Ricoh introduces software-free computer


TOKYO -- A Japanese company has developed a computer that requires no software to operate. The computer, developed by Ricoh Co. and introduced on Thursday, learns what to do by example.

The Ricoh computer is a neural network machine, a type of computer with a design based on how the brain is believed to function.

Many companies in Japan, the United States and Europe are working on neural network computers. But Ricoh, a maker of copiers and other office equipment, says it is the first to develop one that is strictly hardware, which allows for a great increase in the speed at which the computer learns.

Users put in examples to teach the computer how to perform tasks such as recognizing letters or controlling a chemical process.

Information in the brain is stored as a pattern of connections between brain cells, or neurons. The Ricoh computer uses special neural chips, each of which contains 16 electronic neurons. If the computer makes an error and is corrected, the strength of the connections between the neurons is changed so that the computer gradually "learns."

Edward Rosenfeld, publisher of Intelligence, a New York newsletter that follows the neural network field, said the Ricoh machine might be the first complete neural computer, as opposed to a more general-purpose computer containing neural network chips or software.

But Mr. Rosenfeld said many other companies are developing such machines and that several have far more powerful neural network chips than the one Ricoh has developed.

Ricoh said it hopes to have a complete machine ready by the end of the year and that it will seek to apply the machine to office automation, such as controlling the printing in copiers.

Neural networks have long captivated scientists by their seeming ability to learn, but no big business has grown out of it.

But neural networks are starting to be used for applications such as recognizing handwriting.

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