Naomi Eterman of McGill Daily recently discussed a technology developed in 2012 by scientists at the University of Waterloo: “Spaun, short for Semantic Pointer Architecture Unified Network, is the largest computer simulation of a functioning brain to date. It is the brainchild of Chris Eliasmith, a professor in philosophy and systems design engineering at the University of Waterloo, who developed the system as a proof-of-principle supplement to his recent book: How to Build a Brain. The model is composed of 2.5 million simulated neurons and four different neurotransmitters that allow it to ‘think’ using the same kind of neural connections as the mammalian brain. Instead of code, Spaun receives visual inputs in the form of numbers and symbols, which it responds to by performing simple tasks with a simulated robotic arm. Tasks are similar to basic IQ test questions, which include pattern recognition and retracing visual input from memory.”


Eterman continues, “Models like Spaun are unique from other forms of artificial intelligence (AI) because they are committed to solving problems in the same way as humans. Cognitive computer systems are at the other end of the spectrum and are capable of ‘machine learning,’ which allows them to analyze and recall patterns and trends from a large amount of data. These systems are undoubtedly clever, but their problem-solving strategies are incomparable to humans’. For instance, IBM’s research team started developing a new cognitive computer in 2006, a namesake of IBM’s former CEO, Thomas J. Watson, which became the first of its kind to replicate the language and analytical ability of humans. Watson made headlines around the world after it beat long-time Jeopardy champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter on the popular gameshow in 2011.”


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Image: Courtesy University of Waterloo