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TCE Guest Lecture: The Role of Computer Designers in Reverse-engineering the Brain
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James Smith (University of Wisconsin, Emeritus)
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Sunday, 30.6.2013, 14:30
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EE Meyer Building 815
A truly grand challenge for science in general, and for computer architects and designers in particular, is to understand the mammalian brain’s computing paradigm and then construct a computing device that embodies that paradigm. Although computer designers have a potential role to play in solving this grand challenge, it is up to us to define that role. From a computer designer’s perspective, I will illustrate the current understanding of the brain’s computational paradigm by describing several examples from experimental neuroscience. I will suggest an architecture hierarchy and discuss issues that arise when translating from the complex, asynchronous, electro-chemical device, which is the brain, to a synchronous digital device capable of performing computation in the same manner. This translation presents many difficult challenges that will require science-inspired insight and discovery, added to the challenges of engineering a very large, unconventional digital system. But, as difficult as they may be, these challenges provide almost unlimited opportunities for forward-looking, risk-taking computer architects and designers.

James E. Smith is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He received his PhD from the University of Illinois in 1976. He then joined the faculty of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, teaching and conducting research -- first in fault-tolerant computing, then in computer architecture. He retired from the University of Wisconsin in 2007. He has been involved in a number of computer research and development projects both as a faculty member at Wisconsin and in industry (Control Data Corporation, Astronautics Corporation, Cray Research, Google, and Intel). Prof. Smith made a number of significant contributions to the development of superscalar processors. These contributions include the basic mechanisms for dynamic branch prediction and implementing precise traps. He has also studied vector processor architectures and worked on the development of a number of microarchitecture paradigms: decoupled processors, clustered processors, and trace processors. He received the 1999 ACM/IEEE Eckert-Mauchly Award for these contributions.

More recently, Prof. Smith has focused on the virtual machine abstraction as a technique for providing high performance and power efficiency through co-design and tight coupling of virtual machine hardware and software. He is co-author, with Ravi Nair, of a book on Virtual Machines. Currently, he works at home along the Clark Fork near Missoula, Montana.
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