Machine Intelligence from Cortical Networks (MICrONS) Program

ISSUED BY: Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity


MICrONS seeks to revolutionize machine learning by reverse-engineering the algorithms of the brain. The program is expressly designed as a dialogue between data science and neuroscience. Participants in the program will have the unique opportunity to pose biological questions with the greatest potential to advance theories of neural computation and obtain answers through carefully planned experimentation and data analysis. Over the course of the program, participants will use their improving understanding of the representations, transformations, and learning rules employed by the brain to create ever more capable neurally-derived machine learning algorithms. Ultimate computational goals for MICrONS include the ability to perform complex information processing tasks such as one-shot learning, unsupervised clustering, and scene parsing, aiming towards human-like proficiency.

Despite significant progress in machine learning over the past few years, today’s state of the art algorithms are brittle and do not generalize well. In contrast, the brain is able to robustly separate and categorize signals in the presence of significant noise and non-linear transformations, and can extrapolate from single examples to entire classes of stimuli. This performance gap between software and wetware persists despite some correspondence between the architecture of the leading machine learning algorithms and their biological counterparts in the brain, presumably because the two still differ significantly in the details of operation.

The MICrONS program aims to achieve a quantum leap in machine learning by creating novel machine learning algorithms that use neurally-inspired architectures and mathematical abstractions of the representations, transformations, and learning rules employed by the brain. To guide the construction of these algorithms, performers will conduct targeted neuroscience experiments that interrogate the operation of mesoscale cortical computing circuits, taking advantage of emerging tools for high-resolution structural and functional brain mapping. The program is designed to facilitate iterative refinement of algorithms based on a combination of practical, theoretical, and experimental outcomes: performers will use their experiences with the algorithms’ design and performance to reveal gaps in their understanding of cortical computation, and will collect specific neuroscience data to inform new algorithmic implementations that address these limitations. Ultimately, as performers incorporate these insights into successive versions of the machine learning algorithms, they will devise solutions that can achieve human-like performance on complex information processing tasks with human-like proficiency.


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Contact Information

R. Jacob Vogelstein,
Program Manager

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General Information:







January 8, 2015


February 27, 2015


March 13, 2015