NSF Advances Artificial Intelligence
September 10, 2013

NSF Brings Together Leading Brains To Explore Artificial Intelligence

Michael Harper for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

Scientists and robotics engineers have long looked to the human brain for inspiration when building out artificial intelligence. They’ve yet to build a machine that comes anywhere close to replicating the sophistication of the human brain, but they’ve made great strides.

Now the National Science Foundation (NSF) wants to push this field of study further by giving the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) $25 million to establish the Center for Brains, Minds and Machines. Members from Harvard and other Ivy League schools as well as industrial partners such as Google and Microsoft will be a part of this group effort to deliver smarter machines in the near future. By crossing over disciplinary lines, the NSF hopes not only to move technology forward, but to provide a facility to train the next generation of engineers and scientists.

"Understanding the brain is one of the grand scientific challenges at the intersection of the physical, life, behavioral and engineering sciences," said John Wingfield, assistant director of NSF's Biological Sciences Directorate in a press statement.

“Despite major research and technological advances achieved in recent decades, a comprehensive understanding of the brain - how thoughts, memories and intelligent behavior emerge from dynamic brain activity - remains unexplained."

The Center for Brains, Minds and Machines will be staffed by ten MIT faculty members and five from Harvard. They will also be joined by faculty members from Cornell, Rockefeller University, UCLA, Stanford and the Allen Institute. IBM, Boston Dynamics, Rethihnk Robotics and Willow Garage will also provide their expertise as industrial partners in this venture.

Each of the partners involved has already been working to build intelligent machines - machines which “think” in the same way the human mind has been doing for hundreds of thousands of years. Most notably, Google has been making headlines lately as they push forward with their driverless car program. Though Nissan has recently thrown down the gauntlet and hopes to beat them to the punch, Google plans to have the first commercially available autonomous vehicle on the road, capable of making the hundreds of snap decisions that human drivers normally make inside their natural brains.

IBM, in partnership with DARPA, recently announced they’ve developed a programming language to facilitate brain-inspired machines. With a new architecture and new hardware, IBM says they’ll be able to power devices which operate in a way we’ve never before seen.

Researchers from Stanford have been actively pursuing a computer which is built with genetic material, the same kind of stuff found floating around in essentially every human cell. In March they announced that they had developed transistors made completely out of bio material, and said they could one day soon put a computer in any living cell, further blurring the distinction between the brain and a machine.

Working to build a mechanical brain benefits more than future consumers and researchers, of course. After all, the scientists at the Center for Brains, Minds and Machines must first understand how the brain operates, something we’ve yet to fully comprehend.

"Investments such as this in collaborative, fundamental science projects will ultimately lead to discoveries that revolutionize our understanding of the brain,” explained Wingfield.

"Progress in this area holds enormous potential to improve our educational, economic, health and social institutions."