SpiNNaker Powers Up World’s Largest Supercomputer That Emulates A Human Brain

The brain is the most complex organ in the body and the most difficult to unravel. Scientists have developed a variety of ways to better understand the brain, including the use of supercomputers. The world’s largest neuromorphic supercomputer, the Spiking Neural Network Architecture (SpiNNaker), was just switched on for the first time yesterday. The mammoth array of server cabinets boasts one million processor cores and is able to perform 200 trillion actions per second.

SpiNNaker has been twenty years and £15 million (nearly 19.5 million USD) in the making. The project was originally supported by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), but has been most recently funded by the European Human Brain Project. The supercomputer was designed and built by the University of Manchester's School of Computer Science. Construction began in 2006 and the supercomputer was finally turned on yesterday. 

spinnaker supercomputer university of manchester
SpiNNaker Supercomputer - Image credit: University of Manchester

SpiNNaker is not the first supercomputer to incorporate one million processor cores, but it is still incredibly unique since it is designed to mimic the human brain. Most computers send information from one point to another through a standard network. SpiNNaker transmits bits of information to thousands of points, similar to how neurons pass chemicals and electrical signals through our brain. The system uses specialized circuits that imitate neurons. Dr. Steve Furber, Professor of Computer Engineering, remarked, “SpiNNaker completely re-thinks the way conventional computers work. We've essentially created a machine that works more like a brain than a traditional computer, which is extremely exciting.”

The team behind SpiNNaker hopes that the machine will help them to “unlock some of the secrets of how the human brain works by running unprecedentedly large scale simulations.” SpiNNaker has so far been used to mimic the processing of more isolated brain networks like the cortex. It has also been used to control SpOmnibot, a robot that processes visual information to navigate towards its targets.

The SpiNNaker developers plan to create a supercomputer that would emulate one billion biological neurons. The human brain contains nearly 100 billion neurons that are connected through 1 quadrillion synapses. The SpiNNaker supercomputer brings us one step closer to a better understanding of the human brain.

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The ORNL Summit supercomputer

Supercomputers were first introduced in the 1960’s, but have become increasingly popular and powerful over the last decade. The United States Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) supercomputer “Summit” recently received the distinction of being the fastest supercomputer in the world. It boasted a a LINPACK benchmark score of 122.3 PFLOPS. The US Department of Energy plans to use Summit for research in energy, advanced materials, artificial intelligence, and learning more about disease such as cancer and Alzheimer's. SpiNNaker, Summit, and other supercomputers are part of, according to NVIDIA CEO Jensen Huang, “...a race to all human knowledge—a race to understand everything.”