You’ve probably read by now about the announcement by IBM’s Cognitive Computing group that they had created a “computer system that simulates and emulates the brain’s abilities for sensation, perception, action, interaction and cognition” at the “scale of a cat cortex”. For their work, the IBM team led by Dharmendra Modha was awarded the ACM Gordon Bell prize, which recognizes “outstanding achievement in high-performance computing”.
A few days later, Henry Markram, leader of the Blue Brain Project at EPFL, sent off an e-mail to IBM CTO Bernard Meyerson harshly criticizing the IBM press release, and cc’ed several reporters. This brought a spate of shock media into the usually placid arena of computational neuroscience reporting, with headlines such as “IBM’s cat-brain sim a ‘scam,’ says Swiss boffin: Neuroscientist hairs on end”, and “Meow! IBM cat brain simulation dissed as ‘hoax’ by rival scientist”. One reporter chose to highlight the rivalry as cat versus rat, using the different animal model choice of the two researchers as a theme. Since then, additional criticisms from Markram have appeared online.
Find out more after the jump.
In the aftermath, IBM has stood behind the announcement, citing for Network World their team’s involvement with “Stanford University, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Cornell University, Columbia University Medical Center, University of California-Merced and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory” as defense. Who are the researchers they are standing behind? According to Modha’s blog, they are:
- Stanford University: Brian A. Wandell (Prof of Psychology, Electrical Engineering), H.-S. Philip Wong (Prof of Electrical Engineering)
- Cornell University: Rajit Manohar (Prof of Electrical Engineering)
- Columbia University Medical Center: Stefano Fusi (Prof of Theoretical Neuroscience)
- University of Wisconsin-Madison: Giulio Tononi (Prof of Psychiatry)
- University of California-Merced: Christopher Kello (Prof of Cognitive Science)
For this neurodude, it is interesting how this disagreement may be symbolic of the gap that still remains between neuroscience and AI. Markram is a neuroscientist turned technologist, while Modha is a computer engineer who wants to derive technological insight from biological systems. They are approaching the ideal of reverse engineering the brain from very different perspectives, and its only natural that they value different milestones. The IBM team, even with the additional professors on their team, still lacks mainstream neuroscientists to help validate their claims. That being said, the public realization of this could be a positive thing for both fields. Although some frustration has resulted from this, this could be a great opportunity for the breakdown of walls between these fields.
In the end though, it does seem like Markram has a point. The IBM press release clearly went too far. Whether the angry public e-mail was the best strategic way to make the point remains to be seen. It will be interesting to see what the next move from the IBM team will look like.