The Power of a Human Brain

Jun 18, 2024
The Power of a Human Brain

Earlier this month, we saw the Aurora supercomputer ascend the rankings to the second most powerful supercomputer on Earth.

It clocked in at an incredible 1.012 exaflops (floating-point operations per second).

An exaflop is equivalent to 1 quintillion flops – a number so large, it’s hard to comprehend. Exascale computing, once the realm of science fiction, is now possible on two supercomputers based in the U.S.

Aurora is in Illinois at the Argonne National Laboratory. And Frontier is in Tennessee at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Both are under the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

Which is kind of funny considering how much electricity is required to run a computing system of this size…

Aurora Argonne
Source: Argonne National Laboratory

Replicating the Human Brain

Frontier currently holds the top spot at 1.206 exaflops.

It’s a monster of a supercomputer built on Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) Cray supercomputers – technology HPE now owns through its 2019 acquisition of Cray.

But at its core, the Frontier supercomputer is powered by Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) central processing units (CPUs) and graphics processing units (GPUs). These powerful chips give Frontier the capabilities for remarkable computations, allowing scientists to tackle subjects like nuclear fusion, cosmology, complex climate models, and subatomic particle research.

And to do that, Frontier requires 21 megawatts of electricity.

Frontier Supercomputer
Source: Oak Ridge National Laboratory for the U.S. Department of Energy

Now we know why Aurora and Frontier are housed under the DOE! That’s enough electricity to power roughly 20,000 homes.

This has long been a point of consternation in computing. After all, the human brain – a supercomputer in its own right – can perform tasks a supercomputer can’t perform. And it only requires 12 watts (W) to operate. That’s less than a normal light bulb.

The human brain is remarkable with 100 billion neurons and the capacity for 100 trillion parameters. No computing system has been able to do that yet.

Which is why the human brain is such an intense area of study.

In a perfect world, we have massively powerful computing systems that require very little energy to operate. Biological computing is the field exploring these types of systems.

A big part of the challenge has been understanding how the brain functions. The field of connectomics focuses on how each brain cell is connected to the other, in an effort to understand how the human brain performs so well with so little energy.

And last month, Google finally published some remarkable research in Science after a decade of work in connectomics.

The research shed a little light on this dark corner of our understanding of the human brain…

Jeff Brown's regular daily content will now be published at The Bleeding Edge, at Brownstone Research.

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