Dec 11 2012

With Spaun, Technology Moves One Step Closer to Real Artificial Intelligence

A research team in Canada has created a functional, virtual brain.

If you thought Siri was smart, wait until you get a load of Spaun.

Created by neuroscientist Chris Eliasmith at the University of Waterloo in Canada, Spaun is "the world's largest simulation of a functioning brain,” according to a report from Canada.com.

Spaun is able to recognize numbers and memorize lists and patterns and reproduce them on command. This makes Spaun unique among its virtual peers, since other large-scale models of the brain “don’t do anything,” Eliasmith said.

The intricate details of the invention reveal the underlying complexity of this scientific breakthrough:

Spaun, which stands for Semantic Pointer Architecture Unified Network, has 2.5 million simulated neurons organized into subsystems to resemble the prefrontal cortex, basil ganglia, thalamus and other cognitive machinery in the brain. It also has a simulated eye that can see, and an arm that draws.

The simplified model of the brain, which took a year to build, captures many aspects of neuroanatomy, neurophysiology and psychological behaviour, says Eliasmith, director of Waterloo's Centre for Theoretical Neuroscience.

He says Spaun simulates the biological function of real neurons, including the voltages generated in the cells, and the signals zipping around the brain.

"It's all in a machine, but we're actually simulating all those voltages and currents down to the level of things you can measure in real cells," says Eliasmith, noting there are no connections in Spaun that aren't seen in the brain.

Your move, Watson.

Giving machines the ability to mimic human brain activity is critical to advancing artificial intelligence. Although we’re impressed by what Siri and other virtual assistants are able to do, none of them comes close to recreating the complex thought and nervous systems that power our brains. Spaun’s breakthrough truly puts the “learning” in machine learning, and with a real cyberbrain, Rosie the Robot could become a reality.

"A robot that is able to navigate through a city and deliver a package from one place to another," Eliasmith said in his interview with Canada.com. "I think that kind of thing will be within reach in the next 10 years."

So, pretty soon we’ll have self-driving cars and robots who can think and act for themselves. Who says science fiction is out of touch with reality?

Watch this video of Spaun at work below.

University of Waterloo