Er… um… Skynet, anyone?

Why does this news report seem a little . . . ominous?

IBM’s brain-like supercomputer chips—dubbed its TrueNorth neurocomputer—have been installed at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) to explore new ways to ensure the cyber-security and the stewardship of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Sounding eerily like a prelude to Skynet “waking up” in charge of our nukes, IBM and LLNL assure us that its TrueNorth neurocomputer use with our “nation’s nuclear deterrent” does not mean being in charge of the launch codes, but rather being used for simulating the deterioration of our aging nuclear arsenal—currently the most difficult problem for supercomputers to solve worldwide.

. . .

TrueNorth—the semiconductor—is a culmination of IBM’s long-road quest to create not just cognitive computing simulations like Watson running on traditional computers, but to harness the latest neural science insight into how the brain works better—and consumes far less power—than the fastest digital supercomputers in the world. Using brain-inspired machine learning on TrueNorth cores, has enabled IBM to pass a major milestone in cognitive computing—with more to come as more-and-more is understood about how the real human brain works.

There’s more at the link, including a graphic illustration of how the Truenorth processor works.

This is both exciting and disturbing.  It’s exciting because such computing power can revolutionize the way scientists work, allowing them to simulate processes that would be extraordinarily dangerous in a physical experiment.  On the other hand, it can also make them lazy.  I’ve seen firsthand how scientists and development engineers can make assumptions on the basis of simulations, only to find out (sometimes the hard way) that the real world doesn’t conform to their simulation.  That can be deadly.  I hope and trust the LLNL scientists and IBM have taken that into account.

(I’m also not comforted by reports that IBM, as a company, is in serious difficulties.  One hopes the Truenorth processor and the team developing it won’t become casualties.)



  1. Even a thoroughly likable aware computer, Mike of "The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress," made possible a kinetic energy attack on the earth.

  2. TureNorth is, indeed, a step toward "Skynet Lite." Which is inevitable, depending on one's definition of 'Skynet Lite" (mine is NSA-style overview on steroids but feel free to pick your own).

    As for IBM, its best hope is purchase by someone who understands what IBM's value is and restructures business operations to support and enhance that value. IBM was built as a sales organization with what was considered a somewhat less important manufacturing back end added to provide goods for the sale force to sell. For several decades it constituted T.J. Watson's Masterpiece, and Watson Jr. did yeoman's work maintaining it when his father retired.

    Toward the end of Watson Jr.s tenure the world began changing and that change accelerated as technology developed and that tech was pushed downward into the lower levels of businesses. IBM was addicted to revenue from "big iron" – the profit from mainframes is absolutely incredible, especially when there's almost no competition in that market segment – and not only was the transition from mainframes to (much) cheaper broad-based technology barely managed at all, what little management attention it did garner was mismanagement because the corporate culture didn't' believe in it and consequently not only didn't support it but actively attacked it.

    The "great stuff" we've seen in recent years from IBM – chess master Deep Blue, Jeopardy winning "Watson," and now TrueNorth – is the result of IBM's Watson Research Center in Yorktown, N.Y., coupled with the Advanced Technology Center at the East Fishkill, N.Y. manufacturing facility and a couple of very small groups in Poughkeepsie, and maybe some input from the very bright minds at San Jose.

    That is the core value of today's IBM and it's going to take a visionary from well outside the company to preserve and develop it because no one inside the IBM cult understands it.

  3. Anyone who can write "Old businesses like mainframes and midrange systems are giving way to cloud, analytics, mobile, social, and security" with a straight face is a fool or a shill.

  4. Wow on the comments…

    Ibm thru layoffs and outsourcing to India has seeded a 100k presence in the tech industry that hates their guts.

    I would not buy ibm stock. Seems they are caught in a vicious cycle of stock buy backs and cutting costs.

    Another anon

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