No robot left behind?

SPECIAL REPORT | DARPA throws down the challenge on cognitive computing

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's research in the field of cognitive computing could progress to the point of a Grand Challenge that would pit alternate methods of building brainlike systems against one another.

The agency's Biologically-Inspired Cognitive Architecture program is pushing artificial intelligence in the direction of building software that mimics human brain functions.

BICA relies on recent advances in cognitive psychology and the science of the human brain's biological structure to build software that comes much closer to human abilities than previous AI. The research agency's Information Processing Technology Office is leading the BICA research process by funding research teams based mainly at universities.

AI traces its roots back to designs such as expert systems and neural networks, familiar since the 1980s, which held out the promise of transforming information technology by adopting human learning and thinking methods. Those classic AI approaches proved to be useful in some commercial and government systems but were less effective than conventional IT architectures for most uses.

BICA's leaders note that AI progress has been slow and steady in recent decades. 'However, we have fallen short of creating systems with genuine artificial intelligence ' ones that can learn from experience and adapt to changing conditions in the way that humans can,' according to DARPA. 'We are able to engineer specialized software solutions for almost any well-defined problem, but our systems still lack the general, flexible learning abilities of human cognition.'

The BICA program has completed its first phase, which commissioned eight research teams to combine recent findings in brain biology and psychology to help build blueprints for functioning computers that could learn and understand like people.
In the second phase of the five-year BICA program, which is now under way, the military research agency is seeking proposals for vendor teams to develop and test models of human cognition, or thinking, based on the architectures built in the program's first year.

DARPA has not yet announced plans for a grand challenge competition to pit the resulting AI-like systems against one another. But vendor documents submitted in response to BICA's first phase refer to an anticipated challenge stage of the program.

The University of Maryland at College Park provided one of the computer architectures for the first phase of the BICA program, basing some of its research on methods of designing a mobile system that could learn the various skills DARPA seeks in a cognitive system. 'We are ultimately interested in [designing] an agent that captures many of the abilities of a child, and thus do not focus on a large initial knowledge base,' the University of Maryland computer scientists wrote.

'We keep the environment and input/ output to the system relatively simple so that we can focus on the primary issue of integrating those components and not the important but low-level details that will eventually need to be addressed,' according to their blueprint.

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