FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Is Cognitive Computing Poised to be an "Overnight Success"?

Can a computer chip process information the same way they human brain does? If so, how far away are we from such "cognitive computing"? It all depends on who you ask.

Palm Computing co-founder Jeff Hawkins says, "We've been trying to do this for 50 to 60 years. Artificial intelligence, fuzzy logic, neural networks, the Fifth Generation project -- they've all had big moments in the sun. The reality is we've not had much success." But he's not as pessimistic as he sounds, as he has founded a company called Numenta to build a computer memory platform that mimics human thought processes.

Others, citing rapid advances in computing power and efficiency, believe we may be much closer to major breakthroughs. Says James Albus, a senior fellow and founder of the Intelligent Systems Division of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, "We are at a tipping point... analogous to where nuclear physics was in 1905. The technology is emerging to conduct definitive experiments. The neurosciences have developed a good idea of computation and representation of the brain." The most advanced supercomputers, Albus notes, are approaching the computational speed of the human brain.

The blog Responsible Nanotechnology cites recent talks by futurists Ray Kurzweil and Eliezer Yudkowsky illustrating how major technologies such as this can appear to be going nowhere for long periods (even though work is underway), followed by an explosion in innovation and productivity, taking most everybody by surprise. It's analogous to the groundbreaking actor or musician who becomes an "overnight success" after years of hard work, practice and dashed hopes.

What excites computer scientists about cognitive computing is that it's the process that allows people to perform abstract thinking, learn, recognize patterns, and navigate spaces. It's what makes us smart, as well as giving us our personality and creativity. Besides fulfilling the promise of genuine artificial intelligence, cognitive computing may also allow us to repair certain types of brain damage and degeneration with a "bionic brain."

RELATED: To foster the development of artificial intelligence, the European Commission's Future and Emerging Technologies initiative has created a "virtual community" that will allow software to generate avatars that could interact and learn. Aside from helping researchers learn more about how AI cooperates and manages conflict, the environment will also help sociologists model behaviors in crisis environments.

Sources: ZDNet Australia, Responsible Nanotechnology

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