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IBM cat brain simulation dismissed as 'hoax' by rival scientist

'Not even close to an ant's brain in complexity,' IBM detractor says

By , Network World
November 24, 2009 01:03 PM ET

Network World - IBM's claim that it has designed the first brain simulation to exceed the scale of a cat's cortex is being dismissed as "a hoax and a PR stunt" by a rival scientist.

IBM researcher Dharmendra Modha last week hailed his company's new simulations as a "tremendous historic milestone" that will ultimately point the way to human-scale brain simulations. But his boast was criticized in an open letter issued by Henry Markram, director of the Blue Brain Project in Switzerland, which is also attempting to reverse-engineer mammalian brains.

"This is light years away from a cat brain, not even close to an ant's brain in complexity," Markram wrote in an open letter which was sent to IBM Fellow and CTO Bernard Meyerson and reprinted on IEEE Spectrum. "It is highly unethical of Mohda to mislead the public in making people believe they have actually simulated a cat's brain. Absolutely shocking."

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IBM voiced support for Modha’s work in a statement e-mailed to Network World.

"IBM stands by the scientific integrity of the announcement on cognitive computing led by IBM in collaboration with Stanford University, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Cornell University, Columbia University Medical Center, University of California-Merced and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory," the IBM statement reads. "The cognitive computing team has achieved two milestones that indicate the feasibility of building a computing system that requires much less energy than today's supercomputers, and is modeled after the cognition of the brain. This is important interdisciplinary exploratory research bringing together computational neuroscience, microelectronics and neuroanatomy, and this work has been commented on favorably by others in the scientific community."

Despite the disagreement between Markram and Modha, the Blue Brain Project counts IBM as one of its technology partners.
Modha is the lead researcher on IBM's cognitive computing project. In an interview with Network World before last week's announcement, Modha did clarify that the cat cortex simulation falls short of totally replicating a feline's brain.

"It's really not as powerful as a cat's brain in terms of function," he said. "What we have developed is an instrument of scientific discovery that can allow us to test various hypotheses of structures, dynamics and functions about the algorithms of the brain."

The cat brain simulation involved 1 billion spiking neurons and 10 trillion individual learning synapses, and was performed on an IBM Blue Gene/P supercomputer with 147,456 processors and 144TB of main memory. Modha said the point is not to create robots that act like humans, but rather to use brain-like capabilities to create systems that can analyze streams of continually changing raw data in real time, and thus help businesses make better decisions.

"This is a tremendous historic milestone," Modha said before last week's IBM announcement. "It shows that if we build a supercomputer with 1 exaflop computing power and 4 petabytes of main memory -- which might be possible within the decade -- then a human-scale simulation in real time will become possible."

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