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IBM's Latest Supercomputer Inspired By The Human Brain: How Powerful Is It?

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Ever since the ENIAC, we've come close but not quite to building a brain-inspired supercomputer. Now maybe we have as IBM sets to introduce a platform that mimics the way human brain works.

The multi-technology company that developed the emotionally sensitive Watson partners with Lawrence Livermore National Library (LLNL), a federal research center in Livermore, California, to create a supercomputer that can perform more complex tasks including enhanced pattern recognition way better than the existing ones today.

Serving as its backbone is TrueNorth technology, a one-of-a-kind chip architecture based on neurosynaptic concept, which means it is designed to work like the human brain.

Just as the human brain has neurons that transmit information through electrical impulses and synapses that allow the berve cells to connect and communicate, a TrueNorth processor is equipped with 256 million synapses and 1 million neurons linked together by 5.4 billion transistors, all of which are capable of 46 giga synaptic operations for every second.

The energy requirement? Only 70 milliwatts at 0.8 volts.

LLNL is set to receive 16 of these chips, which will equal to 4 billion synapses and 16 million neurons powered by 2.5 watts – energy similar to that of a hearing aid battery.

This chip, which will be the foundation of the supercomputer's ecosystem that includes a cloud enablement, programming language and a simulator, can change the way computers work, making it even more efficient, and may even usher a "new era of computing."

"The low power consumption of these brain-inspired processors reflects the industry's desire and a creative approach to reducing power consumption in all components for future systems as we set our sights on exascale computing [computing equivalent to billion billion calculations per second]," said Michel McCoy, Weapon Simulating and Computing program director of LLNL.

While there is the desire to achieve computing at exascale, it has never been achieved yet because of many limitations, including the huge demand of energy and thus unsustainability of the model. The fastest is a petascale computer that can go beyond one petaflop or a thousand trillion FLOPS (floating point operations per second), which was introduced almost a decade ago.

TrueNorth, however, will not be available for commercial release anytime soon. However, the partnership "will push the boundaries of brain-inspired computing to enable future systems that deliver unprecedented capability and throughput, while helping to minimize the capital, operating and programming costs – keeping our nation at the leading edge of science and technology," expressed Dharmendra S. Modha, IBM's chief scientist and fellow.

LNLL, which will be using the technology to enhance complex tasks related to national security and nuclear research, will begin testing by March 31.

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