University of Manchester fires up world’s largest neuromorphic computer

Read an article the other day about SpiNNaker, the University of Manchester’s neuromorphic supercomputer (see Live Science Article: Worlds largest supercomputer brain…). There’s also a wikipedia page on SpiNNaker and a SpiNNaker project page.


SpiNNaker is part of the European Union Human Brain Project (HBP), Brain Simulation Program.

SpiNNaker supercomputing hardware

(Most of the following information is from the SpiNNaker project home page and SpiNNaker architectural overview page.)

The system has 1 million ARM9 (968) cores and ~7TB of memory, with each core emulating 1000 spiking neurons. With this amount of computing power, it should be able to emulate a 1B (1 billion, 10^9) neuron brain (region).

The system will consist of 1200 PCBs with each PCB containing a 48 chip array and associated networking hardware & memory. Each node contains a SpiNNaker chip with its 18 ARM9 cores.

Each node has two chips stitch bonded together on top of one another. The bottom consists of the 18-ARM9 cores and the top the double DDR memory and networking layer.

Total bisectional networking bandwidth is 5 B packets/second with each packet consisting of 5 or 9 bytes of data.

SpiNNaker operates on 1W per chip or 90KW of power to run the entire machine. Given that each chip is 18 cores and each core is 1000 neurons, this means each neuron simulation takes about 55.5µW of power to run.

You can deploy a single board as IoT solution but @ ~48W per board it may be be too energy consumptive for IoT.

SpiNNaker supercomputing software

According to the home page and the Live Science article, SpiNNaker is intended to be used to model critical segments of the human brain such as the  basal ganglia brain area for the EU HBP brain simulation program.

The system architecture has three tiers, a host machine (layer) which communicates with the monitor layer to start and monitor application execution and uses “ybug” to communicate,  a monitor core (layer) which interacts with ybug at the host and uses “scamp” to communicate with the application processors, and the application processors (layer) consisting of the ARM cores, memory and packet networking hardware which runs the  SpiNNaker Application Runtime Kernel (sark).

Applications which run on sark can consist of spiking neural networks or multi-layer perceptrons (MLP), classical deep learning neural networks.

  • MLP applications use back propagation and a training and inference phases, familiar to any deep learning application and uses a fixed neural network topology.
  • Spiking neural network applications use ongoing learning so there’s no training or inference phases (it’s always learning), use a variable network topology (reconfiguring the ARM core-packet network) and currently supports the PyNN spiking neural network simulator.

Unfortunately most of the links in the SpiNNaker project pages referring to PyNN spiking networking applications are broken. But PyNN is a Python based spiking neural network simulator that can run on a number of different hardware platforms (including sark/SpiNNaker).

Most of the AI groups I’ve talked with mention PyTorch or TensorFlow as AI frameworks of choice these days. But it’s unclear to me whether these two support spiking neural network generation/simulation.

If you want to learn more about programming SpiNNaker please check out their Software for SpiNNaker wiki page.


As you may recall, a homo sapiens brain has an estimated 16B to 86B neurons in its average cerebral cortex (see wikipedia “animals listed by neuron count” article, for low estimate, EU’s HBP Brain Simulation page, for high estimate), which puts SpiNNaker today, at about the equivalent of less than a average tufted capuchin cerebral cortex (@1.2B neurons).

Given the above and with SpiNNaker @1B neurons, we are only  4 to 7 generations away from human equivalence. That means we have at most ~14 years left before a 128B spiking neuronal simulation machine is available.

But SpiNNaker today is based on ARM9 cores and ARM11 cores already exist. So, if they redesigned/reimplemented the chip today, it would already be 2X the core count. aake that human equivalence is only a max of 12 years away.

The mean estimate for AGI (artificial general intelligence) seems to be 2040-2050 (see wikipedia Technological Singularity article). But given what University of Manchester’s SpiNNaker is capable of doing today, I don’t think we have that long to wait.

Photo Credits: All photos/charts above are from the SpiNNaker Project pages at the University of Manchester website

Research reveals ~liquid nitrogen temperature molecular magnets with 100X denser storage

Must be on a materials science binge these days. I read another article this week in on “Major leap towards data storage at the molecular level” reporting on a Nature article “Molecular magnetic hysteresis at 60K“, where researchers from University of Manchester, led by Dr David Mills and Dr Nicholas Chilton from the School of Chemistry, have come up with a new material that provides molecular level magnetics at almost liquid nitrogen temperatures.

Previously, molecular magnets only operated at from 4 to 14K (degrees Kelvin) from research done over the last 25 years or so, but this new  research shows similar effects operating at ~60K or close to liquid nitrogen temperatures. Nitrogen freezes at 63K and boils at ~77K, and I would guess, is liquid somewhere between those temperatures.

What new material

The new material, “hexa-tert-butyldysprosocenium complex—[Dy(Cpttt)2][B(C6F5)4], with Cpttt = {C5H2tBu3-1,2,4} and tBu = C(CH3)3“, dysprosocenium for short was designed (?) by the researchers at Manchester and was shown to exhibit magnetism at the molecular level at 60K.

The storage effect is hysteresis, which is a materials ability to remember the last (magnetic/electrical/?) field it was exposed to and the magnetic field is measured in oersteds.

The researchers claim the new material provides magnetic hysteresis at a sweep level of 22 oersteds. Not sure what “sweep level of 22 oersteds” means but I assume a molecule of the material is magnetized with a field strength of 22 oersteds and retains this magnetic field over time.

Reports of disk’s death, have been greatly exaggerated

While there seems to be no end in sight for the densities of flash storage these days with 3D NAND (see my 3D NAND, how high can it go post or listen to our GBoS FMS2017 wrap-up with Jim Handy podcast), the disk industry lives on.

Disk industry researchers have been investigating HAMR, ([laser] heat assisted magnetic recording, see my Disk density hits new record … post) for some time now to increase disk storage density. But to my knowledge HAMR has not come out in any generally available disk device on the market yet. HAMR was supposed to provide the next big increase in disk storage densities.

Maybe they should be looking at CAMMR, or cold assisted magnetic molecular recording (heard it here, 1st).

According to Dr Chilton using the new material at 60K in a disk device would increase capacity by 100X. Western Digital just announced a 20TB MyBook Duo disk system for desktop storage and backup. With this new material, at 100X current densities, we could have 2PB Mybook Duo storage system on your desktop.

That should keep my ever increasing video-photo-music library in fine shape and everything else backed up for a little while longer.


Photo Credit(s): Molecular magnetic hysteresis at 60K, Nature article