University of Waterloo’s recent triumph of neuroscience and engineering, Spaun (Semantic Pointer Architecture Unified Network), is the most complex simulated brain yet, consisting of 2.5 million “neurons”. For reference, a non-simulated, non-artificial human brain has one hundred billion neurons, with an average 7,000 synaptic connections to other neurons (100 to 500 trillion synapses in a healthy adult, or 1 quadrillion synapses in a growing toddler).
But by using a small handful of very basic tasks (such as pattern recognition) Spaun can flexibly respond to ‘visual’ input and recreate a sequence of numbers to pass a rudimentary IQ test. And the research team want to allow Spaun some autonomy through “adaptive plasticity”, to learn and rewire its own neurons without pre-programming.
The New York Times, meanwhile, delves into this idea of ‘deep learning‘, a field of machine learning where “higher-level concepts are derived from lower-level ones, and the same lower-level concepts can help to define many higher-level concepts,” and work out how many levels of hierarchy best fit the data. Demonstrations around the world are showing the scientific strides in speech, facial and pattern recognition, chemistry, and perhaps even better self-correction, that come from allowing a computer to “brain train.”
But it would be wise to be patient, skeptical, or cautious. The Robot War for the Future notwithstanding, it seems every decade or so that the Singularity is Near, and we should get excited or hunker down for full machine consciousness. Unfortunately, pioneering technology is perpetually just around the corner, and besides, we don’t fully understand our own brains. It was just this year that scientists finished a comprehensive map of the brain. We’re still limited in our understanding of animal intelligence, collective intelligence, what IQ tests are testing for, learning, the origins of our own peculiar brain evolution, what genes code for intelligence, and of course the easy answers to the nature of consciousness itself. New discoveries, interest, and funding, however, are turning out to be very enlightening.