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​US spy agency trying to develop computers that think like humans

Published time: June 30, 2014 15:59
AFP Photo / Mauricio Lima

AFP Photo / Mauricio Lima

A little-known US intelligence research agency hopes to revolutionize the machine mind by finding firms capable of writing computer algorithms nearly identical to those implemented by the human brain.

The Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), which operates under the Director of National Intelligence, will host a Proposers' Day conference for the Machine Intelligence from Cortical Networks (MICrONS) program on July 17, the agency said in a press release.

“The overall and specific goal of the MICrONS program is to create a new generation of machine learning algorithms derived from high-fidelity representations of cortical microcircuits to achieve human-like performance on complex information processing tasks,” IARPA says.

In layman’s terms, that means getting computers to operate and process information much like the human brain.
For many information processing tasks, the brain employs algorithms – a step-by-step procedure for making calculations.

The human brain uses a combination of algorithm "primitives", where neurons – electrically excitable cells that process and transmit information through electrical and chemical signals – communicate in a localized, three-dimensional pattern.

"Today's state-of-the-art algorithms for machine learning take a similar form, but deviate significantly in the details of implementation," it said.

"Presumably, a significant part of the performance gap separating artificial and biological computing today is due to these deviations."

As IARPA puts it, over the past century we’ve learned a lot about the brain’s microscale (one or a few neurons) or macroscale (hundreds of thousands or even millions of neurons) operations. The blind spot lies somewhere in the middle – the mesoscale cortical microcircuits (hundreds to tens of thousands of neurons) – that embody the cortical computing primitives.

IARPA says this is due to the limited number of tools that had previously been available “to interrogate the brain” at the proper resolution and scale.

“MICrONS seeks to use emerging technologies in high-resolution and high-throughput brain mapping, - such as serial electron microscopy and volumetric calcium imaging - to address this gap in our understanding of cortical computation and to exploit the findings to enhance machine intelligence,” the agency says.

Upon gaining high-fidelity representations of the brain’s mesoscale cortical microcircuits, the goal is to mimic them “to achieve human-like performance on complex information processing tasks.

The July 17 conference in College Park, Maryland, will offer prospective companies to present their organizations' capabilities and to explore teaming arrangements.