Scientists in Germany report that they have developed a new supercomputer that closely mimics the way the human brain works, something that previously has been possible only with sophisticated “brain simulation” software, according to the new research study published in the scientific journal Frontiers in Neuroscience. The specially-built computer, known as SpiNNaker, imitates the neural network functions of the brain through its hardware design, representing a breakthrough in computer construction.
We hope for increasingly large real-time simulations with these neuromorphic computing systems,” said the study’s lead author, Sacha van Albada of the Julich Research Centre in Julich, Germany, as quoted by Science Daily. “In the Human Brain Project, we already work with neuroroboticists who hope to use them for robotic control.”
But in addition representing a potential leap forward in robotics, with the brain-simulating hardware able in theory to allow new levels of robot-control, the brain simulator will allow scientists to gain new insights into neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s and epilepsy, van Albada said.
The SpiNNaker will also allow researchers to perhaps solve some lingering mysteries when it come to understanding the brain. According to the science news site Eureka Alert, with more than 100 billion interconnected cells, the brain is one of the most complex structures that scientists struggle to understand.
“We understand how individual neurons and their components behave and communicate with each other and on the larger scale, which areas of the brain are used for sensory perception, action and cognition,” the Eureka Alert site wrote. “We know less about the translation of neural activity into behavior, such as turning thought into muscle movement.”
The new, hardware-based brain simulator also could solve the problem created by the massive power consumption used by earlier supercomputers. The brain itself is an incredibly energy-efficient “computer,” performing hundreds of millions of “calculations” per second.
Even the fastest supercomputers operate at only about 1 percent of the capacity of the human brain, and can take “several minutes to simulate one second of real time” brain function, according to Markus Diesmann, who leads the Computational and Systems Neuroscience department at Julich, and co-authored the SpiNNaker study.
But the tests performed as part of the study detailed in the Frontiers in Neuroscience paper utilized only 1 percent of the SpiNNaker’s capacity, according to the Science Daily summary of the research.
“The ability to run large-scale detailed neural networks quickly and at low power consumption will advance robotics research and facilitate studies on learning and brain disorders,” van Albada said.