With Brain Corp., Qualcomm Started Computing Like a Neuron Years Ago

When President Obama stepped before the media yesterday to unveil a $100 million initiative to revolutionize our understanding of the human mind, Qualcomm CTO Matt Grob was among the experts who gathered to watch in the East Room of the White House.

The president said he had invited some of the smartest people in the country to join a nationwide effort to make neuroscience the next “grand challenge,” akin to the Human Genome Project. He laid out a plan that calls on a group of elite scientists to set R&D priorities for funding neuroscience research, and for the creation of “public-private partnerships” to advance brain research at “companies, foundations, and private research institutions.”

Much of the attention focused on basic research into diseases like Alzheimer’s at such places as San Diego’s Salk Institute and Seattle’s Allen Institute for Brain Science. But the president also hinted of possible breakthroughs in computer science.

“Imagine if someone with a prosthetic limb can now play the piano or throw a baseball as well as anybody else, because the wiring from the brain to that prosthetic is direct and triggered by what’s already happening in the patient’s mind,” he said. “What if computers could respond to our thoughts or our language barriers could come tumbling down. Or if millions of Americans were suddenly finding new jobs in these fields—jobs we haven’t even dreamt up yet—because we chose to invest in this project.”

And this, in a nutshell, explains why the chief technology officer of the San Diego wireless technology giant was invited to attend the rollout of the administration’s new BRAIN Initiative (Basic Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies).

For the past four years or longer, Qualcomm has been quietly working at the frontiers of neuroscience—in areas that might seem more like science fiction. Much of this work has been taking place at “Brain Corp.,” an independent venture that Qualcomm has kept mostly under wraps.

Qualcomm didn’t say much about Brain Corp. before yesterday; the company declined my request for an interview with Brain Corp. earlier this year. And if you search for “Brain Corp” on the Qualcomm website, you won’t get any results.

Yet the Brain Corp. website is easy enough to find.

Founded in 2009, Brain Corp. set out to develop radically different computer systems and software, based on algorithms that emulate the “spiking neuron” processes of the human brain. An underlying premise of the research is that biological systems are extremely efficient at processing electrical signals. Thus it would be a huge advantage if the world’s biggest wireless chipmaker could make specialized silicon chips that operate like the brain—and require significantly less power. The immediate goal, though, is to build … Next Page »

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Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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