Inside the minds of the thinking computers

How tomorrow's computers will be able to think for themselves

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What if your computer had a brain, one that worked like our very own grey matter?

It sounds like science fiction, but with incredible advancements in the fields of neuroscience, nanotechnology and supercomputing technology, the time is right for computer scientists to begin trying to create computers that are able to approach the brain's abilities.

So what would that mean for tomorrow's computers? It's a tantalising question that scientists working in the field of cognitive computing are striving to answer. And, if they're successful in their goal of ousting silicon from the PC and inserting a brain, we could witness a revolution in computing power and potential. Tomorrow's computers may be able to think rather than just follow programs.

All the data in the world

Thought would give computers the power to analyse huge amounts of data in the blink of an eye. Just think for a moment about the amount of data generated by the supermarket chain Tesco, for example. It has 3,956 stores worldwide and employs 440,000 people. So, just keeping track of its staff is likely to require a pretty impressive IT system. Now add in details about all the products it sells, like prices and individual stock levels. To put this in context, Tesco managed £37.9billion worth of sales in the UK alone in 2008. That means a lot of beans, bread and bacon are flowing in and out of its doors at any given moment.

Now, run your finger down a list of FTSE companies, and think about those businesses and how much data they're likely to create – banks embroiled in the torrid financial markets, water companies monitoring rainfall and consumption, bakers, miners, car dealers and all the rest. All of them are buying, selling and doing deals. Suddenly it becomes apparent that the world is spewing out data at a truly frightening rate. According to the analyst firm IDC, the amount of digital data is growing at a mind-boggling 60 per cent each year.

The problem is that data remains merely data until it is analysed. Only then does it become information. But with so much data being generated, even the greatest minds equipped with machines groaning with Intel Core i7 chips would struggle. However, IBM believes that we need just one computer to make sense of this data maelstrom. That machine will have a brain like ours, and be able to see previously invisible patterns, links and possibilities in this boiling sea of data.

The global brain project

The company believes that a cognitive computer acting as a global brain could quickly and accurately put together the disparate pieces of this complex puzzle and help people make good decisions rapidly. While this seems like the stuff of science fiction, it's not. It's real. A statement from IBM reads: "In an unprecedented undertaking, IBM Research and five leading universities are partnering to create computing systems that are expected to simulate and emulate the brain's abilities for sensation, perception, action, interaction and cognition while rivalling its low power consumption and compact size."

The main idea of cognitive computing is to engineer mind-like intelligent machines by reverse engineering the structure, dynamics, function and behaviour of the brain.

"The mind has an uncanny ability to integrate information from a variety of sensors, such as sight, hearing, touch and smell, and can create categories of time, space and interrelationships effortlessly," says Dharmendra Modha, the IBM scientist who is heading the initiative. "There are no computers that can even remotely approach the remarkable feats that the mind performs."

To help IBM and its collaborators along, the team has received $4.8million in funding from America's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

If the team is successful, they could bring about entirely new cognitive systems, computing architectures, programming paradigms and numerous practical applications. Not short on ambition, the team has set itself an end goal – ubiquitous deployment: "Computers imbued with a new intelligence that can integrate information from a variety of sensors and sources, deal with ambiguity, respond in a context-dependent way, learn over time and carry out pattern recognition to solve difficult problems based on perception, action and cognition in complex, real-world environments."

"Exploratory research is in the fabric of IBM's DNA," said Josephine Cheng, Vice President of IBM's Almaden Research Centre in San Jose. "We believe that our cognitive computing initiative will help shape the future of computing in a significant way, bringing to bear new technologies that we haven't even begun to imagine yet."