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We’ve long used the brain as inspiration for computers, but the SpiNNaker supercomputer, switched on this month, is probably the closest we’ve come to recreating it in silicon. Now scientists hope to use the supercomputer to model the very thing that inspired its design.
The brain is the most complex machine in the known universe, but that complexity comes primarily from its architecture rather than the individual components that make it up. Its highly interconnected structure means that relatively simple messages exchanged between billions of individual neurons add up to carry out highly complex computations.
That’s the paradigm that has inspired the ‘Spiking Neural Network Architecture” (SpiNNaker) supercomputer at the University of Manchester in the UK. The project is the brainchild of Steve Furber, the designer of the original ARM processor. After a decade of development, a million-core version of the machine that will eventually be able to simulate up to a billion neurons was switched on earlier this month.
The idea of splitting computation into very small chunks and spreading them over many processors is already the leading approach to supercomputing. But even the most parallel systems require a lot of communication, and messages may have to pack in a lot of information, such as the task that needs to be completed or the data that needs to be processed.
In contrast, messages in the brain consist of simple electrochemical impulses, or spikes, passed between neurons, with information encoded primarily in the timing or rate of those spikes (which is more important is a topic of debate among neuroscientists). Each neuron is connected to thousands of others via synapses, and complex computation relies on how spikes cascade through these highly-connected networks.
The SpiNNaker machine attempts to replicate this using a model called Address Event Representation. Each of the million cores can simulate roughly a million synapses, so depending on the model, 1,000 neurons with 1,000 connections or 100 neurons with 10,000 connections. Information is encoded in the timing of spikes and the identity of the neuron sending them. When a neuron is activated it broadcasts a tiny packet of data that contains its address, and spike timing is implicitly conveyed.
By modeling their machine on the architecture of the brain, the researchers hope to be able to simulate more biological neurons in real time than any other machine on the planet. The project is funded by the European Human Brain Project, a ten-year science mega-project aimed at bringing together neuroscientists and computer scientists to understand the brain, and researchers will be able to apply for time on the machine to run their simulations.
Importantly, it’s possible to implement various different neuronal models on the machine. The operation of neurons involves a variety of complex biological processes, and it’s still unclear whether this complexity is an artefact of evolution or central to the brain’s ability to process information. The ability to simulate up to a billion simple neurons or millions of more complex ones on the same machine should help to slowly tease out the answer.
Even at a billion neurons, that still only represents about one percent of the human brain, so it’s still going to be limited to investigating isolated networks of neurons. But the previous 500,000-core machine has already been used to do useful simulations of the Basal Ganglia—an area affected in Parkinson’s disease—and an outer layer of the brain that processes sensory information.
The full-scale supercomputer will make it possible to study even larger networks previously out of reach, which could lead to breakthroughs in our understanding of both the healthy and unhealthy functioning of the brain.
And while neurological simulation is the main goal for the machine, it could also provide a useful research tool for roboticists. Previous research has already shown a small board of SpiNNaker chips can be used to control a simple wheeled robot, but Furber thinks the SpiNNaker supercomputer could also be used to run large-scale networks that can process sensory input and generate motor output in real time and at low power.
That low power operation is of particular promise for robotics. The brain is dramatically more power-efficient than conventional supercomputers, and by borrowing from its principles SpiNNaker has managed to capture some of that efficiency. That could be important for running mobile robotic platforms that need to carry their own juice around.
This ability to run complex neural networks at low power has been one of the main commercial drivers for so-called neuromorphic computing devices that are physically modeled on the brain, such as IBM’s TrueNorth chip and Intel’s Loihi. The hope is that complex artificial intelligence applications normally run in massive data centers could be run on edge devices like smartphones, cars, and robots.
But these devices, including SpiNNaker, operate very differently from the leading AI approaches, and its not clear how easy it would be to transfer between the two. The need to adopt an entirely new programming paradigm is likely to limit widespread adoption, and the lack of commercial traction for the aforementioned devices seems to back that up.
At the same time, though, this new paradigm could potentially lead to dramatic breakthroughs in massively parallel computing. SpiNNaker overturns many of the foundational principles of how supercomputers work that make it much more flexible and error-tolerant.
For now, the machine is likely to be firmly focused on accelerating our understanding of how the brain works. But its designers also hope those findings could in turn point the way to more efficient and powerful approaches to computing.
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As if stand-alone technologies weren’t advancing fast enough, we’re in age where we must study the intersection points of these technologies. How is what’s happening in robotics influenced by what’s happening in 3D printing? What could be made possible by applying the latest advances in quantum computing to nanotechnology?
Along these lines, one crucial tech intersection is that of artificial intelligence and genomics. Each field is seeing constant progress, but Jamie Metzl believes it’s their convergence that will really push us into uncharted territory, beyond even what we’ve imagined in science fiction. “There’s going to be this push and pull, this competition between the reality of our biology with its built-in limitations and the scope of our aspirations,” he said.
Metzl is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and author of the upcoming book Hacking Darwin: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity. At Singularity University’s Exponential Medicine conference last week, he shared his insights on genomics and AI, and where their convergence could take us.
Life As We Know It
Metzl explained how genomics as a field evolved slowly—and then quickly. In 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick identified the double helix structure of DNA, and realized that the order of the base pairs held a treasure trove of genetic information. There was such a thing as a book of life, and we’d found it.
In 2003, when the Human Genome Project was completed (after 13 years and $2.7 billion), we learned the order of the genome’s 3 billion base pairs, and the location of specific genes on our chromosomes. Not only did a book of life exist, we figured out how to read it.
Jamie Metzl at Exponential Medicine
Fifteen years after that, it’s 2018 and precision gene editing in plants, animals, and humans is changing everything, and quickly pushing us into an entirely new frontier. Forget reading the book of life—we’re now learning how to write it.
“Readable, writable, and hackable, what’s clear is that human beings are recognizing that we are another form of information technology, and just like our IT has entered this exponential curve of discovery, we will have that with ourselves,” Metzl said. “And it’s intersecting with the AI revolution.”
Learning About Life Meets Machine Learning
In 2016, DeepMind’s AlphaGo program outsmarted the world’s top Go player. In 2017 AlphaGo Zero was created: unlike AlphaGo, AlphaGo Zero wasn’t trained using previous human games of Go, but was simply given the rules of Go—and in four days it defeated the AlphaGo program.
Our own biology is, of course, vastly more complex than the game of Go, and that, Metzl said, is our starting point. “The system of our own biology that we are trying to understand is massively, but very importantly not infinitely, complex,” he added.
Getting a standardized set of rules for our biology—and, eventually, maybe even outsmarting our biology—will require genomic data. Lots of it.
Multiple countries already starting to produce this data. The UK’s National Health Service recently announced a plan to sequence the genomes of five million Britons over the next five years. In the US the All of Us Research Program will sequence a million Americans. China is the most aggressive in sequencing its population, with a goal of sequencing half of all newborns by 2020.
“We’re going to get these massive pools of sequenced genomic data,” Metzl said. “The real gold will come from comparing people’s sequenced genomes to their electronic health records, and ultimately their life records.” Getting people comfortable with allowing open access to their data will be another matter; Metzl mentioned that Luna DNA and others have strategies to help people get comfortable with giving consent to their private information. But this is where China’s lack of privacy protection could end up being a significant advantage.
To compare genotypes and phenotypes at scale—first millions, then hundreds of millions, then eventually billions, Metzl said—we’re going to need AI and big data analytic tools, and algorithms far beyond what we have now. These tools will let us move from precision medicine to predictive medicine, knowing precisely when and where different diseases are going to occur and shutting them down before they start.
But, Metzl said, “As we unlock the genetics of ourselves, it’s not going to be about just healthcare. It’s ultimately going to be about who and what we are as humans. It’s going to be about identity.”
Designer Babies, and Their Babies
In Metzl’s mind, the most serious application of our genomic knowledge will be in embryo selection.
Currently, in-vitro fertilization (IVF) procedures can extract around 15 eggs, fertilize them, then do pre-implantation genetic testing; right now what’s knowable is single-gene mutation diseases and simple traits like hair color and eye color. As we get to the millions and then billions of people with sequences, we’ll have information about how these genetics work, and we’re going to be able to make much more informed choices,” Metzl said.
Imagine going to a fertility clinic in 2023. You give a skin graft or a blood sample, and using in-vitro gametogenesis (IVG)—infertility be damned—your skin or blood cells are induced to become eggs or sperm, which are then combined to create embryos. The dozens or hundreds of embryos created from artificial gametes each have a few cells extracted from them, and these cells are sequenced. The sequences will tell you the likelihood of specific traits and disease states were that embryo to be implanted and taken to full term. “With really anything that has a genetic foundation, we’ll be able to predict with increasing levels of accuracy how that potential child will be realized as a human being,” Metzl said.
This, he added, could lead to some wild and frightening possibilities: if you have 1,000 eggs and you pick one based on its optimal genetic sequence, you could then mate your embryo with somebody else who has done the same thing in a different genetic line. “Your five-day-old embryo and their five-day-old embryo could have a child using the same IVG process,” Metzl said. “Then that child could have a child with another five-day-old embryo from another genetic line, and you could go on and on down the line.”
Sounds insane, right? But wait, there’s more: as Jason Pontin reported earlier this year in Wired, “Gene-editing technologies such as Crispr-Cas9 would make it relatively easy to repair, add, or remove genes during the IVG process, eliminating diseases or conferring advantages that would ripple through a child’s genome. This all may sound like science fiction, but to those following the research, the combination of IVG and gene editing appears highly likely, if not inevitable.”
From Crazy to Commonplace?
It’s a slippery slope from gene editing and embryo-mating to a dystopian race to build the most perfect humans possible. If somebody’s investing so much time and energy in selecting their embryo, Metzl asked, how will they think about the mating choices of their children? IVG could quickly leave the realm of healthcare and enter that of evolution.
“We all need to be part of an inclusive, integrated, global dialogue on the future of our species,” Metzl said. “Healthcare professionals are essential nodes in this.” Not least among this dialogue should be the question of access to tech like IVG; are there steps we can take to keep it from becoming a tool for a wealthy minority, and thereby perpetuating inequality and further polarizing societies?
As Pontin points out, at its inception 40 years ago IVF also sparked fear, confusion, and resistance—and now it’s as normal and common as could be, with millions of healthy babies conceived using the technology.
The disruption that genomics, AI, and IVG will bring to reproduction could follow a similar story cycle—if we’re smart about it. As Metzl put it, “This must be regulated, because it is life.”
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