Making Computers Based on the Human Brain
How the biology of gray matter is having an increasing influence on computer design

By Steve Hamm


December 1, 2008

Nigel Buchanan
When Lloyd Watts was growing up in Kingston, Ont., in the 1970s he had
a knack for listening to songs by Billy Joel and Elton John and
plunking out the melodies on the family piano. But he wondered,
wouldn’t it be great to have a machine that could “listen” to songs and
immediately transcribe them into musical notation? Watts never built
the gizmo, but his decades-long quest to engineer such a machine has
finally resulted in one of the first commercial technologies based on
the biology of the brain.
Microchips designed by Audience, the Silicon Valley company Watts
launched, are now being used by mobile handset makers in Asia to
improve dramatically the quality of conversations in noisy places. Even
a truck passing right by someone using the technology won’t be heard at
the other end of the phone line. The chip is modeled on functions of
the inner ear and part of the cerebral cortex. “We have
reverse-engineered this piece of the brain,” declares Watts.

The 47-year-old neuroscientist is on the leading edge of what some
believe will be a fundamental shift in the way certain types of
computers are designed. Today’s computers are essentially really fast
abacuses. They’re good at math but can’t process complex streams of
information in real time, as humans do. Now, thanks to advances in our
understanding of biology, scientists believe they can model a new
generation of computers on how the brain actually works—the microscopic
chemical interactions and electrical impulses that translate sensations
into knowledge and knowledge into decisions and actions. It’s a
successor to the old ideas about artificial intelligence, and a handful
of companies have initiatives under way, among them IBM (IBM) and
Numenta, a Silicon Valley startup.

Scientists caution that the changes won’t come quickly. “The nervous
system is very sophisticated, but I applaud what they’re doing.
Eventually we’ll figure it out,” says Carver Mead, a microelectronics
pioneer and professor emeritus at the California Institute of

In one of the most ambitious efforts along this track, IBM was
scheduled to announce on Nov. 20 a $4.9 million grant from the
Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency for research into
creating intelligent computers. The money funds the first phase of a
multiyear effort to engineer computing systems that simulate the
brain’s activities while rivaling its compact size.

The government says it will use the results to design battlefield
monitoring systems that detect threats and warn troops. Dharmendra
Modha, manager of cognitive computing at IBM Almaden Research Center in
San Jose, foresees a wide variety of applications, from security
monitoring to detecting worrisome climate changes or predicting
disastrous storms. “We’re creating a planet that is covered with
sensors,” he says. “We need a global brain-like device to aggregate,
integrate, and make sense of all this data—and respond if appropriate.”

The mind behind Numenta, Jeff Hawkins, has a long record of inventions,
including the first successful handheld computer, the PalmPilot, and
the first successful smartphone, the Handspring Treo. But for more than
two decades his real passion has been figuring out how the cerebral
cortex works and applying that knowledge to computers. Hawkins hopes to
produce a software toolkit for product developers next year that will
allow them to mimic the way humans process visual imagery. Uses could
include medical imaging, security monitoring, and Web search. “We’re
laying the foundation for a second wave of computing,” says Hawkins.

Hamm is a senior writer for BusinessWeek in New York and author of the Globespotting blog.

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