Cat Brain Inspires Computer Design | Science | Smithsonian

Cat Brain Inspires Computer Design

A University of Michigan computer engineer, Wei Lu, has set out to develop a supercomputer the size of a 2-liter soda bottle that can mimic a cat brain. (Why a cat brain? It's a more realistic goal than a human brain, he says.)Mimicking the function of a cat brain is possible with current technolog...

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A supercomputer can perform the same functions as a cat brain, but it's 83 times slower (photo by Sarah Zielinski)




A University of Michigan computer engineer, Wei Lu, has set out to develop a supercomputer the size of a 2-liter soda bottle that can mimic a cat brain. (Why a cat brain? It's a more realistic goal than a human brain, he says.)



Mimicking the function of a cat brain is possible with current technology—it just takes a huge supercomputer with its own dedicated power supply. Even then, it's 83 times slower than a real cat. Why is a real brain so much better as processing information? In part because, unlike a computer that executes code linearly, one piece at a time, a mammalian brain can do many things at once.



The connections in a biological brain also work more efficiently. The synapses that connect neurons can be reconfigured (with interesting consequences for memory), form many different pathways and strengthen them based on the intensity and timing of the electrical signals produced by the various neurons. A traditional transistor in a computer, though, only connects to a few neighbors and doesn't have any memory of past signals.



Lu's first step into creating a cat brain computer was to develop a " memristor" that acts more like a biological synapse and has a memory of past voltages to pass through it. He then connected two circuits with his memristor and showed that they system was capable of a type of memory and learning process called " spike timing dependent plasticity." Lu is still years away from his soda-bottle-sized cat brain dream, however. So if you want a cat brain to figure something out for you, you'll still need a furry friend.
About Sarah Zielinski
Sarah Zielinski

Sarah Zielinski is an award-winning science writer and editor. She is a contributing writer in science for Smithsonian.com and blogs at Wild Things, which appears on Science News.

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