IBM, in collaboration with five universities, announced plans Thursday to create computing systems that simulate and emulate the brain's abilities for sensation, perception, action, interaction and cognition while rivaling its low power consumption and compact size. The goal is to solve the problem of information management.
IBM and its collaborators -- Stanford University, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Cornell University, Columbia University Medical Center, and University of California-Merced -- have been awarded $4.9 million from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency for the first phase of DARPA's Systems of Neuromorphic Adaptive Plastic Scalable Electronics (SyNAPSE) initiative.
According to IDC, digital data is growing 60 percent each year, giving businesses access to incredible new streams of information. But without the ability to monitor, analyze and react to this information in real time, most of its value may be lost. Until the data is captured and analyzed, decisions or actions may be delayed.
Cognitive computing offers the promise of systems that can integrate and analyze vast amounts of data from many sources in the blink of an eye, allowing businesses or individuals to make rapid decisions in time to have a significant impact.
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"Exploratory research is in the fabric of IBM's DNA," said Josephine Cheng, an IBM fellow and vice president of IBM's Almaden Research Center in San Jose, Calif. "We believe that our cognitive-computing initiative will help shape the future of computing in a significant way, bringing to bear new technologies that we haven't even begun to imagine. The initiative underscores IBM's capabilities in bold, exploratory research and interest in powerful collaborations to understand the way the world works."
Big Blue offers some examples of cognitive-computing benefits. Bankers, for instance, have to make split-second decisions based on constantly changing data that flows at a fast pace. And monitoring the world's water supply requires a network of sensors and actuators constantly recording and reporting metrics such as temperature, pressure, wave height, acoustics and ocean tide. In both cases, making sense of the input would be a difficult task for one person, or even 100.
IBM said a cognitive computer, acting as a "global brain," could quickly and accurately put together the disparate pieces of these complex puzzles and help people make good decisions rapidly.
By seeking inspiration from the structure, dynamics, function and behavior of the brain, the IBM-led research team aims to break the conventional programmable-machine paradigm. Ultimately, IBM said, the team hopes to rival the brain's low-power consumption and small size by using nanoscale devices for synapses and neurons.
As IBM sees it, this technology stands to bring about entirely new computing architectures and programming paradigms. The end goal is computers able to integrate information from a variety of sensors and sources, deal with ambiguity, respond in a context-dependent way, learn over time, and carry out pattern recognition to solve difficult problems based on perception, action and cognition in real-world environments.
Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT, said this is a good time for IBM's cognitive-computing project for three reasons. First, he said, neuroscience has matured to the point where researchers more clearly understand the fundamental mechanisms of the brain's components and subcomponents.
In addition, supercomputing capabilities are rapidly approaching the point where emulating the brain's processes is a realistic goal. Finally, he said, nanotechnology is becoming sophisticated to the point where designing and manufacturing atomic-scale neurological components are a real possibility.
"This is no simple task, and it is understandably (and financially) unfeasible to deploy BlueGene/L supercomputing systems as 'global brains'," King said. "Instead, the success of cognitive computing will require novel, even unique, computing architectures and programming tools."
That, King said, is why IBM, its collaborators and DARPA are pressing forward with the Cognitive Computing via Synaptronics and Supercomputing (C2S2) project now.
"While demonstrating nanoscale, low-power, synapse-like devices and uncovering
functional neurological microcircuits may seem like science fiction to some, they
are crucial to developing the ability to perceive and consider patterns within larger and larger data sets," King said. "As a result, IBM's C2S2 and the collaborative work of the company and its partners may eventually be remembered as the first steps in creating truly cognitive computers."
Image credit: Wyss Center.