Boffins discuss AI space program at hush-hush IARPA confab

IBM, MIT, plenty of others invited to fill Uncle Sam's spy toolchest, but where's Google?


The US government is taking artificial intelligence research seriously again, and so are some companies that will surprise you.

IARPA – an agency whose job is to develop and furnish the US spy community with advanced technology – has gathered companies and academics to discuss modern machine intelligence at a one-day conference in Washington D.C.

This conference, held on Thursday, will steer the future of research into Machine Intelligence from Cortical Networks (MICrONS). Experts were asked to propose MICrONS-related projects that aim to "create a new generation of machine learning algorithms derived from high-fidelity representations of cortical microcircuits to achieve human-like performance on complex information processing tasks."

Attending companies also discussed some of the challenges of today's machine intelligence approaches and some of the techniques needed to surmount difficult artificial intelligence challenges.

The goals of the MICrONS program are so ambitious the scheme has more in common with a space program or some of IARPA-counterpart DARPA's "grand challenges" rather than a traditional research project.

According to one document, the goals are to:

  • Propose an algorithmic framework for information processing that is consistent with existing neuroscience data, but that cannot be fully realized without additional specific knowledge about the data representations, computations, and network architectures employed by the brain;
  • Collect and analyze high-resolution data on the structure and function of cortical microcircuits believed to embody the cortical computing primitives underlying key components of the proposed framework;
  • Generate computational neural models of cortical microcircuits informed and constrained by this data and by the existing neuroscience literature to elucidate the nature of the cortical computing primitives; and
  • Implement novel machine learning algorithms that use mathematical abstractions of the identified cortical computing primitives as their basis of operation.

In plain English, the program hopes to figure out a bit more about how the brain works on a biological level, with a particular emphasis placed on stuff like how neurons interact and how large sets of them are tied together via a brain superstructure commonly called "the connectome".

Participating researchers will also try to take what they learn from this research and implement it in software to create better algorithms for things like image analysis.

'No one is claiming we're going to solve how the brain works'

"Everybody there was battle-hardened in the field - you're not going to see any kind of wide-eyed bushy-tailed optimism, you have people who have been in this for a very long time," one attendee told The Register on condition of anonymity.

"No one at the conference is claiming we're going to solve how the brain works or image recognition as a class of problems".

One perplexing thing about the conference was the lack of much public participation from artificial intelligence hothouses Google, Facebook, and Microsoft. Instead the attendees were drawn from a mix of startups, universities, and IBM, which has a large-scale cognitive research effort.

Though the list of attendees isn't available, we were able to get hold of a list of the companies that gave presentations or informal chats at the conference.

These participants included companies such as: IBM, Qelzal Corp, Nvidia, Lambda Labs, Neuromorphic LLC, Numenta and Neurithmic Systems LLC.

And researchers from the following institutions were scheduled to turn up: Harvard and the Harvard Medical Center, SRI International, the Georgia Tech Research Institute, Rice, Rochester Institute of Technology, Downstate Medical Center, Oxford, Yale, Johns Hopkins, Washington University, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Australia National University, Simons Foundation, University of Tennessee, University of California, George Mason University, Columbia, Arizona State University, University of Vienna, Baylor, Columbia, Princeton, UC Berkeley, UCLA, and MIT.

At the meeting, some of the things discussed were the types of challenges IARPA can evaluate companies on. One idea is for "some form of scene decomposition or scene clustering," a source told us. This involves picking out repeated objects in scenes and requires the AI system to be able to develop abstract representations of objects.

Another aspect is to develop a more theoretically rigorous understanding of what goes on in our brains when we think, and work out how to implement this digitally.

Some attendees we spoke to described the projects as doable but at the very limits of our understanding, whereas others were more skeptical of their practicalness. One thing is for certain – after years in the funding wilderness, the US government is again waking up to the possibilities of true general artificial intelligence – just don't mention the AI Winter.

"The intelligence community puts money into it, the government puts money into it," said one attendee. "The environment is pretty warm right now, it's a new spring." ®

Similar topics

Broader topics


Other stories you might like

  • Lonestar plans to put datacenters in the Moon's lava tubes
    How? Founder tells The Register 'Robots… lots of robots'

    Imagine a future where racks of computer servers hum quietly in darkness below the surface of the Moon.

    Here is where some of the most important data is stored, to be left untouched for as long as can be. The idea sounds like something from science-fiction, but one startup that recently emerged from stealth is trying to turn it into a reality. Lonestar Data Holdings has a unique mission unlike any other cloud provider: to build datacenters on the Moon backing up the world's data.

    "It's inconceivable to me that we are keeping our most precious assets, our knowledge and our data, on Earth, where we're setting off bombs and burning things," Christopher Stott, founder and CEO of Lonestar, told The Register. "We need to put our assets in place off our planet, where we can keep it safe."

    Continue reading
  • Conti: Russian-backed rulers of Costa Rican hacktocracy?
    Also, Chinese IT admin jailed for deleting database, and the NSA promises no more backdoors

    In brief The notorious Russian-aligned Conti ransomware gang has upped the ante in its attack against Costa Rica, threatening to overthrow the government if it doesn't pay a $20 million ransom. 

    Costa Rican president Rodrigo Chaves said that the country is effectively at war with the gang, who in April infiltrated the government's computer systems, gaining a foothold in 27 agencies at various government levels. The US State Department has offered a $15 million reward leading to the capture of Conti's leaders, who it said have made more than $150 million from 1,000+ victims.

    Conti claimed this week that it has insiders in the Costa Rican government, the AP reported, warning that "We are determined to overthrow the government by means of a cyber attack, we have already shown you all the strength and power, you have introduced an emergency." 

    Continue reading
  • China-linked Twisted Panda caught spying on Russian defense R&D
    Because Beijing isn't above covert ops to accomplish its five-year goals

    Chinese cyberspies targeted two Russian defense institutes and possibly another research facility in Belarus, according to Check Point Research.

    The new campaign, dubbed Twisted Panda, is part of a larger, state-sponsored espionage operation that has been ongoing for several months, if not nearly a year, according to the security shop.

    In a technical analysis, the researchers detail the various malicious stages and payloads of the campaign that used sanctions-related phishing emails to attack Russian entities, which are part of the state-owned defense conglomerate Rostec Corporation.

    Continue reading
  • FTC signals crackdown on ed-tech harvesting kid's data
    Trade watchdog, and President, reminds that COPPA can ban ya

    The US Federal Trade Commission on Thursday said it intends to take action against educational technology companies that unlawfully collect data from children using online educational services.

    In a policy statement, the agency said, "Children should not have to needlessly hand over their data and forfeit their privacy in order to do their schoolwork or participate in remote learning, especially given the wide and increasing adoption of ed tech tools."

    The agency says it will scrutinize educational service providers to ensure that they are meeting their legal obligations under COPPA, the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act.

    Continue reading
  • Mysterious firm seeks to buy majority stake in Arm China
    Chinese joint venture's ousted CEO tries to hang on - who will get control?

    The saga surrounding Arm's joint venture in China just took another intriguing turn: a mysterious firm named Lotcap Group claims it has signed a letter of intent to buy a 51 percent stake in Arm China from existing investors in the country.

    In a Chinese-language press release posted Wednesday, Lotcap said it has formed a subsidiary, Lotcap Fund, to buy a majority stake in the joint venture. However, reporting by one newspaper suggested that the investment firm still needs the approval of one significant investor to gain 51 percent control of Arm China.

    The development comes a couple of weeks after Arm China said that its former CEO, Allen Wu, was refusing once again to step down from his position, despite the company's board voting in late April to replace Wu with two co-chief executives. SoftBank Group, which owns 49 percent of the Chinese venture, has been trying to unentangle Arm China from Wu as the Japanese tech investment giant plans for an initial public offering of the British parent company.

    Continue reading
  • SmartNICs power the cloud, are enterprise datacenters next?
    High pricing, lack of software make smartNICs a tough sell, despite offload potential

    SmartNICs have the potential to accelerate enterprise workloads, but don't expect to see them bring hyperscale-class efficiency to most datacenters anytime soon, ZK Research's Zeus Kerravala told The Register.

    SmartNICs are widely deployed in cloud and hyperscale datacenters as a means to offload input/output (I/O) intensive network, security, and storage operations from the CPU, freeing it up to run revenue generating tenant workloads. Some more advanced chips even offload the hypervisor to further separate the infrastructure management layer from the rest of the server.

    Despite relative success in the cloud and a flurry of innovation from the still-limited vendor SmartNIC ecosystem, including Mellanox (Nvidia), Intel, Marvell, and Xilinx (AMD), Kerravala argues that the use cases for enterprise datacenters are unlikely to resemble those of the major hyperscalers, at least in the near term.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022