Content provided by Francie Diep, TechNewsDaily

Spaun’s mistakes, not its abilities, are what surprised its makers the most. Credit: Seamartini Graphics, Shutterstock

Spaun, a new software model of a human brain, is able to play simple pattern games, draw what it sees and do a little mental arithmetic. It

powers everything it does with 2.5 million virtual neurons, compared

with a human brain’s 100 billion. But its mistakes, not its abilities,

are what surprised its makers the most, said Chris Eliasmith, an

engineer and neuroscientist at the University of Waterloo in Canada.

ANALYSIS: Computer Chip Works Like Artificial Brain

Ask Spaun a question, and it hesitates a moment before answering,

pausing for about as long as humans do. Give Spaun a list of numbers to

memorize, and it falters when the list gets too long. And Spaun is

better at remembering the numbers at the beginning and end of a list

than at recalling numbers in the middle, just like people are.

“There are some fairly subtle details of human behavior that the model

does capture,” said Eliasmith, who led the development of Spaun, or the

Semantic Pointer Architecture Unified Network. “It’s definitely not on

the same scale [as a human brain],” he told TechNewsdaily. “It gives a

flavor of a lot of different things brains can do.”

Eliasmith and his team of Waterloo neuroscientists say Spaun is the

first model of a biological brain that performs tasks and has behaviors.

Because it is able to do such a variety of things, Spaun could help

scientists understand how humans do the same, Eliasmith said. In

addition, other scientists could run simplified simulations of certain

brain disorders or psychiatric drugs using Spaun, he said.

A Brain with Thought and Action


Researchers have made several brain models that are more powerful than

Spaun. The Blue Brain model at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de

Lausanne in France has 1 million neurons. IBM’s SyNAPSE project has 1 billion neurons. Those models aren’t built to perform a variety of tasks, however, Eliasmith said.

Spaun is programmed to respond to eight types of requests, including

copying what it sees, recognizing numbers written with different

handwriting, answering questions about a series of numbers and finishing

a pattern after seeing examples. 

Spaun’s myriad skills could shed light on the flexible, variable human

brain, which is able to use the same equipment to control typing,

biking, driving, flying airplanes and countless other tasks, Eliasmith

said. That knowledge, in turn, could help scientists add flexibility to robots

or artificial intelligence, he said. Artificial intelligence now

usually specializes in doing only one thing, such as tagging photos or

playing chess. “It can’t figure out to switch between those things,” he


ANALYSIS: Teenager Builds Cancer-Detecting Artificial Brain

In addition, artificial intelligence isn’t built to mimic the cellular

structure of human brains as closely as Spaun and other brain models do.

Because Spaun runs more like a human brain, other researchers could use

it to run health experiments that would be unethical in human study

volunteers, Eliasmith said. He recently ran a test in which he killed

off the neurons in a brain model at the same rate that neurons die in

people as they age, to see how the dying off affected the model’s

performance on an intelligence test.

Such tests would have to be just first steps in a longer experiment,

Eliasmith said. The human brain is so much more complex than models that

there’s a limit to how much models are able to tell researchers. As

scientists continue to improve brain models, the models will become

better proxies for health studies, he said.

Next Up: a Brain in Real Time

There’s one major way Spaun differs from a human brain. It takes a lot

of computing power to perform its little tasks. Spaun runs on a

supercomputer at the University of Waterloo, and it takes the computer

two hours to run just one second of a Spaun simulation, Eliasmith said.

So Eliasmith’s next major step for improving Spaun is developing

hardware that lets the model work in real time. He’ll cooperate with

researchers at the University of Manchester in the U.K. and hopes to

have something ready in six months, he said.

In the far future, people may find Spaun’s humanlike flaws deliberately

built into robot assistants, Eliasmith said. “Those kinds of features

are important in a way because if we’re interacting with an agent and it

has a kind of memory that we’re familiar with, it’ll more natural to

interact with,” he added.

Eliasmith and his colleagues published their latest paper about Spaun today (Nov. 29) in the journal Science.

You can follow TechNewsDaily staff writer Francie Diep on Twitter @franciediep. Follow TechNewsDaily on Twitter @TechNewsDaily, or on Facebook.

  • Beyond the Mouse: 5 Ways We’ll Interface With Future Computers

  • Seven Modern-Day Technologies Sparking Controversy

  • 10 Profound Innovations Ahead

Copyright 2012 TechNewsDaily, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.