In order to build better computers, engineers will need to better understand how the brain works. In turn, this will allow us to build better, smarter computers that have some (or all) of the characteristics found in the human brain.
These visionaries describe themselves as neuromorphic engineers. Their goal, according to Karlheinz Meier, a physicist at the University of Heidelberg who is one of their leaders, is to design a computer that has some -- and preferably all -- of three characteristics that brains have and computers do not. These are: low power consumption (human brains use about 20 watts, whereas the supercomputers currently used to try to simulate them need megawatts); fault tolerance (losing just one transistor can wreck a microprocessor, but brains lose neurons all the time); and a lack of need to be programmed (brains learn and change spontaneously as they interact with the world, instead of following the fixed paths and branches of a predetermined algorithm).
To achieve these goals, however, neuromorphic engineers will have to make the computer-brain analogy real. And since no one knows how brains actually work, they may have to solve that problem for themselves, as well. This means filling in the gaps in neuroscientists' understanding of the organ. In particular, it means building artificial brain cells and connecting them up in various ways, to try to mimic what happens naturally in the brain.
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