Thursday, 20 July 2006

The Brain Box

When I was a girl boy child, that was a common nickname - and nothing friendly about it.

Still, I can't think of a more appropriate name for this collection of equipment put together by the University of Manchester :
Scientists at The University of Manchester are to build a new type of computer which mimics the complex interactions within the human brain.

The aim is to build a computer which mimics how nerve cells in the brain interact in a bid to engineer more 'fault tolerant' electronics.

The computer will be the first of its kind and will be used to try and understand how, for example, the details of complex visual scenes are encoded by the brain.

Professor Steve Furber, of The School of Computer Science, will lead the £1m project funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. The work will be carried out in collaboration with the School of Electronics and Computer Science at the University of Southampton, using technology supplied by industrial partners ARM Ltd and Silistix Ltd.

Professor Furber said: "Our brains keep working despite frequent failures of their component neurons, and this 'fault-tolerant' characteristic is of great interest to engineers who wish to make computers more reliable.

"Our aim is to use the computer to understand better how the brain works at the level of spike patterns, and to see if biology can help us see how to build computer systems that continue functioning despite component failures."

The computer will be designed with the aim of modelling large numbers of neurons in real time and to track patterns of neural spikes as they occur in the brain.

It will be built using large numbers of simple microprocessors designed to interact like the networks of neurons found in the brain. The aim will be to place dozens of microprocessors on single silicon chip reducing the cost and power consumption of the computer.

The difficulty in all such massively-parallel systems is the connectivity, and it's the connectivity that's being studied here.

Of course, to make it more like a biological system, they'd have to be Field Programmable Gate Arrays (programmable hardware) responsive to broadcast messages which would mimic the effects of hormones and cahnge their behaviour accordingly... it gets really complicated.

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