IBM, Researchers Team Up for Brain Research Project

IBM announced today that it will work with one of the leading human intelligence researchers in the world to map how the brain works, a project that Big Blue said emphasizes the continued importance of supercomputers and could produce advances in both medicine and technology.

IBM said it will give access to a Blue Gene supercomputer to the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Luasanne, or EPFL. The machine will be used to first map the nerve circuitry in the neocortex, the largest and most complex part of the human brain.

Once mapped, the supercomputer will be able to run simulations that attempt to unlock secrets of how thought processes work at the molecular level.

Cluster System Too Small

Tilak Agerwala, vice president of systems at IBM Research, told TechNewsWorld that because of the sheer size of the data being manipulated and the computations that will be produced, the same level of research could not be duplicated on a cluster system of smaller computers.

Henry Markram, who will oversee the research, said it will involve manipulating “hundreds of thousands of parameters” and said that leveraging the power of the supercomputer could help the research advance dramatically.

“This work on brain modeling would not be possible without the power of Blue Gene,” Agerwala said. IBM and EPFL will have co-rights to any research that is produced by the project, he added. Specific financial terms of the deal were not disclosed, but Agerwala said it costs between US$10 million and $11 million to build a full-size Blue Gene supercomputer. Big Blue invested $100 million in developing the machine.

However, Agerwala emphasized that the project is a partnership. “It’s an example of collaborative innovation,” he added. “We’re not just providing the supercomputer. We’re going to be working hand in hand on the science part of it. My experience is that’s when things work best.”

Super Size Me

IBM said the eServer Blue Gene system will occupy about the same floor space as four refrigerators and be capable of peak processing speeds of at least 22.8 trillion floating-point operations, or teraflops, per second.

The announcement comes as IBM continues its push into the medical research and health care fields, important verticals where its ability to provide computational power can be critical to making advances.

Blue Gene has also been leveraged to study the human genome and possible disease treatments. “Cost effective super-computing is essential to discovery and advancement, whether it’s in science, engineering or business,” Agerwala said.

Charles Peck, program director of neural computing research at IBM, told TechNewsWorld that the partnership could yield significant advances in the understanding of how the brain works, which in turn could lead to new treatments and other medical advances.

“This is an opportunity to work with one of the top researchers in his field in the world,” Peck said.

Cluster Effect

While pure research done on super computers has typically been seen impacting commercially available computers indirectly, IBM has begun to commercialize the class of computers more recently, with the eServer Blue Gene being made available last year.

That system, which has a base price of $1.5 million, runs on the Linux operating system, which has also made great strides into the supercomputer realm.

IBM has also made Blue Gene systems available through its on-demand approach, allowing customers to access the computation power only when they need it and only to pay for the processing horsepower they use.

The effort to commercialize such machines has led to a renewed battle for supercomputing supremacy, with IBM taking back the crown from a host of rivals, including HP, NEC and Apple.

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