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Researchers create the world’s largest working brain model

Researchers at the University of Waterloo have created the world’s largest working brain model, according to a university report. Waterloo professor Chris Eliasmith, the Canada Research Chair in Theoretical Neuroscience, and his team have published their research in the journal Science.

Researchers say that their brain model, called Spaun, is able to see, remember, think and write using a mechanical arm. Currently, Spaun and its environment are housed in a computer. While Spaun lives in a simulated world with simulated physics, the brain model still uses the same processes that your brain uses to pick up a glass of orange juice.

“It has been interesting to see the reactions people have had to Spaun. Even seasoned academics have not seen brain models that actually perform so many tasks. Models are typically small, and focus on one function,” said Mr. Eliasmith in a statement.

Most large-scale brain models mimic neurons. While Spaun also mimics neurons, it is designed so that those neurons actually think about patterns it encounters. You can watch a video of Spaun in action here.

Mr. Eliasmith and his team utilized methods from engineering, computer science, biology, philosophy, psychology and statistics to develop specific brain systems that were crucial for the construction of Spaun.

“The reason that the Spaun model is so compelling, is that it brings all of this work together,” Mr. Eliasmith said. “Human cognition isn’t interesting because we can recognize visual patterns […] move our arms in an integrated way […] solve a particular task or puzzle. It’s interesting because we can do all of this with the same brain, in any order, and at any time.”

Although Spaun lives in a simulated world with simulated physics, it has the ability to help scientists living in the real world.

Spaun, for example, can simulate how the brain deals with problems such as stroke or Alzheimer’s disease to give researchers a better understanding of ourselves.

“There are not only deep philosophical questions you can approach using this work — such as how the mind represents the world – but there are also very practical questions you can address about the diseased brain,” Mr. Eliasmith noted. “I believe that critical innovations are going to come from basic research like this. I can’t predict what specific industry or company is going to use this work or how — but I can list a lot that might.”

Mr. Eliasmith and his team contend that Spaun is still “miles away” from being as intricate or sophisticated as a human brain.