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 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 sends small bits of information to thousands of points, similar to how the neurons pass chemicals and electrical signals through the brain. SpiNNaker uses electronic circuits to 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 and navigates 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. SpiNNaker brings us one step closer to a better understanding of the human brain.
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.”