After working to mimic the brain for 9 years, Numenta reflects on limitations of today's hardware

While researchers in Europe were drafting a letter objecting to aspects of the Human Brain Project (HBP), a company across the Atlantic was showcasing the fruits of 9 years of work into mimicking neurology. And while the company, Numenta, has made progress in creating apps that reproduce the brain, it thinks a fully functioning model is impossible without rethinking the underlying hardware.

Numenta set up shop in 2005 with the objective of replicating the processing power of the brain and has just introduced its first product, VentureBeat reports. Numenta began by building biological and computer science models of parts of the brain, leading to the creation of an algorithm that replicates a small, 1,000- to 5,000-nerve-cell piece of the cortex. This algorithm underpins its first product, a tool for detecting unusual patterns in IT systems.

Numenta co-founder Jeff Hawkins

The early uses for the technology lie outside of biotech, with the app echoing the pattern-spotting ability of the brain but falling short of being a working model for researchers. After spending 9 years working on mimicking the brain, Numenta co-founder Jeff Hawkins knows the current limitations. "We're emulating the brain's learning ability on a computer using algorithms," Hawkins said. "It works, but you can't get very big that way. You can't make a dog or mouse or cat or human or monkey-sized brain. We can't do that in software today. It would be too slow."

The HBP has pinned its hopes of creating a full simulation of the human brain on the arrival of exascale computers. Hawkins sees hardware as the limiting factor too, with his focus being on the creation of memory that works less like a traditional computer and more like the brain. What this will look like is unclear. "Some people are betting on stacked arrays. Some people are betting on other things. I don't know which of those are going to play out in the end," Hawkins said.

In Europe, many researchers are similarly unsure about the technology to simulate the brain, or whether it will exist in the next decade. The letter threatening to boycott HBP now has 562 signatories.

- read VentureBeat's interview