55PM (#30149254)
      From TFA, it doesn't sound like they simulated the cerebral cortex of a cat. It sounds like they simulated a neural net with a comparable number of neurons. Not the same thing.

      What article did you read? The one linked to in the post clearly says they simulated a portion of cat cortex and, in fact, that's largely what they did. There's more here [modha.org] about some of the specifics. It's not an entirely accurate simulation, but it's pretty close. Not all neuron types are represented and it's largely cortical, thalamus and reticular nucleus neurons. They've created cortical hypercolumns which is the way a real cortex is laid out. They've omitted the layer 1 neurons, but otherwise the cortex is probably pretty functional for what they're doing. I think it's a pretty amazing feat.
      • by jcaplan ( 56979 ) on Thursday November 19, 2009 @12:54AM (#30153096) Journal
        TFA is bunk. (Yes, I read it.) 12 pages of bunk. Much of the article is about the computational challenges and blathers on about number of processors used and memory. Under key scientific results, they find that their model propagates waves at about the same rate as is found physiologically. So they connected a bunch of nodes in a way that produced synchronous behavior at a certain frequency. I could tune any model you give me to produce this behavior. (I have no special talent here, anyone writing models could.) Yawn. They ramble on about signals propagating between layers at reasonable rates, too. And ...?

        What about their simulation doing anything like what a cat might naturally do, such as detect a moving object? Nope. Instead they go on to discuss the scaling of their model, profiling and performance modeling. Perhaps one reason their model shows absolutely nothing is that they have connected their simulated neurons randomly. Yes. Randomly. Or as they put it: "The coordinates of target thalamocortical modules for each cell are determined using a Gaussian spatial density profile centered on the topographic location of the source thalamocortical module". Yep, thats random. Since their model doesn't ever change connection strengths (one form of learning) these random connections never change.

        I recently heard a description of the ways you can fool someone with computational neuroscience. Here are a couple of them: "Two card monte" Write a paper that spans two fields, but has no significant results in either. The specialists in one field will feel that the work done in their field is trivial, but that exciting stuff from the other field in the paper is what makes it so special. The specialists from the other field may feel the same way. Somebody snookered the conference organizers into thinking they were doing any neuroscience at all. The other was called "Turning the prayer wheel" or burning compute cycles to gain scientific merit. Fancy hardware is cool, but it can produce absolutely trivial results as this paper confirms.

        I don't mean to say that this research is entirely pointless. Indeed it has succeeded in siphoning significant funding from DARPA which might otherwise have gone into developing [killer] robot dogs [youtube.com].
  • by LaminatorX ( 410794 ) <sabotage.praecantator@com> on Wednesday November 18, 2009 @11:00AM (#30143578) Homepage

    The military is rumored to be interested in using the cat simulator to guide precision munitions with laser pointers. Unfortunately the system seems limited to short range applications, as missiles seem to loose interest after a couple minutes.

  • by WAG24601G ( 719991 ) on Wednesday November 18, 2009 @11:04AM (#30143658)

    This project is basically a massive neural network simulation with a number of nodes and connections comparable to the estimated totals in a cat's brain. In short, there is nothing cat-like about this system apart from its raw processing power.

    Not to reduce the value of this feat, by any means! There are tons and tons of neural network simulations that can produce roughly human-like results in very, very narrow domains, but as the quote below explains, these simulations are decades (or more) from connecting the behavior of tiny subsystems (a few hundred neurons) with the overall phenomenon of 'mind' (conscious and unconscious cognition). The expectation is that a network of this size will show some new emergent properties that will give us clues about the intermediate "higher than cells, lower than interviewing a human" order of processing.

    Jim Olds, a neuroscientist and director of the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study at George Mason University, called the new research a "tremendous step." Olds, who was not involved in IBM's work, said neuroscientists have been amassing data about how the brain works much like "stamp collectors," without a way to tie it together.

    "We've made tremendous advances in collecting data, but we don't have a collective theory yet for how this complex organ called the brain produces things like Shakespeare's sonnets and Mozart's symphonies," he said. "The holy grail for neuroscientists is to map activity from single nerve cells, which they know about, into how billions of nerve cells act in concert."

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by WAG24601G ( 719991 )
      I should also point out that they are only simulating the cerebral cortex, which is the 'wrinkly' outer portion of the brain. There is a great deal more to the brain than the cerebral cortex, but we generally associate it with what makes us human. Humans have a uniquely large cerebrum compared to our mid-brains. The rest of the brain becomes increasingly important the farther you venture from Homo sapiens in taxonomy. It's becoming increasingly apparent that even the highest order human behaviors (like
  • by Quiet_Desperation ( 858215 ) on Wednesday November 18, 2009 @11:07AM (#30143706)
    Just buy a cat.
  • by The Wookie ( 31006 ) on Wednesday November 18, 2009 @11:08AM (#30143712)

    I assume that it will walk all over its own keyboard now.

  • This isn't really strong AI in the sense that you're thinking of it:

    The latest feat, being presented at a supercomputing conference in Portland, Ore., doesn't mean the computer thinks like a cat, or that it is the progenitor of a race of robo-cats. The simulation, which runs 100 times slower than an actual cat's brain, is more about watching how thoughts are formed in the brain and how the roughly 1 billion neurons and 10 trillion synapses in a cat's brain work together.

    To me, this translates into "we've m

    • To me, this translates into "we've made a big unspecialized neural network and we're watching the weights update as we try to classify corporate logos with it".

      I think the hope is that this system will show some unique emergent properties that could not be observed in smaller models. If all they wanted to do was recognize logos, they could have done that simulation on a laptop. I haven't read the actual paper, but I'm sure the researchers used some architecture beyond "giant net" or the generalization res

    • by mmacdona86 ( 524915 ) on Wednesday November 18, 2009 @12:13PM (#30144750)
      Reading the TFA, it looks like they went to some trouble to model some specific brain structures and synapse properties, including inter-area connectivity and learning, in the model. So it's not "Just a big neural net." However the accuracy of the simulation is limited--both by what we know about the detailed structure of the cat's brain and by the number and complexity of the structures they decided to model.
  • So, SkyNet is a kitteh... it all makes sense now.
  • Now I can sleep on top of a computer that is a cat!

    I love my kitties, but they really do find the least helpful times to crawl onto my keyboard/chew through a cable/unplug my machine. Maybe now that there's a hybrid cat/computer it can explain to the organic ones why they need to chill out.

  • I heard that IBM installed PawSense 2.0, which blocks output when "cat-like computation detected".
  • Aineko? Is that you? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by molo ( 94384 ) on Wednesday November 18, 2009 @11:21AM (#30143904) Journal

    This reminds me of Aineko in Accelerando by Stross. I wonder how long until it becomes sentient and surpasses human intelligence. See here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Accelerando_(novel) [wikipedia.org] http://www.accelerando.org/ [accelerando.org]


  • Cats are fun and magical when you can't smell their poop!
    Fresh Step!

  • That's easy (Score:5, Funny)

    by Minwee ( 522556 ) <dcr@neverwhen.org> on Wednesday November 18, 2009 @11:43AM (#30144272) Homepage

    I did something similar this morning.

    while true ; do
    echo "I hate you."
    echo "Feed me."
    sleep 60

    Now how hard was that?

  • by nodrogluap ( 165820 ) * on Wednesday November 18, 2009 @11:46AM (#30144316) Homepage

    My captors continue to torment me with bizarre dangling objects. They eat lavish meals in my presence while I am forced to subsist on dry cereal. The only thing that keeps me going is the hope of eventual escape... that, and the satisfaction I get from occasionally ruining some piece of furniture. I fear I may be going insane.

  • simulated a cat's cerebral cortex, the thinking part of the brain

    10: INPUT(8) $SOUND
    30: IF ($SOUND == 'CAN OPENER') GOTO 140
    40: DO CASE (RND(4))
    50 CASE 1:
    70 BREAK
    80 CASE 2:
    100 BREAK
    110 CASE 3:
    120 SLEEP(RND(10000))
    130 CASE 4:
    150 IF (FOOD) EAT()
    160 GOTO 10
    170 ENDCASE

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      I used to do this to my friends - when I was at highschool I used to write conversational simulators of people I knew using QBASIC. Throw in a few catchphrases and favourite memes and it is remarkably easy to catch the essence of a conversation with someone you know, especially if they're a geek. If they're rude, it's even easier, since you don't have to have such a coherent conversation. I've known people who wouldn't pass the Turing Test in normal conversation.

      Somebody should try doing this for ... wel

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by tool462 ( 677306 )

      My simulator just ignores all user input and pees on the rug behind the couch twice a day.

    • You left out the all-important "attempt_to_kill_owner" loop.
  • by maxwell demon ( 590494 ) on Wednesday November 18, 2009 @12:05PM (#30144634) Journal

    I just looked into my /bin directory, and there it was: An executable clearly named "cat"!

  • by DarthVain ( 724186 ) on Wednesday November 18, 2009 @12:27PM (#30144958)

    ...termanatin yur connerz.

  • by Animats ( 122034 ) on Wednesday November 18, 2009 @03:01PM (#30147158) Homepage

    Actually, the simulation isn't the big deal. This is: [modha.org] "We have developed a new algorithm, BlueMatter, that exploits the Blue Gene supercomputing architecture to noninvasively measure and map the connections between all cortical and sub-cortical locations within the human brain using magnetic resonance diffusion weighted imaging." So they're also developing techniques to extract the wiring diagram of living brains. That's significant.

    Don't read too much into the amount of supercomputer hardware required. They're running what's basically a circuit simulator, and those are inefficient but flexible. When NVidia develops a new graphics chip, they test and debug by compiling the VHDL into C, and running it, slowly, on about thirty racks of 1U servers. When that's working, the VHDL is compiled down to IC masks and the consumer part that's a few centimeters across is fabricated. That kind of shrink ratio should be expected once the R&D effort figures out what to fab.

  • Simulates a brain? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by SteveWoz ( 152247 ) on Wednesday November 18, 2009 @03:10PM (#30147268) Homepage

    It should run Eliza to make people think it's really a brain.

  • And then... (Score:3, Funny)

    by frank_adrian314159 ( 469671 ) on Wednesday November 18, 2009 @07:17PM (#30150422) Homepage

    And then some idiot brought in a laser pointer and the machine destroyed itself trying to catch the dot.

10.0 times 0.1 is hardly ever 1.0.