Japanese researchers announced recently that they turned human embryonic stem cells into a three-dimensional structure similar to the cerebellum, the part of the brain responsible for motor movements and receiving information from our senses.
Even though the structure didn't last very long, it's another small step in building an "artificial brain," a challenge that has teams of scientists across the globe working to construct living tissue, silicon circuits and computer algorithms together into something that can perform the same tasks as our own living gray matter.
Some projects are massive. The European Union's decade-long $1.2 billion "Human Brain Project" includes 183 principal investigators from 24 countries whose stated goal is to simulate and map the human brain, develop brain-inspired computer technologies and explore human brain diseases. But last year, the HPB got mired in a dispute between neuroscientists and computer scientists about whether more of the work should be done on powerful supercomputers rather than medical labs. Now, the entire project is undergoing an external review.
Some brain projects are smaller and less ambitious. In La Jolla, Calif., a small startup company is building computer software that would allow you to "train" a robot to perform certain tasks. This artificial brain more closely resembles the cognitive capabilities of a small mammal than a modern human, according to Eugene Izhikevich, a cognitive neuroscientist and the founder and CEO of Brain Corporation.
"If we can build a brain for robots and steal as much as we can from biology," Izhikevich said. "You can train your robot by showing examples of desired behaviors." The Brain Corporation has already gotten a small dog-like robot to obey simple hand gestures (see the video here).
Izhikevich says he's providing the software to trainers so that others can make their robots do similar sorts of tasks. He foresees these simple robots taking over mundane chores like emptying the dishwasher, folding clothes, or picking strawberries, rather than replacing humans at the workplace."It's like training a dog," he said. "It requires certain skill, but you don't need a PhD in robotics. You can spend a day, a week or a month."
Izhikevich says the software "brains" used by these robots allow the device to only do what it's been trained to do, relying on training rather than complex decision-making. "It ends up as a fully autonomous system," he said. "It only does what you show it to do, it doesn't do more.Some roboticists are trying to develop more complex software so that their robots can talk, sort objects or play music. Others are trying to predict what humans want.
Still, these research robots still face obstacles, especially with things that our brains do well, such as recognizing human speech or facial cues. At IBM, a team is developing a computer chip called "True North" that mimics the way brains recognize patterns, relying on densely interconnected webs of transistors similar to the brain's neural networks. This project was announced last November in the journal Science and uses very little energy.