21 March 2014San Francisco startup Vicarious aims to create ‘a computer that thinks like a person except it doesn’t need to eat or sleep’
|Vicarious is developing ‘machine learning software based on the
computational principles of the human brain’. Photograph: Sebastian
Kaulitzki / Alamy/Alamy
Some of Silicon Valley’s biggest names are backing a hitherto low-profile tech startup that aims to recreate the human neocortex as computer code.Vicarious, a four-year-old San Francisco-based startup, claims to be “building software that thinks and learns like a human”. According to the Wall Street Journal Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Tesla’s Elon Musk have just invested $40m in the company.
They join Peter Thiel, a PayPal billionaire, whose Founders Fund targets cutting edge technology. Ashton Kutcher, actor and tech investor, is also investing, as is Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz.
The neocortex is the outer layer of the cerebral hemispheres and in humans is crucial to the use of the senses as well as activities such as language, motor commands and spatial reasoning.
According to the company’s website, Vicarious is developing “machine learning software based on the computational principles of the human brain. Our first technology is a visual perception system that interprets the contents of photographs and videos in a manner similar to humans. Powering this technology is a new computational paradigm we call the Recursive Cortical Network.”
The company has already managed to create software that will solve Captcha, the online tests used by many websites to supposedly identify humans from computers. Company founder Scott Phoenix told the WSJ that if they are successful, Vicarious will have created “a computer that thinks like a person except it doesn’t need to eat or sleep“.
Phoenix said his aim was to create a computer that can understand not just shapes and objects but the textures associated with them. He said he hopes Vicarious’s computers will learn to how to cure diseases and create cheap, renewable energy, as well as performing the jobs that employ most human beings. “We tell investors that right now, human beings are doing a lot of things that computers should be able to do,” he said.
The investment comes amid a boom in funding for artificial intelligence ventures, In January IBM announced it was investing more than $1bn to create the Watson Group, a 2,000-employee division dedicated to developing its self-learning super-computer. The money includes $100m to fund startups that find creative uses for Watson.
Earlier this week IBM announced a partnership with the New York Genome Center that will attempt to use Watson to identify the genetic components of brain cancer.