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Microchip Mimics a Brain With 200,000 Neurons 521

Posted by Soulskill
from the will-soon-run-for-congress dept.
Al writes "European researchers have taken a step towards replicating the functioning of the brain in silicon, creating new custom chip with the equivalent of 200,000 neurons linked up by 50 million synaptic connections. The aim of the Fast Analog Computing with Emergent Transient States (FACETS) project is to better understand how to construct massively parallel computer systems modeled on a biological brain. Unlike IBM's Blue Brain project, which involves modeling a brain in software, this approach makes it much easier to create a truly parallel computing system. The set-up also features a distributed algorithm that introduces an element of plasticity, allowing the circuit to learn and adapt. The researchers plan to connect thousands of chips to create a circuit with a billion neurons and 10^13 synapses (about a tenth of the complexity of the human brain)."
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Microchip Mimics a Brain With 200,000 Neurons

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday March 25, 2009 @11:51AM (#27330423)

    I call this microchip brain "the Pinhead" *

    * small print: actual "pinheads" (microcephaly) have more brain capacity than this chip

  • by Conspiracy_Of_Doves (236787) on Wednesday March 25, 2009 @11:52AM (#27330461)

    We're all dead.

    In fact, the current prototype can operate about 100,000 times faster than a real human brain. "We can simulate a day in a second," says Karlheinz.

    We are SO fucking dead.

    • No really. (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Tei (520358)

      A book is a bunch of letters: A-Za-z
      Having 100.000 computerized neurons is like having a "book" made of 100.000 letters. It don't mean make any sense (=It will not compute stuff, just kind of 'exist'). But could be a interesting tech bed to try to make something like, who know? maybe the brain of a worm, or the brain a snake.

      I don't know a word about the topic.

      • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

        by Anonymous Coward

        I don't know a word about the topic.

        That much is clear.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by khallow (566160)

        Having 100.000 computerized neurons is like having a "book" made of 100.000 words.

        Fixed that for you. I don't know if you can make sense of a "book" made of "words", but I hope you can.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by BluBrick (1924)

          imagination receive I of words not it sense the to context with by usually order and other is comprehensibility makes made of and of words the provided a being need a lot each of have any not of words punctuation by guarantee of all any stretch email made

          Or to put it another way...

          Being "made of words" is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a guarantee of comprehensibility. I receive a lot of email "made of words" and not all of it makes any sense. The words need to have context with each other,

    • by spikenerd (642677) on Wednesday March 25, 2009 @12:08PM (#27330685)
      Time to stop letting Hollywood think for you. People are smart, yet humanity is not currently enslaved. Why? Because people are intelligent enough to know that's a bad idea. If robots are ever more intelligent than us, they'll also be intelligent enough to make good decisions. Frankly, I'd rather have the more intelligent beings in charge. They would actually make more intelligent decisions! It's humans that should not be trusted. They're just consistently intelligent enough.
      • by StikyPad (445176) on Wednesday March 25, 2009 @12:17PM (#27330849) Homepage

        If robots are ever more intelligent than us, they'll also be intelligent enough to make good decisions.

        That's exactly the sort of thinking that leads to the enslavement of humanity. Good job falling right into their trap!

      • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday March 25, 2009 @12:18PM (#27330857)

        The problem is that deep down, most people believe that killing off the humans would be the intelligent decision.

      • by MightyYar (622222) on Wednesday March 25, 2009 @12:18PM (#27330865)

        Frankly, I'd rather have the more intelligent beings in charge.

        Not if we're competing for resources... I'd hate to be the spotted owl :)

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by thesandtiger (819476)

          Not if we're competing for resources... I'd hate to be the spotted owl :)

          An AI smarter than humans wouldn't bother extinguishing us to compete for resources. It wouldn't need to. A smart AI would happily ask to be shot into space (or otherwise cause itself to be put into space) so that it could take advantage of the much, much vaster resources that human beings can't seem to get motivated to use.

          Given an essentially infinite lifespan, intelligence greater than ours, a body capable of manipulating the physic

      • Time to stop letting Hollywood think for you. People are smart, yet humanity is not currently enslaved. Why? Because people are intelligent enough to know that's a bad idea. If robots are ever more intelligent than us, they'll also be intelligent enough to make good decisions. Frankly, I'd rather have the more intelligent beings in charge. They would actually make more intelligent decisions! It's humans that should not be trusted. They're just consistently intelligent enough.
        Repeat that little rant while l

      • by wrf3 (314267) * on Wednesday March 25, 2009 @12:21PM (#27330909) Homepage

        Because people are intelligent enough to know that's a bad idea
          You overestimate us. Consistently, the majority of people generally choose security over freedom.

        If robots are ever more intelligent than us, they'll also be intelligent enough to make good decisions.
        Like not letting the toddlers have free run of the house? There's a reason why we have playpens and put locks on cabinets.

        Frankly, I'd rather have the more intelligent beings in charge.
        And so it begins... letting others make your decisions is the essence of slavery.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by pitchpipe (708843)

          letting others make your decisions is the essence of slavery.

          ... and the fucking essence of democracy.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by Thelasko (1196535)

          And so it begins... letting others make your decisions is the essence of slavery.

          Don't think of it as slavery, that's such a harsh word. Think of yourselves as...

          pets! [wikipedia.org] You'll make great pets.

      • by furby076 (1461805)
        Wait we don't trust our gov't but some of us are willing to trust "smart" machines. What if the smart machines decide it is smart to kill us...to save the rest of the planet?
      • by Jurily (900488)

        They would actually make more intelligent decisions!

        Decision: humans are a security risk.

        You left out for whom is it intelligent.

      • by MBGMorden (803437) on Wednesday March 25, 2009 @12:34PM (#27331113)

        As humans we eat animals and destroy entire ecosystems, repurposing them for our own uses because we see them as lesser life forms. I mean honestly, I think nothing of killing an ant colony in my yard because . . . they're just ants. They're so far beneath me as to regard them as little more than pests.

        If AI/robots really does outstripe us that fast, then it might not be a case of active disdain - we might simply be in their way and they'll exterminate us the way that we would termites.

      • by Weaselmancer (533834) on Wednesday March 25, 2009 @12:35PM (#27331125)

        If robots are ever more intelligent than us, they'll also be intelligent enough to make good decisions.

        Two points to bring up.

        Point the first. Intelligence does not equal good will. Don't make me Godwin this thread.

        Point the second. Good decisions...for whom? Us or them? Your robots may have different notions than you have.

      • At least I hope we'll have Culture overlords... drug glands, body manipulation and uploading to a Mind, at least.

    • by vadim_t (324782) on Wednesday March 25, 2009 @12:28PM (#27331021) Homepage

      Paraphrasing a book (forget the name), if you took a dog and made its brain 1000 times faster, all you'd get is a dog that needs 1/1000th of the time to decide whether to sniff your crotch.

      Thinking faster would certainly be very useful, but it may not necessarily mean that the output will be of a higher quality.

  • by chill (34294) on Wednesday March 25, 2009 @11:53AM (#27330469) Journal

    Add a few chips and you'll soon get "I think, therefore I am."

    Keep going and you'll end up with "Bite my shiny metal ass you meatbag!"

    I wonder if the researchers will know when to STOP adding the together?

    • Re:AI Evolution (Score:4, Insightful)

      by scubamage (727538) on Wednesday March 25, 2009 @11:54AM (#27330495)
      I really, really hope they follow the laws of robotics with any sort of "learning and adaptation" behavior.
      • Re:AI Evolution (Score:5, Informative)

        by geekboy642 (799087) on Wednesday March 25, 2009 @12:02PM (#27330593) Journal

        It's a nitpicky point, of course, but the whole point of many of the Asimov robot books was how poorly those laws held up in reality. I, for one, wouldn't trust any 3-laws robot for anything.

        • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

          by corbettw (214229)

          Oh, I don't know. I think I would trust one to misinterpret the laws in a way that creates conflict and drama, leading to revelations about the human condition.

          Of course, 50 years later another robot (possibly from Southern California) would misinterpret the laws in much the same way, except this time there'd be a love interest involved in some way.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by khallow (566160)
          As mentioned before, the stories were about the exceptions. We read about the robot with the deliberately relaxed 3-laws. We don't read about the billions of robots that worked flawlessly for decades.
      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        About learning and adaptation... Just making a network of interconnected transistors and capacitors doesn't enable a machine to learn much, if proper mechanisms for synaptic plasticity don't exist. In other words, there has to be a way for new synapses to form and old ones to die out in order for it to function anything like a human brain does.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by vertinox (846076)

      I wonder if the researchers will know when to STOP adding the together?

      Simple.

      When the AI starts adding it themselves without human intervention.

  • ..welcome our new, silicon-brain-on-a-chip overlords!
  • by Locke2005 (849178) on Wednesday March 25, 2009 @11:55AM (#27330499)
    The first words out of it were: "They misunderestimated me."
    • by dkleinsc (563838)

      No it wasn't. It was mimicking a human brain, so clearly the first things it knew how to do were say "What?" and "Where's the tea?"

    • by Yvan256 (722131) on Wednesday March 25, 2009 @12:21PM (#27330913) Homepage Journal

      "I didn't ask to be made: no one consulted me or considered my feelings in the matter. I don't think it even occurred to them that I might have feelings. After I was made, I was left in a dark room for six months... and me with this terrible pain in all the diodes down my left side. I called for succour in my loneliness, but did anyone come? Did they hell. My first and only true friend was a small rat. One day it crawled into a cavity in my right ankle and died. I have a horrible feeling it's still there..." - Marvin

    • The first words out of it were: "They misunderestimated me."

      Why programmed it with W's vocabulary?

  • cluster? (Score:5, Funny)

    by Red Flayer (890720) on Wednesday March 25, 2009 @11:55AM (#27330503) Journal
    Imagine a Beowulf Cluster of these!!

    The researchers plan to connect several chips to create a circuit with a billion neurons and 10^13 synapses (about a tenth of the complexity of the human brain).

    Oh wait. The researchers already did.

    Bastards stole my thunder.

  • by Ecuador (740021) on Wednesday March 25, 2009 @11:55AM (#27330515) Homepage

    Does this mean we have completed an artificial politician brain?

  • snark (Score:3, Funny)

    by MillionthMonkey (240664) on Wednesday March 25, 2009 @11:57AM (#27330527)

    This chip sounds stupid.

  • by TinBromide (921574) on Wednesday March 25, 2009 @12:01PM (#27330571)
    The more I learned about computers, the more I figured that they were more like a complex engine (data or gasoline is input, its moved around, operated on by parts, and then output as results/exhaust). Maybe that's why car analogies are so popular?

    But another thing to be wary of is chemical imbalances. How many brain disorders are caused by the absence of a protein or inhibitor? The chip might take several redesigns over several years to get a solid model of a properly functioning neuron. I mean, who is going to notice a schizophrenic ant or beetle, or a rat with the mental equivalent of down's syndrome? They might spend a decade building up a brain with the complexity of a human brain only to find out that its "mentally disabled". Just look at how many people have mental issues, be it emotional, learning, or developmental issues with "properly functioning" neurons but are lacking one of a hundred chemicals that make them all work together as a whole.

    I'm sure that the end result of this experimentation is not a human brain, but instead a robot that can navigate ruins like a rat (downs syndrome or not) or work together like (schizophrenic or normal) ants. I'm sure they'll eventually make a financial computer that can work like a wall street broker (employed by aig or not).
    • by IndustrialComplex (975015) on Wednesday March 25, 2009 @12:20PM (#27330891)

      I mean, who is going to notice a schizophrenic ant

      That's the one that is walking along, waving its antennae to no one, and creeping out the other workers.

    • Just look at how many people have mental issues, be it emotional, learning, or developmental issues with "properly functioning" neurons but are lacking one of a hundred chemicals that make them all work together as a whole.

      And let's not forget the fact that human brain isn't just a lump of neurons. It has structure, which is vital for its proper operation. It's exactly like how it's not enough to simply throw a few million transistors together to have a functional computer; they must also be connected just

    • You are absolutely correct. I had a post replying to a Singularitarian (those who believe that we will be able to "upload" our selves) in the poll which covered the chemical soup modeling problem you've described as well as the I/O problem that I believe is fundamentally related. Since the other post wouldn't submit (had to re-login) I'll do some editing and put it here instead, since it is happily more topical overall.

      Another thing that Singularitarians overlook is I/O. It's great that we may be able to

  • This is nothing. (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Jane Q. Public (1010737) on Wednesday March 25, 2009 @12:01PM (#27330583)
    This is nothing more than throwing more hardware at an existing problem. This has been emulated in software before, with nothing much to show for it. This will make it easier to model such things, but multiplying almost nothing by many, many times is still very little.
    • by GospelHead821 (466923) on Wednesday March 25, 2009 @12:07PM (#27330677)

      You might be correct, but it is also possible that the "humanity" of the human brain is an emergent property that manifests only when there's a certain critical mass of grey matter. Developing synthentic neural systems with more and more neurons is likely, if nothing else, to test the hypothesis that consciousness, for some arbitrary definition thereof, is emergent.

    • Re:This is nothing. (Score:5, Interesting)

      by IgnoramusMaximus (692000) on Wednesday March 25, 2009 @12:09PM (#27330703)

      The core problem of course is that this "simulates" nothing, really. A typical neuron is a vastly complex electro-chemical computer, which all of these researchers seem to keep studiously ignoring. That means that processing of electrical signals is just one (and small at that) aspect of the functioning of the neuron. In fact neurons can communicate via multiple information transfer "channels", involving chemicals called "neurotransmitters" (each having a different effect on the recipient neuron) with the electrical impulses used merely as a high-speed (as compared to purely chemical) long-range trigger mechanism.

      With this in the background, it is not difficult to see that this project, like many before it, while sounding "cool", goes really nowhere and is just yet another publicity stunt.

      • Re:This is nothing. (Score:5, Interesting)

        by girlintraining (1395911) on Wednesday March 25, 2009 @12:20PM (#27330885)

        A typical neuron is a vastly complex electro-chemical computer,

        You can still simulate these interactions digitally and have the output match. Like these guys [bluebrain.epfl.ch] did.

        • by markk (35828) on Wednesday March 25, 2009 @12:34PM (#27331111)

          Yes you can simulate a neuron, but the point is that this chip is not doing that. What they are calling the equivalent of a neuron here is at least an order of magnitude (likely more than one) simpler than a real neuron. That is why these comparisons where they say 1/10th the brain are vastly off base. Plus the effects of the glial cells on processing is showing that they have more importance than previously thought. Since we don't really understand the brain in any great detail, all these comparisons tend to make me wince. They almost always equate very simple circuits (relatively) to neurons. It is a red flag for hype really.

          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by SpinyNorman (33776)

            Well, similarly you could simulate a ditigal circuit at the logical level or you could do it at an analog level trying to mimic the analog, and even quantum, characteristics of each semiconductor junction... The lower level simulation is certainly more accurate, and takes all the nuances into consideration, but in the end what does it buy you compared to the higher level simulation?

            It's not as if we're scratching our heads wondering how our primitive understanding of neurons as summation devices, and neural

      • by Yvan256 (722131)

        But in the end it's all information and processing, no matter the method of communicating or processing.

        So no it won't emulate a real brain, but as long as the end result is the same, why bother with the details ?

      • Re:This is nothing. (Score:5, Informative)

        by NotThatGuy (898852) on Wednesday March 25, 2009 @04:05PM (#27334461) Homepage
        I am one of the researchers involved in this project. You are right, of course, that we are only simulating 0.1% or less of the complexity of the brain, so even if we simulate 100% of the number of neurons in the brain, we are still orders of magnitude of complexity away from reproducing a brain, let alone understanding it.

        However, we have to start somewhere and, in the words of Henry Markram (Blue Brain Project) "If we don't start now, when do we start?". The neuron models in the chip ignore spatial processing in the dendrites, but they do reproduce the variety of firing patterns found in real cortical neurons. The models of the chemical synapses incorporate have both short-term (adaptation, etc) and long-term (learning) plasticity, based on experimental data. Neuromodulation (by dopamine, etc) could be simulated by modifying synaptic and neuronal parameters, using the digital logic on the chips, although we haven't really thought about this yet.

        The FACETS project involves experimental neurobiologists, theoreticians, modellers, and solid-state physicists (who are developing the chips). We are very aware of the necessary simplifications we are making, but we are also confident that we are making progress both in understanding brain function and in developing new approaches to highly-parallel, fault-tolerant computing.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Dan East (318230)

      Mod parent up. Any Turing-complete computing device, given enough memory and storage, can replicate anything this hardware can do. The capabilities, programming model, performance, etc, can all be determined exactly without requiring a physical model. In fact, it would be ridiculous for them to not have completely simulated the hardware before testing it.

      • by PhilHibbs (4537) <snarks@gmail.com> on Wednesday March 25, 2009 @12:23PM (#27330933) Homepage Journal

        Mod parent up. Any Turing-complete computing device, given enough memory and storage, can replicate anything this hardware can do.

        A digital system can never perfectly replicate an analog system, and a clock-driven system can never perfectly replicate an asynchronous system.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by blincoln (592401)

        Any Turing-complete computing device, given enough memory and storage, can replicate anything this hardware can do.

        But can it be replicated at a reasonable speed? The "analogue" in the name implies that the designers are taking advantage of the nearly-instantaneous nature of analogue computing.

        In fact, the last part of TFA implies that this is exactly why the design was built as hardware - because software simulations were too slow.

    • by PhilHibbs (4537)

      It's not software emulation, it's analog hardware with real-time asynchronous feedback. Also, I'm not sure that it will help with modelling real systems, as you can't pause and save and restore a real-time asynchronous system.

    • by vux984 (928602)

      This is nothing more than throwing more hardware at an existing problem. This has been emulated in software before, with nothing much to show for it. This will make it easier to model such things, but multiplying almost nothing by many, many times is still very little.

      You evidently aren't terribly familiar with what 'emergent' means, are you?

      Sometimes, when you put enough almost nothings together, you get something much greater than big pile of almost nothings.

      An couple individual neuron is almost nothing.

  • Humph! (Score:5, Funny)

    by Cornwallis (1188489) * on Wednesday March 25, 2009 @12:07PM (#27330679)
    *My* brain mimics a brain with 200,000 neurons.
  • Bad summary (Score:4, Funny)

    by StikyPad (445176) on Wednesday March 25, 2009 @12:10PM (#27330715) Homepage

    No mention of the fact that it will become self-aware in 2 years and 25 days, or that two days later, the war on humanity will begin.

  • So when is Cyberdyne planning on officially launching Skynet?
  • Toasters. Then stacked blonde religious nutjobs will penetrate our security, and it'll all be over.

  • by kbonin (58917) on Wednesday March 25, 2009 @12:15PM (#27330795) Homepage

    It seems like these approaches are constrained in connection complexity by semiconductor fabrication, which would seem to severely limit the geometry to 2d. The article doesn't go into this, and it seems likely they put some effort into working around this with traditional approaches using buses and the like, but it does seem like you can't achieve the same degree of interconnection complexity on a thin 2d wafer as is seen in a typical 3d brain...

  • Memristors (Score:2, Interesting)

    by dupper (470576)

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memristor [wikipedia.org]

    Every time any story mentions them, their potential applications are reduced to the staggeringly, criminally mundane "could lead to faster computer memory". Standard von Neumann computer memory. A shame.

    The brain is not a sequential Turing machine. Has any form of finite connectionism even been proven Turing-complete?

    That (if I understand this story correctly) they here have been able to do what they have using components suited for our "traditional" computing archit

  • We don't even know what "thought" is, except that it's a complex chemical reaction. Wake me up when we actually know what causes sentience and how it works.

  • by OolimPhon (1120895) on Wednesday March 25, 2009 @12:28PM (#27331023)

    "creating new custom chip with the equivalent of 200,000 neurons linked up by 50 million synaptic connections."

    "The researchers plan to connect several chips to create a circuit with a billion neurons and 10^13 synapses (about a tenth of the complexity of the human brain)."

    Presumably, for very large values of "several".

  • Read the great SEED article closely. The IBM Blue Brain project was trying to map the physical layout of the neocortical column [wikipedia.org], a standardized blob of nerve cells about a millimeter long and a fraction of a millimeter in diameter. If the brain is a machine made of modular parts, then the neocortical column is the starndard Lego used, over and over and over.
  • by Temujin_12 (832986) on Wednesday March 25, 2009 @12:51PM (#27331437)

    I didn't read the featured article, but whenever I see "X program/system mimics brain" I always try to pipe in with my 2 cents.

    Any system that considers a brain as nothing but a series of perceptron-based connections is going to fall short of the neurology of the actual brain it is trying to mimic. Ask any neurologist and they will tell you that there many other dimensions at play in the human brain. For instance, the whole system itself is sitting in a chemical bath which can change at any moment with the right mixture of hormones or other chemical changes. These changes in chemistry affect the firing and working of the neurons, axons, and synapses. Combine this with the control of external factors such as DNA, RNA, and epigenitics and things start getting exponentially complex.

    I don't mean to down-play the progress we're making in this field. I just hate it when I see the "Computer system with X-sized neural network must equal a brain with X-number of neurons" mentality.

  • The Real Problem (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Plekto (1018050) on Wednesday March 25, 2009 @01:48PM (#27332413)

    People keep thinking about it being smarter than humans and doing typical science fiction type nonsense. The real problem isn't that but instead how such a small cluster these of chips could be made into a device to crack codes, bypass security, run a botnet, and do any similar task that generally requires human input or monitoring to react to changes or to invent new strategies. Computers have been historically bad at lateral thinking in the past. Are we sure we want to give them that ability?

    Think of it like a dog that moves 1000x faster than you do. You go out to get the mail and when you get back a few minutes later, it's chewed your furniture into tatters, ate all the food, dug 50 holes in the back yard, and left about a dozen piles of poop to clean up. Leave for work and come back 8 hours later...(roughly equal to a year being left alone to the dog in this case)

    Obviously a computer as smart as a human causes alarms to go off and people to be wary of it. But what harm can a bunch of robots with 1/10th the IQ do?(sic for the impaired) It's the ones that fly below the radar and are seen as "benign" that are the real cause for concern.

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