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How Ibm Is Making Computers More Like Your Brain. For Real

Bruno Michel describes Aquasar, an IBM Research prototype high-performance computing machine that uses unusually high-temperature liquid cooling. 1-2 of 10 Scroll Left Scroll Right It's all part of what IBM calls the cognitive systems era, in which computers aren't just programmed, but also perceive what's going on, make judgments, communicate with natural language, and learn from experience. It's a close cousin to that decades-old dream of artificial intelligence. "If we want to make an impact in the cognitive systems era, we need to understand how the brain works," said Matthias Kaiserswerth, a computer scientist who's director of IBM Research in Zurich , speaking during a media tour of the labs on Wednesday. One key challenge driving IBM's work is matching the brain's power consumption. Over millions of years, nature has evolved a remarkably efficient information-processing design, said Alessandro Curioni , manager of IBM Research's computational sciences department. The ability to process the subtleties of human language helped IBM's Watson supercomputer win at "Jeopardy." That was a high-profile step on the road to cognitive computing, but from a practical perspective, it also showed how much farther computing has to go. "Watson used 85 kilowatts," Kaiserwerth said. "That's a lot of power. The human brain uses 20 watts." Bruno Michel describes Aquasar, an IBM Research prototype high-performance computing machine that uses unusually high-temperature liquid cooling. (Credit: Stephen Shankland/CNET) Dense 3D computing The shift in IBM's computing research shows in the units the company uses to measure progress. For decades, the yardstick of choice for gauging computer performance has been operations per second -- the rate at which the machine can perform mathematical calculations, for example. When energy constraints became a problem, meaning that computers required prohibitive amounts of electrical power and threw off problematic amounts of waste heat, a new measurement arrived: operations per joule of energy. That gauges a computer's energy efficiency. Now IBM has a new yardstick: operations per liter. The company is judging success by how much data-processing ability it can squeeze into a given volume. Today's computers must be laid out on flat circuit boards that ensure plenty of contact with air that cools the chips. "In a computer, processors occupy one-millionth of the volume. In a brain, it's 40 percent. Our brain is a volumetric, dense, object," said Bruno Michel , a researcher in advanced thermal packaging for IBM Research, who got his Ph.D in biophysics. What's the problem with sprawl? In short, communication links between processing elements can't keep up with data-transfer demands, and they consume too much power as well, Michel said. The fix is to stack chips into dense 3D configurations, with chips linked using a technology called through-silicon vias (TSVs) . That's impossible today because stacking even two chips means crippling overheating problems. But IBM believes it's got an answer to the cooling problem: a branching network of liquid cooling channels that funnel fluid into ever-smaller tubes. The liquid passes not next to the chip, but through it, drawing away heat in the thousandth of a second it takes to make the trip, Michel said. The company has demonstrated the approach in an efficient prototype system called Aquasar. (Get ready for another new yardstick: greenhouse gas emissions.

Hewlett-Packard's labs looking to cut energy use of computers

-- ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN By Grace Chng Senior Correspondent Hewlett-Packard chief executive Meg Whitman yesterday gave the audience at a forum here a peek into the research being done by the computing giant. Her firm wants to change the fundamental structure of computers, she said, to make them more ecologically sound and affordable. Ms Whitman told New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who was moderating the exchange, that photonics technology, which centres on the use of light, can help create new computers that use less energy, emit less heat and cost less. "The fundamental computing architecture hasn't changed in 60 years. It is becoming inefficient," she added, noting that the electronic components in a laptop are connected by copper wires which get hot. More power is needed to cool the computer, which in turn drains battery life. Ms Whitman, a former CEO of eBay and unsuccessful candidate for the governorship of California, said research in HP's labs has already commercialised a technology now used in the tech giant's Moonshot servers. The servers, which hit the market early this year, use 89 per cent less energy, occupy 80 per cent less space, are 97 per cent less complex and 77 per cent cheaper than existing products. This is possible partially because the servers use microprocessors that power smartphones, said Ms Whitman, who was speaking at The New York Times Global Forum Asia held at the Four Seasons Hotel. This one-day forum, which was organised by The New York Times, attracted about 250 senior executives. "These tiny chips use less electricity. The Moonshot servers power hp.com with the equivalent of 12 60-watt light bulbs," she said. This leading edge is keeping HP ahead of its competitors by 12 to 18 months, she added. To keep up with competitors, HP has to invest in disruptive innovation which requires huge investments in labs and engineers. Companies that want to innovate should focus, she advised. "You can't have random innovation. It's good to let a thousand flowers bloom but you also have to weed the garden." As an example, HP's inkjet printer manufacturing plant in Singapore developed a technology for shooting the ink out of the printer head onto the paper. This is also how drugs can be automatically dispensed. "So we licensed this technology to the pharmaceutical companies," said Ms Whitman. chngkeg@sph.com.sg Related Stories

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