Steve Furber, a computer engineer at the University of Manchester in the UK, conceived of SpiNNaker 20 years ago, and he’s been designing it for more than a decade. After toiling away at the small digital chips underlying SpiNNaker for about six years, Furber says, he and his colleagues achieved full functionality in 2011. Ever since, the research team has been assembling the chips into machines of ever-increasing size, culminating in the million-processor machine that was switched on in late 2018.6 Furber expects that SpiNNaker should be able to model the 100 million neurons in a mouse brain in real time—something conventional supercomputers would do about a thousand times slower.
Access to the EU Human Brain Project systems is currently free to academic labs. Neuroscientists are starting to run their own programs on the SpiNNaker hardware to simulate high-level processing in specific subsystems of the brain, such as the cerebellum, the cortex, or the basal ganglia. For example, researchers are trying to simulate a small repeating structural unit—the cortical microcolumn—found in the outer layer of the brain responsible for most higher-level functions. “The microcolumn is small, but it still has 80,000 neurons and a quarter of a billion synapses, so it’s not a trivial thing to model,” says Furber.
Next, he adds, “we’re beginning to sort of think system-level as opposed to just individual brain regions,” inching closer to a full-scale model of the 85 billion–neuron organ that powers human intelligence.