Some of Silicon Valley's biggest names are pouring cash into a hitherto low-profile tech firm that claims to be "building software that thinks and learns like a human".
Vicarious, a four-year-old San Francisco-based start-up, aims to re-create the human neocortex as computer code. It is understood Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and Tesla electric sportscar entrepreneur Elon Musk - who also founded PayPal - have just invested US$40 million. They join Peter Thiel, another PayPal billionaire, whose Founders Fund targets cutting-edge technology. Actor Ashton Kutcher is another investor, as is Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz.
The neocortex is the outer layer of the brain and in humans is crucial to the use of the senses as well as activities such as language, motor commands and spatial reasoning.
According to the company's website, Vicarious is developing "machine learning software based on the computational principles of the human brain. Our first technology is a visual perception system that interprets the contents of photographs and videos in a manner similar to humans. Powering this technology is a new computational paradigm we call the Recursive Cortical Network."
The company has already managed to create software that will solve Captcha, the online tests used by many websites to supposedly identify humans as opposed to computers. Company founder Scott Phoenix told the Wall Street Journal that if they were successful, Vicarious would have created "a computer that thinks like a person except it doesn't need to eat or sleep".
Phoenix said his aim was to create a computer that could understand not just shapes and objects but the textures associated with them. He hoped Vicarious's computers would learn how to cure diseases and create cheap, renewable energy, as well as perform the jobs that employ most human beings. "We tell investors that right now, human beings are doing a lot of things that computers should be able to do," he said.