Using massive amounts of data to recognize photos and speech, deep-learning computers are taking a big step towards true artificial intelligence.
Three years ago, researchers at the secretive Google X lab in Mountain View, California, extracted some 10 million still images from YouTube videos and fed them into Google Brain — a network of 1,000 computers programmed to soak up the world much as a human toddler does. After three days looking for recurring patterns, Google Brain decided, all on its own, that there were certain repeating categories it could identify: human faces, human bodies and … cats1.
Google Brain's discovery that the Internet is full of cat videos provoked a flurry of jokes from journalists. But it was also a landmark in the resurgence of deep learning: a three-decade-old technique in which massive amounts of data and processing power help computers to crack messy problems that humans solve almost intuitively, from recognizing faces to understanding language.
Deep learning itself is a revival of an even older idea for computing: neural networks. These systems, loosely inspired by the densely interconnected neurons of the brain, mimic human learning by changing the strength of simulated neural connections on the basis of experience. Google Brain, with about 1 million simulated neurons and 1 billion simulated connections, was ten times larger than any deep neural network before it. Project founder Andrew Ng, now director of the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at Stanford University in California, has gone on to make deep-learning systems ten times larger again.