Harvard University has been tasked by the US government to develop artificial intelligence (AI) systems that can process and analyse data at speeds similar to the human brain. Scientists will study the human brain in order to determine patterns and develop algorithms that can help improve existing AI systems and make them work faster.

The US government's Intelligence Advanced Research Project Activity (IARPA) has awarded three departments at Harvard University $28m (£19m) to develop biologically inspired AI systems. The systems will have enhanced data pattern and recognition abilities that mimic those seen in human brains.

Current AI systems have a marked difference in pattern recognition and data analysis systems. Although most AI systems have comparatively data storage capacity similar to human brains, their ability to match the human brain in recognising patterns and learning information quickly falls short. Scientists at Harvard will work on better understanding human neural schematics in order to produce a new generation of AI computers, which will hopefully be able to mirror the functions of the human brain.

In efforts to better understand how humans and mammals in general process information, scientists are recording and mapping neural activity in the brain's visual cortex, according to Harvard's John A Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). Researchers hope to reverse engineer the studied process and apply it to AI systems to make them work faster and more efficiently.

David Cox, assistant professor of molecular and cellular biology and computer science told SEAS News: "This is a moonshot challenge, akin to the Human Genome Project in scope. As we figure out the fundamental principles governing how the brain learns, it's not hard to imagine that we'll eventually be able to design computer systems that can match, or even outperform, humans."

The practical applications of such a project are far-reaching. Advanced AI systems could recognise threats to digital networks, analyse MRIs to better detect challenging diseases, drive cars and generally perform any task that the human brain is capable of handling.