How to Make the Universe Think for Us

Inside a soundproofed crate sits one of the world’s worst neural networks. After being presented with an image of the number 6, it pauses for a moment before identifying the digit: zero. Peter McMahon, the physicist-engineer at Cornell University who led the development of the network, defends it with a sheepish smile, pointing out that the handwritten number looks sloppy. Logan Wright, a postdoc visiting McMahon’s lab from NTT Research, assures me that the device usually gets the answer right, but acknowledges that mistakes are common. “It’s just this bad,” he said.