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The Brain as a Model for Future Supercomputers

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A news release from Sandia National Labs discusses the fall and rise of the human brain as a model for computers. They suggest a waning interest in the brain after IBM’s supercomputer defeated Gary Kasparov in chess. But the brain is getting more respect these days, in part because of the rapid increase in knowledge about how it works. Some researchers now believe that brain-inspired computers could lead to a new industrial revolution. It’s not that the brain is fast, but it is powerful and flexible. From the news release:

Slow signal speed didn’t faze Christof Koch, chief scientific officer of Allen Institute for Brain Science. “I have a modest proposal,” he told the group. “Imagine a 1-kilogram, three-dimensional block of silicon, or stacks of chips, all with 10 kilohertz clocks and each consuming microwatts of power. There’s much more silicon, and therefore it’s very expensive and heavy, like the brain! But, much less cost for heat sinks, much less air conditioning.”

The article goes on to question whether this is really the right approach and whether brain-like pattern-matching is actually well-suited to handle the sorts of problems we want to solve. Cultural and ethic questions are also brought up. Whatever the answers to these questions, it seems inevitable that the massive amounts of new knowledge about the human brain will influence the design of future computers in some way.

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