Ratty Mapping, Ratty Networks

Like the biological brain it mimics, neural network technology has been evolving toward sophistication.  Our customers are using neural networks to evaluate decisions about everything from  the taste of beer to the price of wool in Australia to a hospital’s future patient load.  So I have been vaguely aware that neural nets have gone well beyond the early rudimentary programs based on approximations of the firing of synapses in the human brain. But nothing is more proof-positive of our advances than some news from Australia this week: the new model for neural networks is a rat’s brain!

Australian computer scientists have built a GPS-like navigation system based on a neural network that mimics the activity of a rat’s brain. Why the rat?  It turns out that many of a rat’s brain cells are dedicated to mapping its environment.  As the rat scuttles across the kitchen floor, it can sense the layout of the territory and remember the scheme of the place.  So, although a rat’s daily life may actually be the epitome of we think of as decision making under uncertainty, when the overhead light goes on, this critter has no decision to make.  It knows instantaneously which way to run to scuttle under the refrigerator.  No risk assessment.  No decision evaluation.  

The rat’s brain may be an amazing product of nature, but is it worth imitating?  According to the two computer scientists, their ratty navigation system has potential applications unavailable to GPS technology: intensely built-up urban areas like Manhattan, indoor mapping of such key facilities as hospitals, and military deployment of robots to scout an area that lies “under the radar” of military intelligence systems.

We all know people we would accuse of behaving like rats, but perhaps in some instances, ratty behavior may have its advantages after all.

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