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article imageCanada neuroscientist develops a working, virtual Spaun brain

By Nancy Houser     Dec 1, 2012 in Science
Waterloo - Neuroscientist, Chris Eliasmith, feels there will soon be an explosion in artificial intelligence and "human-like" machines. As part of this future venture, he and his scientific team have built "the world's largest simulation of a functioning brain."
After contemplating how to build a brain, the University of Waterloo in Canada became home to Eliasmith's functioning, virtual brain.
Referred to as SPAUN, the new software model of a human brain is able to do some mental math, play some simple games, and draw what it sees. According to, the brain powers everything it does with 2.5 million virtual neurons, compared with a human brain's 100 billion.
What the researchers have found fascinating is the mistakes the brain makes, not its intellectual abilities, which appear to be similar to the human brain, according to Huffington Post.
"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."
Spaun is the first model of a biological brain that performs tasks and has behaviors, allowing scientists to look at human behaviors via Spaun. Meanwhile, other scientists will be able to run a series of simplified simulations of certain brain disorders or psychiatric drugs using Spaun.
Other large labs are working on large scale models of the human brain, including the multi-million-dollar Blue Brain Project but the larger brains cannot see, remember or control limbs, says Eliasmith, as his smaller model is able to do.
However, under Selected Science the Blue Brain Project is "drawing on ways the human brain processes visual information, the research team plans to build a visual detection and tracking system, models of human behaviors and simulators to generate possible future scenes."
With the team receiving a $2 million grant for the Blue Brain Project's first two years from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, Paul Cohen, the University of Arizona computer science department head, serving as the principal investigator, said "UA team is working to build a surveillance system that, in addition to capturing video, would be able to detect suspicious behavior."
In 2011, the U.S. Department of Defense spent over $350 million on neuroscience. In Tech News, scientists and researchers who receive military funding are said not to realize how dangerous their work is becoming, with rapid advances in the field over the past 10 years allowing neuroscience applications to be made for dual usage for both military and civilian unrest.
NOTE: "The main goal behind Spaun is not really to make an artificial intelligence, but rather´╗┐ to help us understand how the brain works. Much of the behavioural data (timing data, errors, etc) are direct consequences of the time constants of the neurotransmitters used in the model." See personal researcher comments under their video.
"Spaun is a biologically realistic model of cognition that is not only able to perform multiple (at least 10) cognitive, perceptual, and motor tasks, but also utilizes the same model parameters across all tasks. Spaun is able to perform tasks that encompass strictly visual tasks (e.g. recognition of handwritten digits), memory tasks (e.g. forward and backward recall of a list), simple cognitive tasks (e.g. counting), and complex fluid intelligence tasks (e.g. solving the Raven's Progressive Matrices)." Spaun researchers at HERE.
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