Our mushy brains seem a far cry from the solid silicon chips in computer processors, but scientists have a long history of comparing the two. As Alan Turing put it in 1952: “We are not interested in the fact that the brain has the consistency of cold porridge.” In other words, the medium doesn’t matter, only the computational ability.

Today, the most powerful artificial intelligence systems employ a type of machine learning called deep learning. Their algorithms learn by processing massive amounts of data through hidden layers of interconnected nodes, referred to as deep neural networks. As their name suggests, deep neural networks were inspired by the real neural networks in the brain, with the nodes modeled after real neurons — or, at least, after what neuroscientists knew about neurons back in the 1950s, when an influential neuron model called the perceptron was born. Since then, our understanding of the computational complexity of single neurons has dramatically expanded, so biological neurons are known to be more complex than artificial ones. But by how much?

To find out, David Beniaguev, Idan Segev and Michael London, all at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, trained an artificial deep neural network to mimic the computations of a simulated biological neuron. They showed that a deep neural network requires between five and eight layers of interconnected “neurons” to represent the complexity of one single biological neuron.

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