A San Francisco-based startup named Vicarious is well on its way toward creating software that thinks and acts like a human brain.
On Monday, the company announced a major breakthrough. Its software can now solve "CAPTCHA" problems, those little questions that websites use to make sure you are a human.
A CAPTCHA looks like this:
A captcha is difficult for most computers to solve because it distorts letters and numbers in unusual ways, says Vicarious co-founder Scott Phoenix. Humans use their powers of perception to see a "m and o" with a line through it and still read the word "morning."
"We picked CAPTCHA to solve because it was explicitly designed to be impossible for computers to solve. If you're trying to build artificial intelligence, CAPTCHA a great test,"Phoenix says.
Vicarious isn't planning on releasing CAPTCHA-breaking software as a product, he says. So website operators don't need to worry about it wreaking havoc on the Internet. (CAPTCHA prevents Internet "bots" from doing things like signing up for thousands of accounts at a time or posting spam comments.)
The founders of Vicarious have a much bigger goal than that. They are trying to build a computer that replicates the part of the brain called the neocortex, which commands higher functions such as sensory perception, spatial reasoning, conscious thought, and language.
In other words, they are trying to create human intelligence.
Eventually, they hope that their software will compete with IBM's supercomputer Watson, which is used for things like diagnosing cancer, with one big exception:
"Our software runs on laptops and a small set of servers we have," co-founder Dileep George said, "It doesn't need a huge set of data to train it." That's also like the human brain, he said.
IBM's Watson runs on a supercomputer, and doctors use it over the cloud.
The Vicarious team won't have a product ready for another five years, they say, and aren't worried about a commercial product at this stage. They are focused on the technology.
There's good reason to believe they'll succeed. The team is friends with some of the biggest names in the artificial intelligence industry, like Ray Kurzweil. They are well funded, too. The company, founded in 2010, landed $20 million in venture investment in 2012, led by Peter Thiel's Founder Fund. Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskowitz also invested.
Here's a video that shows the software in action breaking CAPTCHAs.
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