Google Research

The atoms of neural computation

  • Gary Marcus
  • Adam Marblestone
  • Tom Dean
Science, vol. 346 (2014), pp. 551-552


The human cerebral cortex is central to a wide array of cognitive functions, from vision to language, reasoning, decision-making, and motor control. Yet, nearly a century after the neuroanatomical organization of the cortex was first defined, its basic logic remains unknown. One hypothesis is that cortical neurons form a single, massively repeated “canonical” circuit, characterized as a kind of a “nonlinear spatiotemporal filter with adaptive properties” (1). In this classic view, it was “assumed that these…properties are identical for all neocortical areas.” Nearly four decades later, there is still no consensus about whether such a canonical circuit exists, either in terms of its anatomical basis or its function. Likewise, there is little evidence that such uniform architectures can capture the diversity of cortical function in simple mammals, let alone characteristically human processes such as language and abstract thinking (2). Analogous software implementations in artificial intelligence (e.g., deep learning networks) have proven effective in certain pattern classification tasks, such as speech and image recognition, but likewise have made little inroads in areas such as reasoning and natural language understanding. Is the search for a single canonical cortical circuit misguided?

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