'Human brain' supercomputer with 1 million processors switched on for first time

The computer’s creators eventually aim to model up to a billion biological neurons in real time and are now a step closer. To give an idea of scale, a mouse brain consists of around 100 million neurons and the human brain is 1000 times bigger than that.

One billion neurons is 1% of the scale of the human brain, which consists of just under 100 billion brain cells, or neurons, which are all highly interconnected via approximately 1 quadrillion (that’s 1 with 15 zeros) synapses.

So, what is a million-core processor computer that mimics the way a brain works used for? One of its fundamental uses is to help neuroscientists better understand how our own brain works. It does this by running extremely large scale real-time simulations which simply aren’t possible on other machines.

For example, SpiNNaker has been used to simulate high-level real-time processing in a range of isolated brain networks. This includes an 80,000 neuron model of a segment of the cortex, the outer layer of the brain that receives and processes information from the senses.

It also has simulated a region of the brain called the Basal Ganglia - an area affected in Parkinson’s disease, meaning it has massive potential for neurological breakthroughs in science such as pharmaceutical testing.

The power of SpiNNaker has even recently been harnessed to control a robot, the SpOmnibot. This robot uses the SpiNNaker system to interpret real-time visual information and navigate towards certain objects while ignoring others.

Prof Furber added: “neuroscientists can now use SpiNNaker to help unlock some of the secrets of how the human brain works by running unprecedentedly large scale simulations. It also works as real-time neural simulator that allows roboticists to design large scale neural networks into mobile robots so they can walk, talk and move with flexibility and low power.”