Supercomputer with 1 million processors switched on
A neuromorphic supercomputer, designed and built to work in the same way as a human brain, has been fitted with its 1 millionth processor core and switched on for the first time.
The million-processor-core ‘Spiking Neural Network Architecture’ (SpiNNaker) machine is capable of completing more than 200 million million actions per second, with each of its chips having 100 million moving parts.
To reach this point it has taken £15 million in funding, 20 years in conception and over 10 years in construction, with the initial build starting way back in 2006. The project was initially funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and is now supported by the Human Brain Project.
Designed and built in The University of Manchester’s School of Computer Science, SpiNNaker is claimed to model more biological neurons in real time than any other machine on the planet. Biological neurons are basic brain cells present in the nervous system that communicate primarily by emitting ‘spikes’ of pure electrochemical energy. Neuromorphic computing uses large-scale computer systems containing electronic circuits to mimic these spikes in a machine.
Unlike traditional computers, SpiNNaker doesn’t communicate by sending large amounts of information from point A to B via a standard network. Instead, it mimics the massively parallel communication architecture of the brain, sending billions of small amounts of information simultaneously to thousands of different destinations.
“SpiNNaker completely rethinks the way conventional computers work,” said Steve Furber, Professor of Computer Engineering at The University of Manchester, who conceived the initial idea for the computer. “We’ve essentially created a machine that works more like a brain than a traditional computer, which is extremely exciting.
“The ultimate objective for the project has always been a million cores in a single computer for real-time brain-modelling applications, and we have now achieved it.”
The computer’s creators eventually aim to model up to a billion biological neurons in real time — to give an idea of scale, a mouse brain consists of around 100 million neurons and the human brain is 1000 times bigger than that. 1 billion neurons is 1% of the scale of the human brain, which consists of just under 100 billion brain cells, or neurons, which are all highly interconnected via approximately 1 quadrillion synapses.
One of SpiNNaker’s fundamental uses is to help neuroscientists better understand how our own brain works, by running extremely large-scale real-time simulations which simply aren’t possible on other machines. For example, the supercomputer has been used to simulate high-level real-time processing in a range of isolated brain networks, including an 80,000-neuron model of a segment of the cortex — the outer layer of the brain that receives and processes information from the senses. It also has simulated a region of the brain called the Basal Ganglia — an area affected in Parkinson’s disease — meaning it has massive potential for neurological breakthroughs in science such as pharmaceutical testing.
SpiNNaker has even recently been harnessed as a real-time neural simulator to control a robot, the SpOmnibot. This robot uses the SpiNNaker system to interpret real-time visual information and navigate towards certain objects while ignoring others, allowing roboticists to design large-scale neural networks into mobile robots so they can walk, talk and move with flexibility and low power.
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