Microchips modeled on the brain may excel at tasks that baffle today’s computers.
Picture a person reading these words on a laptop in a coffee shop. The machine made of metal, plastic, and silicon consumes about 50 watts of power as it translates bits of information—a long string of 1s and 0s—into a pattern of dots on a screen. Meanwhile, inside that person’s skull, a gooey clump of proteins, salt, and water uses a fraction of that power not only to recognize those patterns as letters, words, and sentences but to recognize the song playing on the radio.
Computers are incredibly inefficient at lots of tasks that are easy for even the simplest brains, such as recognizing images and navigating in unfamiliar spaces. Machines found in research labs or vast data centers can perform such tasks, but they are huge and energy-hungry, and they need specialized programming. Google recently made headlines with software that can reliably recognize cats and human faces in video clips, but this achievement required no fewer than 16,000 powerful processors.