Chip for Human Brain project
In Manchester today, doing some preparation for a 2015 exhibition called The Imitation Game in Manchester Art Gallery. Curator Clare Gannaway is looking into possible collaborations with the School of Computer Science of the University of Manchester. Today we met Steve Furber, a legendary figure of the computing world who was one of the lead designers for Acorn’s microcomputers in the early 1980’s. After the success of Acorn’s BBC Micro, he was a crucial contributor to the invention of the ARM chip, the descendents of which can be found at the heart of today’s vast majority of mobile phones and tablets. I felt a bit star struck, as it was with BBC micros found in UK skips that I discovered (late) the joys of physical computing.
Prof Furber talked to us about the SpiNNaker project he is currently leading, well on its way to complete a machine featuring an array of one million specialised ARM chips. The machine’s processing power will be equivalent to 1% of the human brain’s. The machine will be used by scientists from various disciplines to run experiments aiming at understanding the least understood intermediary level of brain processing, between neuron firing and high level activity monitoring. This effort is part of the international Human Brain Project.
Each SpiNNaker chip, designed in the lab, made in China and Taiwan, features 18 core processors. The machine will feature approximately 56000 of the super thin chips, mounted on individual boards carrying 48 units. A massively complex operation, running in 10 wardrobe-size units. Steve Furber told us of an analogy he uses when he talks to secondary school students about the complexity of modern electronics and of the chip architects’ job: the connections and routing in a smartphone’s ARM processor, if scaled up, would be equivalent to all the roads on earth. The architects’ job is to make sure all the roads go to the right destination and that there is no traffic jam. Daunting.
We visited the SpiNNaker labs, where we saw one of the first operational machines running, some mysterious programme with lots of pretty flashing lights. We also had a look at the graphene lab, nanotechnology research heralded to produce great things in the near future. I only know of graphene in relation to promising new designs for supercapacitors. We could see researchers wearing what Furber called bunny suits busying themselves on high tech gear, working on nanoparticles.