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     Today, it recognizes handwriting; tomorrow, it may vastly improve the military’s surveillance and targeting efforts.

A computer program, funded in large part by the U.S. military, has displayed the ability to learn and generate new ideas as quickly and accurately as can a human. While the scope of the research was limited to understanding handwritten characters, the breakthrough could have big consequences for military’s ability to collect, analyze and act on image data, according to the researchers and military scientists. That, in turn, could lead to far more capable drones, far faster intelligence collection, and far swifter targeting through artificial intelligence.You could be forgiven for being surprised that computers are only now catching up to humans in their ability to learn.

Every day, we are reminded that computers can process information of enormous volume at the speed of light, while we are reliant on slow, chemical synaptic connections. But take the simple task of recognizing an object: a face. Facebook’s DeepFace program can recognize faces about as well a human, but in order to do that, it had to learn from a dataset of more than 4 million images of 4,000 faces. Humans, generally speaking, have the ability to remember a face after just one encounter. We learn after “one shot,” so to speak.

In their paper, “Human-level Concept Learning Through Probabilistic Program Induction,” published today in the journal Science, Brenden M. Lake, Ruslan Salakhutdinov, and Joshua B. Tenenbaum, present a model that they call the Bayesian…

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