Researchers Spin Up Supercomputer for Brain Simulation

By Michael Feldman

July 7, 2011

Under the category of “Grand Challenge” applications, perhaps none is grander than simulation of the human brain. Reflecting the complexity and scale of the brain with current computer technology is truly a daunting task. But a group of researchers and computer scientists at a number of UK universities are attempting to do just that under a project named SpiNNaker.

SpiNNaker, which stands for Spiking Neural Network architecture, aims to map the brain’s functions for the purpose of helping neuroscientists, psychologists and doctors understand brain injuries, diseases and other neurological conditions. The project is being run out of a group at University of Manchester, which designed the system architecture, and is being funded by a £5m grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). Other elements of the SpiNNaker system are being developed at the universities of Southampton, Cambridge and Sheffield.

For the casual observer, constructing a facsimile of the most complex organ in the human body from digital technology may see like a natural fit for computers. The view of the brain as a biological processor (and the processor as a digital brain) is well entrenched in popular culture. But the designs are fundamentally different.

Operationally, computers are precise, extremely fast and deterministic; brains are imprecise, slow, and non-deterministic. And, of course the underlying architectures are completely different. Computers relying on digital electronics, while the brain employs a complex mix of biomolecular structures and processes.

The SpiNNaker design meets the architecture of the brain halfway by going for lots of simple, low-power computing units, in this case, ARM968 processors. The initial Manchester-designed SpiNNaker multi-processor is a custom SoC with 18 of these processors integrated on-chip. (The original spec called for 20 processors per chip.) The multi-processor also incorporates a local bus, called Network-on-Chip or NoC, which links up the individual processors and off-chip memory. Each SpiNNaker node is reported to draw less than one watt of power, while delivering the computational throughput of a typical PC.

The design is purpose-built to simulate the action of spiking neurons. Spiking in this context means when neurons are stimulated above a certain threshold level to generate an event that can be propagated across a neural net. But instead of using neurotransmitters to do this, the computer is just passing data packets around.

To be truly useful, the spiking needs to happen in real-time. Fortunately, this is where computer technology shines. Electrical communication is actually more efficient than the biochemical version, so nothing exotic needs to be done in the hardware to make all this magical neural spiking a virtual reality.

And that may happen soon. The design phase of the project is coming to a close and the SpiNNaker team is starting to gather the pieces together. According to a news release this week, SpiNNaker chips were delivered in June (from Taiwan — presumable TSMC), and have passed their functionality tests. The plan is to build a 50,000-node machine with up to one million ARM processors.

While that seems like a lot, researchers estimate that it will only be enough to represent about one percent of the real deal. A human brain contains around 100 billion neurons along with 1,000 million connections and a single ARM processor in the SpiNNaker chip can only handle 1,000 neurons. The good news is that one percent may be enough to answer a lot of questions about the functional operation of the brain.

Even at one percent, the scale of the machine is probably the trickiest part of the project. With so many processors in the mix, there are bound to be individual failures at fairly regular intervals. To deal with the inevitable, the designers made SpiNNaker fault tolerant at multiple levels. For example, each of the ARM processors can be disabled if they fail at start-up and a chip can remain functional even if “several processors fail.” If an entire chip goes south, data can be rerouted to neighboring chips thanks to redundant inter-chip links.

The other challenge to scaling out is power, but here is where the ARM architecture pays dividends. The initial system of 50,000 nodes is estimated to draw just 23 KW to 36 KW of power. By supercomputing standards, that’s just a pittance.  Of course, judged against the 20 watt version in our heads, SpiNNaker has a ways to go.

The power profile suggests that if there are no inherent scaling limitations in the hardware or software, the design could conceivably be used to build a machine that would support a “complete” human brain simulation for just a few megawatts. With improved process technology, that could easily slip into the sub-megawatt level.

For all that, SpiNNaker isn’t designed to simulate higher level cognitive features — the most interesting function of the brain. Inevitably that will require more complex hardware and software. So even if someone builds a super-sized SpiNNaker, it won’t come close to the functionality of the 100 percent organic version anytime soon.

Subscribe to HPCwire's Weekly Update!

Be the most informed person in the room! Stay ahead of the tech trends with industy updates delivered to you every week!

GDPR’s Impact on Scientific Research Uncertain

May 24, 2018

Amid the angst over preparations—or lack thereof—for new European Union data protections entering into force at week’s end is the equally worrisome issue of the rules’ impact on scientific research. Among the Read more…

By George Leopold

Intel Pledges First Commercial Nervana Product ‘Spring Crest’ in 2019

May 24, 2018

At its AI developer conference in San Francisco yesterday, Intel embraced a holistic approach to AI and showed off a broad AI portfolio that includes Xeon processors, Movidius technologies, FPGAs and Intel’s Nervana Neural Network Processors (NNPs), based on the technology it acquired in 2016. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Pattern Computer – Startup Claims Breakthrough in ‘Pattern Discovery’ Technology

May 23, 2018

If it weren’t for the heavy-hitter technology team behind start-up Pattern Computer, which emerged from stealth today in a live-streamed event from San Francisco, one would be tempted to dismiss its claims of inventing Read more…

By John Russell

HPE Extreme Performance Solutions

HPC and AI Convergence is Accelerating New Levels of Intelligence

Data analytics is the most valuable tool in the digital marketplace – so much so that organizations are employing high performance computing (HPC) capabilities to rapidly collect, share, and analyze endless streams of data. Read more…

IBM Accelerated Insights

Mastering the Big Data Challenge in Cognitive Healthcare

Patrick Chain, genomics researcher at Los Alamos National Laboratory, posed a question in a recent blog: What if a nurse could swipe a patient’s saliva and run a quick genetic test to determine if the patient’s sore throat was caused by a cold virus or a bacterial infection? Read more…

Silicon Startup Raises ‘Prodigy’ for Hyperscale/AI Workloads

May 23, 2018

There's another silicon startup coming onto the HPC/hyperscale scene with some intriguing and bold claims. Silicon Valley-based Tachyum Inc., which has been emerging from stealth over the last year and a half, is unveili Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Intel Pledges First Commercial Nervana Product ‘Spring Crest’ in 2019

May 24, 2018

At its AI developer conference in San Francisco yesterday, Intel embraced a holistic approach to AI and showed off a broad AI portfolio that includes Xeon processors, Movidius technologies, FPGAs and Intel’s Nervana Neural Network Processors (NNPs), based on the technology it acquired in 2016. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Pattern Computer – Startup Claims Breakthrough in ‘Pattern Discovery’ Technology

May 23, 2018

If it weren’t for the heavy-hitter technology team behind start-up Pattern Computer, which emerged from stealth today in a live-streamed event from San Franci Read more…

By John Russell

Silicon Startup Raises ‘Prodigy’ for Hyperscale/AI Workloads

May 23, 2018

There's another silicon startup coming onto the HPC/hyperscale scene with some intriguing and bold claims. Silicon Valley-based Tachyum Inc., which has been eme Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Japan Meteorological Agency Takes Delivery of Pair of Crays

May 21, 2018

Cray has supplied two identical Cray XC50 supercomputers to the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) in northwestern Tokyo. Boasting more than 18 petaflops combine Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

ASC18: Final Results Revealed & Wrapped Up

May 17, 2018

It was an exciting week at ASC18 in Nanyang, China. The student teams braved extreme heat, extremely difficult applications, and extreme competition in order to cross the cluster competition finish line. The gala awards ceremony took place on Wednesday. The auditorium was packed with student teams, various dignitaries, the media, and other interested parties. So what happened? Read more…

By Dan Olds

Spring Meetings Underscore Quantum Computing’s Rise

May 17, 2018

The month of April 2018 saw four very important and interesting meetings to discuss the state of quantum computing technologies, their potential impacts, and th Read more…

By Alex R. Larzelere

Quantum Network Hub Opens in Japan

May 17, 2018

Following on the launch of its Q Commercial quantum network last December with 12 industrial and academic partners, the official Japanese hub at Keio University is now open to facilitate the exploration of quantum applications important to science and business. The news comes a week after IBM announced that North Carolina State University was the first U.S. university to join its Q Network. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Democratizing HPC: OSC Releases Version 1.3 of OnDemand

May 16, 2018

Making HPC resources readily available and easier to use for scientists who may have less HPC expertise is an ongoing challenge. Open OnDemand is a project by t Read more…

By John Russell

MLPerf – Will New Machine Learning Benchmark Help Propel AI Forward?

May 2, 2018

Let the AI benchmarking wars begin. Today, a diverse group from academia and industry – Google, Baidu, Intel, AMD, Harvard, and Stanford among them – releas Read more…

By John Russell

How the Cloud Is Falling Short for HPC

March 15, 2018

The last couple of years have seen cloud computing gradually build some legitimacy within the HPC world, but still the HPC industry lies far behind enterprise I Read more…

By Chris Downing

Russian Nuclear Engineers Caught Cryptomining on Lab Supercomputer

February 12, 2018

Nuclear scientists working at the All-Russian Research Institute of Experimental Physics (RFNC-VNIIEF) have been arrested for using lab supercomputing resources to mine crypto-currency, according to a report in Russia’s Interfax News Agency. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Nvidia Responds to Google TPU Benchmarking

April 10, 2017

Nvidia highlights strengths of its newest GPU silicon in response to Google's report on the performance and energy advantages of its custom tensor processor. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Deep Learning at 15 PFlops Enables Training for Extreme Weather Identification at Scale

March 19, 2018

Petaflop per second deep learning training performance on the NERSC (National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center) Cori supercomputer has given climate Read more…

By Rob Farber

AI Cloud Competition Heats Up: Google’s TPUs, Amazon Building AI Chip

February 12, 2018

Competition in the white hot AI (and public cloud) market pits Google against Amazon this week, with Google offering AI hardware on its cloud platform intended Read more…

By Doug Black

US Plans $1.8 Billion Spend on DOE Exascale Supercomputing

April 11, 2018

On Monday, the United States Department of Energy announced its intention to procure up to three exascale supercomputers at a cost of up to $1.8 billion with th Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Lenovo Unveils Warm Water Cooled ThinkSystem SD650 in Rampup to LRZ Install

February 22, 2018

This week Lenovo took the wraps off the ThinkSystem SD650 high-density server with third-generation direct water cooling technology developed in tandem with par Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Leading Solution Providers

SC17 Booth Video Tours Playlist

Altair @ SC17

Altair

AMD @ SC17

AMD

ASRock Rack @ SC17

ASRock Rack

CEJN @ SC17

CEJN

DDN Storage @ SC17

DDN Storage

Huawei @ SC17

Huawei

IBM @ SC17

IBM

IBM Power Systems @ SC17

IBM Power Systems

Intel @ SC17

Intel

Lenovo @ SC17

Lenovo

Mellanox Technologies @ SC17

Mellanox Technologies

Microsoft @ SC17

Microsoft

Penguin Computing @ SC17

Penguin Computing

Pure Storage @ SC17

Pure Storage

Supericro @ SC17

Supericro

Tyan @ SC17

Tyan

Univa @ SC17

Univa

HPC and AI – Two Communities Same Future

January 25, 2018

According to Al Gara (Intel Fellow, Data Center Group), high performance computing and artificial intelligence will increasingly intertwine as we transition to Read more…

By Rob Farber

Google Chases Quantum Supremacy with 72-Qubit Processor

March 7, 2018

Google pulled ahead of the pack this week in the race toward "quantum supremacy," with the introduction of a new 72-qubit quantum processor called Bristlecone. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

CFO Steps down in Executive Shuffle at Supermicro

January 31, 2018

Supermicro yesterday announced senior management shuffling including prominent departures, the completion of an audit linked to its delayed Nasdaq filings, and Read more…

By John Russell

HPE Wins $57 Million DoD Supercomputing Contract

February 20, 2018

Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) today revealed details of its massive $57 million HPC contract with the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD). The deal calls for HP Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Deep Learning Portends ‘Sea Change’ for Oil and Gas Sector

February 1, 2018

The billowing compute and data demands that spurred the oil and gas industry to be the largest commercial users of high-performance computing are now propelling Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Nvidia Ups Hardware Game with 16-GPU DGX-2 Server and 18-Port NVSwitch

March 27, 2018

Nvidia unveiled a raft of new products from its annual technology conference in San Jose today, and despite not offering up a new chip architecture, there were still a few surprises in store for HPC hardware aficionados. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Hennessy & Patterson: A New Golden Age for Computer Architecture

April 17, 2018

On Monday June 4, 2018, 2017 A.M. Turing Award Winners John L. Hennessy and David A. Patterson will deliver the Turing Lecture at the 45th International Sympo Read more…

By Staff

Part One: Deep Dive into 2018 Trends in Life Sciences HPC

March 1, 2018

Life sciences is an interesting lens through which to see HPC. It is perhaps not an obvious choice, given life sciences’ relative newness as a heavy user of H Read more…

By John Russell

  • arrow
  • Click Here for More Headlines
  • arrow
Share This