DARPA’s Simulated Cat Brain Project a ‘Scam’: Top Scientist

Last year, the Pentagon’s premiere research arm gave IBM (International Business Machines Corporation) nearly $5 million to make electronics that mimic the “function, size and power consumption” of a cat’s brain. Last week, IBM’s lead researcher on the project, Dharmendra S. Modha, announced that he had made major progress toward that goal, simulating on a supercomputer the number of neurons and synapses inside a feline mind. Now, a leading neuroscientist is blasting the whole project as a “scam” and a “hoax.”

Modha told a supercomputing conference that his cortical simulator had generated the digital equivalent of a billion neurons connected by 10 trillion individual synapses. It was, apparently, the first baby step toward Pentagon mad science division DARPA’s (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) goal of re-creating a brain that’s as compact, as efficient and as power-smart as the one inside a house pet. Some colleagues went so far as to compare it to the Large Hadron Collider.

But neuroscientist Henry Markram is considerably less impressed. “What IBM reported is a scam — no where near a cat-scale brain simulation,” he writes in an open letter to Bernard S. Myerson, IBM’s Chief Technology Officer. “I am absolutely shocked at this announcement. Not because it is any kind of technical feat, but because of the mass deception of the public.”

Markram isn’t exactly a disinterested observer, as IEEE Spectrum’s Sally Adee notes. He’s got his own ersatz mind project, called Blue Brain, that’s also affiliated with IBM. So perhaps it’s not surprising that Markram claims Modha has simply put together a “PR stunt here to ride on Blue Brain.”

Still, such public criticism is unusual — especially when you consider that it’s also an indirect indictment of DARPA, one of the leading funders of artificial intelligence research.

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 benchmark tests four years ago with 10’s of millions of such points…. 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.

…This is light years away from a cat brain, not even close to an ant’s brain in complexity. It is highly unethical of Mohda to mislead the public in making people believe they have actually simulated a cat’s brain…. That IBM and DARPA would support such deceptive announcements is even more shocking.

I think the proper response here is: mee-yow! I can’t wait for round three of this cat-brain cat fight.

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