Documenting the Coming Singularity

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Experience is the best teacher - Cognitive computing: Building a machine that can learn from experience - December 17, 2008
Illustration by: D. Modha, IBM

Suppose you want to build a computer that operates like the brain of a mammal. How hard could it be? After all, there are supercomputers that can decode the human genome, play chess and calculate prime numbers out to 13 million digits.

But University of Wisconsin-Madison research psychiatrist Giulio Tononi, who was recently selected to take part in the creation of a "cognitive computer," says the goal of building a computer as quick and flexible as a small mammalian brain is more daunting than it sounds.

Tononi, professor of psychiatry at the UW-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health and an internationally known expert on consciousness, is part of a team of collaborators from top institutions who have been awarded a $4.9 million grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) for the first phase of DARPA's Systems of Neuromorphic Adaptive Plastic Scalable Electronics (SyNAPSE) project.

Tononi and scientists from Columbia University and IBM will work on the "software" for the thinking computer, while nanotechnology and supercomputing experts from Cornell, Stanford and the University of California-Merced will create the "hardware." Dharmendra Modha of IBM is the principal investigator.

The idea is to create a computer capable of sorting through multiple streams of changing data, to look for patterns and make logical decisions.

There's another requirement: The finished cognitive computer should be as small as a the brain of a small mammal and use as little power as a 100-watt light bulb. It's a major challenge. But it's what our brains do every day.

"Our brains can do it, so we have proof that it is possible," says Tononi. "What our brains are good at is being flexible, learning from experience and adapting to different situations."

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