Next Gen Mini-PS3 Cell Chips -Next Medicine Imaging Revolution?


“ Though sold as a game console, what will in fact enter the home is a Cell-based computer. ” – Ken Kutaragi

“Cell-based computers will revolutionize medical imaging” – Docinthemachine

The IBM Cell graphics processor at the heart of the PS3 is a remarkable chip.  Cell is shorthand for Cell Broadband Engine Architecture.  It has been described as “seemingly obscene computing capabilities for what will rapidly become a very low price.” 

A newer miniaturized lower power version has just been announced by ars technica that I predict will make it to medical video and VR processing.  I recently led a session on the use of VR in medicine where Andy Van Dam (VR pioneer , professor of computer science at Brown, and founder of Siggraph) and I spoke about the future of VR processing.  He predicted that the video grame industry hardware innovations will make the most dramatic strides and that this technology will then trickle down to VR due to its sheer massive computational power- beyond that of the old CAVEs of DARPA.

You may be unaware that this represent a new form of computer processing: 

The Cell concept was originally thought up by Sony Computer Entertainment inc. of Japan, for the PlayStation 3.  The genesis of the idea was in 1999 when Sony’s Ken Kutaragi  “Father of the PlayStation” was thinking about a computer which acted like Cells in a biological system.  A patent was applied for listing Masakazu Suzuoki and Takeshi Yamazaki as the inventors in 2002

The architecture as it exists today was the work of three companies: Sony, Toshiba and IBM.  Sony and Toshiba previously co-operated on the PlayStation 2 but this time the plan was more ambitious and went beyond chips for video games consoles.  The aim was to build a new general purpose processor for a computer.

In lay terms here is the muscle behind the processor:   

The setup of the Cell processor is like having a team of processors all working together on one chip to handle the large computational workload needed to run next-generation video games. In order to understand how the Cell processor works, it helps to look at each of the major parts that comprise this processor.

The “Processing Element” of the Cell is a 3.2-GHz PowerPC core equipped with 512 KB of L2 cache. The PowerPC core is a type of microprocessor similar to the one you would find running the Apple G5. It’s a powerful processor on its own and could easily run a computer by itself; but in the Cell, the PowerPC core is not the sole processor. Instead, it’s more of a “managing processor.” It delegates processing to the eight other processors on the chip, the Synergistic Processing Elements.

The computational workload comes in through the PowerPC core. The core then assesses the work that needs to be done, looks at what the SPEs are currently processing and decides how.

Watch out for our robot PS3 overloards.  This Chip has the potential to expand itself and distribute workloads over networks.  Don’t worry this is not some Singularity scenario where the chips start to think on their own.  Here is a review of the potnetial of the chip:

Chip giants such as Intel have already started working on dual-core chips, but Cell goes several steps further by giving processing units a measure of independence. Current multicore chips typically chop a single computing task into parts, which are distributed among processing units. Cell’s processing units–called “software cells”–can handle completely separate jobs.

“The software cells are designed to be kind of self-contained–they can kind of roam around,” Halfhill said.

Cells can even roam over a network, allowing the processor to perform a type of distributed or grid computing, an increasingly popular enterprise technique in which demanding tasks are divvied up among a gang of networked computers. A PlayStation 3 could borrow unused processing power from other consoles on a network, for example, to complete a demanding task such as delivering streaming video.

“The Cell architecture is designed to make grid computing almost universal,” Halfhill said. “It makes distributed processing part of the design. If you have several of these machines on a network, the work can be spread across a network.”

The cell design can allow cooperation between video devices:  “This architecture is not fixed, if you have a computer, PS3 and HDTV which have Cell processors they can co-operate on problems.  They’ve been talking about this sort of thing for years of course but the Cell is actually designed to do it.  According to IBM the Cell performs 10x faster than existing CPUs on many applications.  This may sound ludicrous but GPUs (Graphical Processors Units) already deliver similar or even higher sustained performance in many non-graphical applications.”

Medical uses:  We are at the cusp of a revolution due to the integration of computer video processing and surgical and radiological imaging.  Details of this concept of mine are here and a podcast here.  As we move ahead with virtual imaging and newer forms of optical processing it is the computational power of these kinds of chips that will be enabling.

Disclosure:  As I previously wrote, I was chosen to be a Sony Medical HD Luminary Site.  I receive no financial payment for this relationship which is only with Sony’s Medical division and is part of my medical research work on surgical tools and imaging.  Heck- I had to buy my PS3 at Best Buy just like anybody else. 

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