Massive and rapid developments in both hardware and software are paving the way for the so-called âsilicon brainâ (also see âneuromorphic computingâ), which, in theory, would be able to âthinkâ and âfeelâ. Many believe that the silicon brain will play a pivotal role in enhancing machine intelligence to the point where it can solve some of todayâs biggest problems and challenges.
Thereâs a long way to go before we may reach such a milestone, however. In the meantime, UK-based firm Opteranâan eight-year-old spinout of the University of Sheffield, led by Professor James Marshall and Dr Alex Cope of the same institutionâhas begun developing lightweight, low-cost âbrainsâ inspired by insects. And theyâve just last year raised Â£2.1 million in a funding round led by technology investment company IQ Capital to further their efforts.
The funding round also included Episode1, Seraphim Capital, various angel investors, and a Connecting Capability Fund (CCF) grant (a part of the Northern Triangle Initiative).
Artificial âBrainsâ Inspired by Insects
For eight years, Opteran has researched insect brains as part of the âGreen Brainâ and âBrains on Boardâ projects.
Although insects have tiny brains, theyâre actually capable of sophisticated decision making and navigation. This is enabled by a natural phenomenon known as âoptic flowâ, which allows insects to perceive depth and distance. By reverse-engineering insect brains, Opteran claims that it has been able to produce algorithms that require zero pre-trainingâallowing its technology to potentially mimic tasks like seeing, sensing objects, navigating, and avoiding obstacles.
Opteran will use its funding to pioneer ânatural intelligenceâ, particularly its insect vision-inspired approach to low-cost, silicon-based autonomy. Pictured is a close-up of one Opteranâs points of inspiration: an insectâs compound eyes. Image Credit: Opteran Technology.
According to Opteran, its insect vision-inspired approach is an efficient, robust, and transparent way to achieve autonomy when compared to current deep learning techniques. In a recent trial, Opteran was able to control a very light (sub-250-gram) drone with complete onboard autonomy using less than 10,000 pixels from a low-resolution camera.
Solving âFundamental Shortcomingsâ in Autonomous Applications
Throughout 2021 and the months that follow it, Opteran says that the funding will be used to build out functionality in the algorithms and chipsets. This will include launching its following technologies: âOpteran Senseâ, for collision avoidance and navigation; âOpteran Directâ, for SLAM (simultaneous localisation and mapping); âOpteran Decideâ, for autonomous decision-making; and âOpteran Seeâ, namely a 360-degree camera.
Said David Rajan, CEO of Opteran: â2021 will be the year when natural intelligence will challenge deep learning in solving some of the most fundamental shortcomings in autonomous applications, and this funding round will set Opteran on a path to be at the forefront of this next waveâ.
The Future Potential of Opteranâs Technology
Rajan says that he is confident that, because Opteran is already in a position to demonstrate the technology, natural intelligence will become a highly sought-after way to deliver lightweight, low-cost, and effective autonomy in a new way that will bring growth opportunities for the robotics industry.
On top of this, the companyâs Opteran Development Kit (or ODK) will allow engineers to apply the optic flow-inspired technology to a variety of applications in the robotics market. Itâs hoped that the technology will eventually transform autonomous vehicles, drones, mining robots, and other vital use cases.
For more information on natural intelligence, read âRobots with insect brainsâ, published in Science.