KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia Simulating the human brain and the Earth's climate are two of the most important challenges in science, according to Robert Bishop, chairman of the advisory board to the Blue Brain Project.
Ecole Polytechnique Fdrale de Lausanne in Switzerland and IBM Corp. are cooperating on simulating the brain, a project which started about two years ago. NEC's Earth Simulator is the key component of the latter project.
"The Blue Brain Project is currently in Phase 1.5 of its 10-year horizon and still has a long way to go," Bishop, chairman of a Geneva-based connsulting firm, told EE Times in an interview during a recent conference here. "It needs six to seven steps to move up the mammalian chain [from] mouse, rat, cat, primate and finally the human brain, with each step dealing with greater and greater complexity.
"If we were able to understand the architecture and functioning of the human brain accurately, it is quite possible that we could eventually mimic the brain in our own semiconductor design," Bishop added. "If we were able to understand the architecture and functioning of planet Earth in all of its detail, then we could ultimately predict natural disasters before they occur."
Bishop predicted that ten years from now design engineers will be "specifying application-specific integrated circuits that take into account our accumulating knowledge of the human brain and the Earth, respectively. Such ASICs would be combined into a broader system involving scalar, vector, field programmable gate arrays and graphic processing units to deal with the holistic job at hand," he added.
There are well over 100 billion neurons in the human brain and more than 100 trillion synapses to be modeled. "We [have] yet to build a good mathematical model of all this," Bishop said, "although work is well along on one small and important building block--the cortical column."
Simulating conditions on Earth is an equally daunting task. "Countless substances and materials are blending in complex structures and processes: the movement of tectonic planes, dynamic magnetic fields, the Earth's spin and orbit, space weather and local weather are all transforming the Earth simultaneously," he said.
Bishop said he works within the technology triangle bounded by science, simulation and supercomputing. IBM's BlueGene/L supercomputer installed at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in California has a peak speed of 478 teraflops. Bishop projected that supercomputers will surpass the petaflop mark by the end of 2008, and that future machines will break the exaflop barrier in the next decade.
Brain and Earth simulation will leverage growing computing power along with software advances Bishop said, ultimately yielding new insights that can be accurately modeled and simulated.
Meanwhile, governments and other institutions need to step up to advance simulation technology, the futurist added. "The brain simulator and the Earth simulator will eventually create [intellectual property] for commercial use, but we cannot expect commercial value to be available in the short term."