The distributed brain

Bizarre scientific experiments have always been the stock-in-trade demonstrations of distributed or ‘grid’ computing, whereby large numbers of standard, commodity devices are networked together to create super computers, often via the Internet.

Perhaps the best-known example is the SETI@home application, which when installed on a PC uses its spare computing capacity to analyse cosmic radio frequencies to find evidence of extraterrestrial life. Alas, any such evidence has yet to be found.

But another project, based on same technology that supports the SETI@home experiment, may eclipse it as the most esoteric use of grid computing yet.

The innocuously titled Artificial Intelligence System is a project with no less lofty ambition than to create a real-time simulation of the human brain at a neuronal level.

It was inspired by a claim by neuroscientist Eugene Izhikevich that no such simulation would possible before 2016, a claim that the project aimed to disprove using the power of distributed computing.

In 2008, thanks to home users downloading the AIS application, the system successfully matched the estimated number of neurons in the brain, 100 billion, with simulated neurons. In April 2009, the number crossed the 700 billion mark.

At the moment, the distributed brain is only capable of simple arithmetic, but according to the Canadian start-up behind the system, the ominous-sounding Intelligence Realm, more sophisticated functions will soon become possible.

In fact, quite surprisingly, the company claims that the system could theoretically become conscious. “Consciousness is a state of mind, inside the brain,” the company’s website says. “By simulating on a computer the same brain processes that raise consciousness we will obtain the same result, that is a conscious machine.”

Science fiction fans might recognise this scenario from countless pulp novels in which sentient machines turn against their human creators, but the company insists the ending will be a happy one. The artificial mind it hopes to create “will allow us to live better, healthier and longer lives,” the Intelligence Realm website says. “It can help us take critical decisions for economy [sic] by integrating knowledge from multiple sources. It can lead to reduced work hours for a vast majority of people. It can help eliminate directly or indirectly most of the problems that are plaguing our world, like hunger, disease, poverty, criminality, war.”

Anyone interested in helping these lofty ambitions along can download the AIS application from the company’s website, How one should arm oneself against the conscious Internet is, at this stage, less clear.

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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