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IBM's cat-brain sim a 'scam,' says Swiss boffin

Neuroscientist hairs on end

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Responding to its nation's sovereign call to develop electronics with the intelligence of a cat, IBM last week announced a major step in feline gray matter simulation. But professional rivalries clearly run deep inside puss brain replication circles, with a leading neuroscientist blasting the project as a "scam" and a "mass deception of the public."

Dharmendra Modha, manager of IBM's Cognitive Computing unit, told the Supercomputing Conference last Wednesday that he and his team created a simulation of a cat-sized cerebral cortex that included 1 billion neurons and 10 trillion individual learning synapses. The project won itself the ACM Gordon Bell Prize in recognition of outstanding achievement in high-performance computing at the show.

But neuroscientist Henry Markram, the lead of the "Blue Brain" modeling project at Switzerland's EPFL, has his claws out over IBM's claims.

"I am absolutely shocked at this announcement. Not because it is any kind of technical feat, but because of the mass deception to the public," Markam wrote in an open letter sent to IBM's technology chief, Bernard Meyerson, and members of the media.

Markam claims the cat-brain simulation itself is relatively easy to do, using only the "simplest possible equation you can image to simulate a neuron." The results only demonstrate that IBM's Cognitive Computing team has immense compute horsepower at their beck and call, he said.

All these kinds of simulations are trivial and have been around for decades - simply called artificial neural network (ANN) simulations. We even stooped to doing these kinds of simulations as bench mark tests 4 years ago with 10's of millions of such points before we bought the Blue Gene/L. If we (or anyone else) wanted to we could easily do this for a billion "points", but we would certainly not call it a cat-scale simulation. It is really no big deal to simulate a billion points interacting if you have a big enough computer. The only step here is that they have at their disposal a big computer. For a grown up "researcher" to get excited because one can simulate billions of points interacting is ludicrous.

He adds that "there is no qualified neuroscientist on the planet that would agree that this is even close to a cat's brain" and that the announcement is "simply a PR stunt here to ride on Blue Brain."

"That the Bell prize would be awarded for such nonsense is beyond belief," Markam wrote. "I never realized that such trivial and unethical behavior would actually be rewarded. I would have expected an ethics committee to string this guy up by the toes."

IBM's Modha didn't get back to us directly when reached for comment, but an IBM spokeswoman said the company stands by the statements that it made regarding the announcement. She also notes that the brain simulation wasn't solely done by IBM, but in collaboration with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and other research organizations.

"We made a cortical simulation at the scale that a cat brain functions. We didn't say we made a cat brain that will go act like a cat," she said. "That was never what we intended to do. This is all about looking at new computing architectures - and looking at the brain to eventually be able to create a computing architecture that has its low power consumption and amazing computing ability. It's not artificial intelligence we're after here."

Check out IEEE Spectrum for a full copy of Markam's scathing letter here. ®

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