How Much Power Does It Take To Simulate The Human Brain?

Kwabena Boahen, a computer scientist at Stanford University, believes that it would require 10 megawatts to power a processor as smart as the human brain. His new "Neurogrid" supercomputer might be able to do it on only 20 watts.

To put that in perspective, 10 megawatts is the kind of energy a small hydroelectric plant produces — 20 watts is only enough juice to power up a weak light bulb. Amazingly, your physical brain runs on this minuscule amount of power, and it's not very efficient. However, embracing this inefficiency could be the key to creating computers that mimic the human brain.

It sounds cockamamy, but it is true. Scientists have found that the brain's 100 billion neurons are surprisingly unreliable. Their synapses fail to fire 30 per cent to 90 per cent of the time. Yet somehow the brain works. Some scientists even see neural noise as the key to human creativity. Boahen and a small group of scientists around the world hope to copy the brain's noisy calculations and spawn a new era of energy-efficient, intelligent computing. Neurogrid is the test to see if this approach can succeed.

Most modern supercomputers are the size of a refrigerator and devour $US100,000 to $US1 million of electricity per year. Boahen's Neurogrid will fit in a briefcase, run on the equivalent of a few D batteries, and yet, if all goes well, come close to keeping up with these Goliaths.

So far Boahen has managed to squeeze a million neurons onto his new supercomputer compared to only 45,000 last year. By 2011, he hopes to have 64 million up and running, bringing the project to the equivalent of a mouse's brain.

Ditching reliability and efficiency in favour of organised chaos flies in the face of everything that an engineer holds dear, but the approach does make sense — and reducing the power consumption is the key to upholding Moore's law. But how will this development change our perception of what an artificially intelligent robot might become? Instead of some cold, logical machine that can think for itself, we might end up with robots that are just as stupid and flawed as we are. Think about it. [Discover Mag via PopSci]

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