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From: Grant Callaghan (
Date: Wed 20 Nov 2002 - 05:17:02 GMT

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    This Is Your Computer on Brains

    By Michelle Delio 02:00 AM Nov. 19, 2002 PT

    The fastest supercomputers in the world are complete slackers compared with the processing power of the human brain.

    But that's about to change.

    The U.S Department of Energy announced Tuesday that IBM has won a $290 million contract to build two of the first computers capable of equaling the theoretical processing power of the human brain.

    The combined processing power of the two computers will be half a quadrillion (500 trillion) calculations per second, more than 1.5 times the combined processing power of all 500 machines on the recently released Top 500 list of supercomputers.

    "ASCI Purple," slated to be completed in 2003, is expected to be the world's first 100-teraflops supercomputer, capable of processing data almost three times faster than current supercomputers.

    A human brain's probable processing power is around 100 teraflops, roughly 100 trillion calculations per second, according to Hans Morvec, principal research scientist at the Robotics Institute of Carnegie Mellon University. This is based on factoring the capability of the brain's 100 billion neurons, each with over 1,000 connections to other neurons, with each connection capable of performing about 200 calculations per second.

    The Energy Department's second new supercomputer, "Blue Gene/L," will be even faster than ASCI Purple. When completed in 2004, Blue Gene/L will have a peak performance of 360 teraflops.

    But human brains are still better than supercomputers in some respects.

    ASCI Purple will have 50 terabytes (trillion bytes) of memory; Morvec estimates a brain to have a 100-terabyte capacity.

    Brains are portable; ASCI Purple will be the size of 197 refrigerator-size boxes covering 8,900 square feet (about the size of two basketball courts) and will weigh 197 tons. The average brain is 56 cubic inches and weighs 3.3 pounds.

    The human brain is distinguished by its ability to think and create in addition to simply processing information quickly, said Wise Young, director of the Keck Neuroscience lab at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

    But ASCI Purple and Blue Gene/L will do things that no brain can do.

    Blue Gene/L will be used for scientific research such as predicting global climate change and studying the behavior of super explosives. The supercomputer will be used by three laboratories -- Los Alamos, Sandia and Lawrence Livermore -- and the Advanced Simulation and Computing Initiative University Alliance collaborators.

    ASCI Purple's primary purpose will be to simulate the aging and operation of U.S. nuclear weapons, ensuring the safety and reliability of the nation's stockpile without the need for underground testing.

    ASCI Purple will be powered by 12,544 microprocessors contained in 196 individual computers interconnected via a super-fast data highway that exchanges information at 100 gigabytes, the equivalent of 14 full-length DVD movies, every second. ASCI Purple will run IBM's AIXL operating system.

    "ASCI Purple is like having an electron microscope when all the other scientists have a magnifying glass," explained Mark Seager, assistant director for Advanced Technologies for the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.

    ASCI Purple will be built over the next year and installed in a dedicated building known as the Terascale Simulation Facility currently under construction at the Livermore lab.


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