The Benefits of Building an Artificial Brain

Massive efforts to better understand the human brain will deliver on the original promise of computer science: machines that think like us

3 min read
Opening illustration
Illustration: Chad Hagen

opening illustration Illustration: Chad Hagen

In the mid-1940s, a few brilliant people drew up the basic blueprints of the computer age. They conceived a general-purpose machine based on a processing unit made up of specialized subunits and registers, which operated on stored instructions and data. Later inventions—transistors, integrated circuits, solid-state memory—would supercharge this concept into the greatest tool ever created by humankind.

So here we are, with machines that can churn through tens of quadrillions of operations per second. We have voice-recognition-enabled assistants in our phones and homes. Computers routinely thrash us in our ancient games. And yet we still don’t have what we want: machines that can communicate easily with us, understand and anticipate our needs deeply and unerringly, and reliably navigate our world.

Now, as Moore’s Law seems to be starting some sort of long goodbye, a couple of themes are dominating discussions of computing’s future. One centers on quantum computers and stupendous feats of decryption, genome analysis, and drug development. The other, more interesting vision is of machines that have something like human cognition. They will be our intellectual partners in solving some of the great medical, technical, and scientific problems confronting humanity. And their thinking may share some of the fantastic and maddening beauty, unpredictability, irrationality, intuition, obsessiveness, and creative ferment of our own.

In this issue, we consider the advent of neuromorphic computing and its prospects for ushering in a new age of truly intelligent machines. It is already a sprawling enterprise, being propelled in part by massive research initiatives in the United States and Europe aimed at plumbing the workings of the human brain. Parallel engineering efforts are now applying some of that knowledge to the creation of software and specialized hardware that “learn”—that is, get more adept—by repeated exposure to computational challenges.

Brute speed and clever algorithms have already produced machines capable of equaling or besting us at activities we’ve long thought of as deeply human: not just poker and Go but also stock picking, language translation, facial recognition, drug discovery and design, and the diagnosis of several specific diseases. Pretty soon, speech recognition, driving, and flying will be on that list, too.

The emergence of special-purpose hardware, such as IBM’s TrueNorth chips and the University of Manchester’s SpiNNaker, will eventually make the list longer. And yet, our intuition (which for now remains uniquely ours) tells us that even then we’ll be no closer to machines that can, through learning, become capable of making their way in our world in an engaging and yet largely independent way.

To produce such a machine we will have to give it common sense. If you act erratically, for example, this machine will recall that you’re going through a divorce and subtly change the way it deals with you. If it’s trying to deliver a package and gets no answer at your door, but hears a small engine whining in your backyard, it will come around to see if there’s a person (or machine) back there willing to accept the package. Such a machine will be able to watch a motion picture, then decide how good it is and write an astute and insightful review of the movie.

But will this machine actually enjoy the movie? And, just as important, will we be able to know if it does? Here we come inevitably to the looming great challenge, and great puzzle, of this coming epoch: machine consciousness. Machines probably won’t need consciousness to outperform us in almost every measurable way. Nevertheless, deep down we will surely regard them with a kind of disdain if they don’t have it.

Trying to create consciousness may turn out to be the way we finally begin to understand this most deeply mysterious and precious of all human attributes. We don’t understand how conscious experience arises or its purpose in human beings—why we delight in the sight of a sunset, why we are stirred by the Eroica symphony, why we fall in love. And yet, consciousness is the most remarkable thing the universe has ever created. If we, too, manage to create it, it would be humankind’s supreme technological achievement, a kind of miracle that would fundamentally alter our relationship with our machines, our image of ourselves, and the future of our civilization.

The Conversation (0)

Video Friday: DARPA Subterranean Challenge Final

1 min read
DARPA

This week we have a special DARPA SubT edition of Video Friday, both because the SubT Final is happening this week and is amazing, and also because (if I'm being honest) the SubT Final is happening this week and is amazing and I've spent all week covering it mostly in a cave with zero access to Internet. Win-win, right? So today, videos to watch are DARPA's recaps of the preliminary competition days, plus (depending on when you're tuning in) a livestream of the prize round highlights, the awards ceremony, and the SubT Summit with roundtable discussions featuring both the Virtual and Systems track teams.

Keep Reading ↓ Show less

Making 3D-Printed Objects Feel

3D-printing technique lets objects sense forces applied onto them for new interactive applications

2 min read

Researchers from MIT have developed a method to integrate sensing capabilities into 3D printable structures comprised of repetitive cells, which enables designers to rapidly prototype interactive input devices.

MIT

Some varieties of 3D-printed objects can now “feel," using a new technique that builds sensors directly into their materials. This research could lead to novel interactive devices such as intelligent furniture, a new study finds.

The new technique 3D-prints objects made from metamaterials—substances made of grids of repeating cells. When force is applied to a flexible metamaterial, some of their cells may stretch or compress. Electrodes incorporated within these structures can detect the magnitude and direction of these changes in shape, as well as rotation and acceleration.

Keep Reading ↓ Show less

How to Write Exceptionally Clear Requirements: 21 Tips

Avoid bad requirements with these 21 tips

1 min read

Systems Engineers face a major dilemma: More than 50% of project defects are caused by poorly written requirements. It's important to identify problematic language early on, before it develops into late-stage rework, cost-overruns, and recalls. Learn how to identify risks, errors and ambiguities in requirements before they cripple your project.

Trending Stories

The most-read stories on IEEE Spectrum right now