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

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software systems based on Brain Corp. technology for use in commercial applications—such as an artificial nervous system for unmanned aircraft.

Brain Corp. is based in first-floor offices at Qualcomm’s corporate headquarters on Morehouse Drive, and Qualcomm Ventures has provided funding through two investment rounds. The website also offers some fascinating glimpses of innovations at the cutting edge of computational neuroscience. For example:

—DARPA, the U.S. military’s Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, provided an undisclosed amount of funding to Brain Corp. in 2010 “to design an artificial nervous system for UAVs” (unmanned aerial vehicles).

—Brain Corp. has signed several multi-year agreements with Qualcomm to apply its “spiking neuron” technology in different ways. For example, a vision project is intended to recreate the stereoscopic vision system found in humans and other mammals in a large-scale computer model, including the part of the brain that actually processes images. And a motor control project is focused on developing new ways to control robots by using a computer model of the biological systems in the cerebellum and basal ganglia that control movement.

—Todd Hylton joined Brain Corp. as a top executive last year, after resigning from DARPA, where he spent nearly five years as a program manager. Hylton developed and managed funding for a variety of R&D programs focused on machine intelligence, including UAV systems, neuromorphic computation, computer architecture, and Systems of Neuromorphic Adaptive Plastic Scalable Electronics (SyNAPSE).

Brain Corp. was founded in 2009 by Eugene Izhikevich, a Russian computational neuroscientist who was previously a research fellow at The Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla.

Izhikevich developed a mathematical model that describes the “spiking” behavior of neural activity in the brain. Creating the algorithm allowed him to develop a computer-based simulation of the human brain—with roughly the same density of neurons and synapses. The computer model, which simulates 1 million neurons and almost 500 million synapses, spontaneously exhibited types of brain activity (such as alpha and gamma waves)—which was something it was not designed to do. (Izhikevich and a co-author, the renowned neuroscientist Gerald Edelman, published a scientific paper describing this “large-scale model of mammalian thalamocortical systems” in the March 4, 2008, issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.)

Of course, the work underway at Brain Corp. represents a small fraction of the BRAIN Initiative that President Obama announced yesterday.

Still, the White House initiative is intended to spur innovation in the neurosciences in the same way the 10-year effort to sequence the human genome developed new technologies and industries. According to a 2011 Battelle study, the Human Genome Project contributed more than $140 to the U.S. economy for every $1 invested by the federal government.

As the president said in his prepared remarks yesterday: “In the budget I will send to Congress next week, I will propose a significant investment by the National Institutes of Health, DARPA, and the National Science Foundation to help get this project off the ground. I’m directing my bioethics commission to make sure all of the research is being done in a responsible way. And we’re also partnering with the private sector, including leading companies and foundations and research institutions, to tap the nation’s brightest minds to help us reach our goal.”

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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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