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November 24, 2009

IBM Cat Brain Simulation Research Called a “PR Stunt”

Michael Feldman

If bad news comes in threes, IBM has managed to hit its quota in just the last 8 days. Last week, the company’s Roadrunner super got knocked off its TOP500 perch by Cray’s Jaguar machine. Then it was revealed, IBM is ditching further development of the HPC version of the Cell processor — the same chip that propelled said Roadrunner to supercomputing stardom. Now, a scathing letter from Blue Brain project director Henry Markram characterizes the recent brain simulation work announced at SC09 by IBM Research as “a hoax and a PR stunt.”

In regard to the latter, IBM said it had “achieved significant advances in large-scale cortical simulation and a new algorithm that synthesizes neurological data.” In essence, the researchers claimed they had simulated a cortex on the scale of a cat brain on an IBM Blue Gene. Markram, who apparently has laid into IBM before on this particular subject, also does brain simulation work on IBM Blue Gene with his Blue Brain project. But according to Markram, the IBM-led research in this area is being grossly mischaracterized.

Here’s the money quote from Markram:

This is light years away from a cat brain, not even close to an ants brain in complexity. It is highly unethical of Modha to mislead the public in making people believe they have actually simulated a cat’s brain. Absolutely shocking.

The Modha he’s referring to is Dharmendra Modha, who leads the Cognitive Computing team at IBM’s Almaden Research Center. He and his cohorts there, as well as at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, were awarded ACM’s Gordon Bell prize for the brain simulation work last week at SC09.  I imagine Markram was particularly tweaked that the IBM research received this additional accolade.

It’s worth noting that Markram’s Blue Brain project is about reverse engineering the brain for biomedical purposes, while the goal of the IBM research is to build cognitive computing systems — two rather different pursuits. So some of this may just be an internecine dispute about differing research agendas and who’s getting the most publicity. But Markram does seem convinced that IBM is purposefully deceiving the public and, by association, tarnishing his own brain simulation research. Cat fight indeed.