I'm Backing Up My Brain

How much memory does your phone have? 16GB, maybe 32? Your computer hard drive is probably at the very least a terabyte, more likely a minimum two. If your using a flash drive for your OS or apps, that’s probably 128-256GB — which would have been a huge regular hard drive just a few years ago.

We’re used to a lot of cheap storage. Long gone are the days when we used to ache over which older game to uninstall to make room for the new game we just brought home from Sam’s Software and Stuff.

But would you believe IBM has built a 128 terabyte solid state drive — in order to simulate the 70 million neurons in a mouse’s brain? Of course you would. But here’s the story:

The flash memory will store a variety of data, including data from the mouse brain that’s under study, simulation results that are awaiting further analysis, and checkpoint data to keep track of what’s going on in the simulation, Curioni said.

Flash memory in PCs today is usually connected with the SATA interface used to hook up hard drives, but the Apple’s new Mac Pro puts flash memory a step closer to the processor by linking it with the PCI Express interface. IBM wouldn’t say how it’s hooking up its flash memory, citing “patent discussions,” but said it is “deeply embedded.”

Computer scientists have long looked at brains for inspiration, and in recent decades, one avenue has been in self-learning neural networks that behave in some ways like a brain’s teeming interconnected neurons. The Blue Brain project, though, isn’t a neural network. Instead, it seeks to simulate the physical reality of real nerve cells, including their shape, size, and electrical behavior, IBM said.

There are about 100 billion neurons in the human brain, or about 1,500 times more than a mouse’s. So you’d need an SSD of about 192,000 terabytes to get the same level of simulation.

The earliest Pocket PCs — the precursors to today’s smartphones — usually came with 32MB of flash storage, like today’s SSDs only slower and smaller. That was ten years ago. That’s not enough storage to hold just two high-resolution digital images shot on a modern Nikon or Canon in RAW format. For the about the same money today, you can a tablet with 32GB of storage — or 1,000 times more. So assuming Moore’s Law holds, or that new forms of flash memory are invented, it will only take about 15 years before IBM can do for a simulated human brain what it is already doing for mice.

Or they could speed up the process by throwing more money it. Like, maybe spending 1,500 times more and getting the job done today — although that does seem a bit too extravagant.

What it says to me is, we’re maybe 20-25 years out from storage being affordable enough, that anyone with a few hundred bucks to spend can have their own simulated backup brain.

What would you do with yours?