See Inside April/May 2006

Electric Thoughts?

The latest computer designs draw inspiration from human neural networks. But will machines ever really think?


How long does it take you to add 3,456,732 and 2,245,678? Ten seconds? Not bad--for a human. The average new PC can perform the calculation in 0.000000018 second. How about your memory? Can you remember a shopping list of 10 items? Maybe 20? Compare that with 125 million items for the PC.

On the other hand, computers are stumped by faces, which people recognize instantly. Machines lack the creativity for novel ideas and have no feelings and no fond memories of their youth. But recent technological advances are narrowing the gap between human brains and circuitry. At Stanford University, bioengineers are replicating the complicated parallel processing of neural networks on microchips. Another development--a robot named Darwin VII--has a camera and a set of metal jaws so that it can interact with its environment and learn, the way juvenile animals do. Researchers at the Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla, Calif., modeled Darwins brain on rat and ape brains.

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