You’ve undoubtedly heard over and over again about what an absurdly complex entity the human brain is. But a new breakthrough by Japanese and German scientists might finally drive the point home. Taking advantage of the almost 83,000 processors of one of the world’s most powerful supercomputers, the team was able to mimic just one per cent of one second’s worth of human brain activity — and even that took 40 minutes.
Why is it so hard for computers to reproduce what your grey matter does as a matter of course? Volume. The human brain consists of about 200 billion nerve cells (neurons) that are linked together by trillions of connections called synapses. As the tiny electrical impulses shoot across each neuron, they have to travel through these synapses, each of which contains about 1000 different switches that route that electrical impulse. In total, one human brain could contain hundreds of trillions of these neural pathways. It’s like a Choose Your Own Adventure book that stretches from here to Jupiter.
Enter the Fujitsu K computer, which while no longer the world’s fastest (it was the top-ranked supercomputer in the world in 2011, and now sits in the four-hole), is still a massively powerful beast. To mimic this relatively minuscule amount of brainpower, researchers used the Fujitsu K to connect a total of 1.73 billion virtual nerve cells by 10.4 trillion virtual synapses (with 24 bytes of memory in each synapse). In total, this added up to around one petabyte of memory, which is the equivalent of about 250,000 standard PCs. And remember, all that’s still just one per cent of what your brain does every single day, in the time it takes to blink a few times.
Some scientists, however, are hoping that’s going to change — and soon. Markus Diesmann of the Institute of Neuroscience and Medicine at Germany’s Forschungszentrum Julich believes that, within the next decade, we’ll be able to use exascale computers — capable of 1000 times one quadrillion operations per second — to represent the entire of the brain “at the level of the individual nerve cell and its synapses.” Whether or not we’ll actually be able to reach exascale computing by 2020, though, is still up for debate.
This particular exercise was meant simply to “test the limits of the simulation technology developed in the project and the capabilities of K,” according to the Japanese research institute RIKEN. But if it takes this much power to hit just one second of one person of what we can do on our own, at the very least, this should help put any fears about an upcoming Singularity to rest — that is, at least for now. [CNET]