Saturday, December 10, 2011

Computing based on the human brain - the answer to Big Data?

A slight detour from my usual subjects around predictive analytics. I came across this recent article that is prescient of the direction of modeling and predictive analytics in general. And that is the move away from the current model of computer design, based on the famous von Neumann architecture to something that is much more similar to the thing computing and modeling and decision making are ultimately designed to emulate, viz. the human brain.

IBM Watson - Super-computer or energy hog?
First some background. Computer architecture has consistently followed the classic von Neumann architecture. Without getting into too many details, what the architecture boils down to is a separate processing unit (known variedly as CPU, ALU, microprocessor) and a separate memory unit, both connected by a communication channel called a Bus. This architecture has served computing well over the past 50 years, and now has brought the computer within access of every single human being on Earth. The fact that 2-year old toddlers are extremely adept with the Apple iPad is testimony to the success of the von Neumann model. After all, nothing succeeds like success. Even as processor chips have become more advanced and started incorporating their own internal memory module (called cache memory), the von Neumann architecture has been faithfully replicated. But successful doesn't mean ideal or optimal or even efficient. The burn of the laptop on my thigh as I type this post is indication that the current computing model, while successful, is also an extremely power-hungry one. The IBM- Watson machine, famous for playing and beating human opponents in Jeopardy, is also famous for consuming 4000 times the power of its human competitors. The human brain functions with about 20 watts of power while Watson consumes more than 85,000 watts. And all that Watson can do is play Jeopardy. The human brain can do a lot more like writing, recognizing pattern, expressing and feeling emotion, negotiating traffic, even designing computers!

So what might a more efficient model look like? Well, it looks a little more like the human brain. The human brain has both logical problem solving, thinking as well as memory managed through one element of computing infrastructure, so to speak, which is the neuron interconnected through synapses. And that is the model that is being pursued by IBM in collaboration with Cornell, Columbia, the University of Wisconsin and the University of California, Merced. The project is also funded by DARPA, and more details can be found at the link at the start of the page. The big a-ha moment according to the project director and IBM computer scientist, Dharmendra Modha (in the middle of vacation, no less) was to drive the human-brain driven computing project through the fundamental design of the processor chip or the hardware rather than through software. To quote some details from the New York Times article by Steve Lohr,
The prototype chip has 256 neuron-like nodes, surrounded by more than 262,000 synaptic memory modules. That is impressive, until one considers that the human brain is estimated to house up to 100 billion neurons. In the Almaden research lab, a computer running the chip has learned to play the primitive video game Pong, correctly moving an on-screen paddle to hit a bouncing cursor. It can also recognize numbers 1 through 10 written by a person on a digital pad — most of the time.

Why is this relevant to predictive analytics?
What is a mention of this project doing in a predictive analytics blog? It has to do with Big Data. Online, mobile, geo-spatial and RFID technologies are creating streams of data in amounts that would have been impossible to conceptualize even a decade back. As the availability of data increases and the power of conventional computing infrastructure and storage infrastructure gets overwhelmed, we will have to rely on a distributed memory storage and computing set-up that is more similar to the human brain. A space worth watching.

No comments: