Creating machines that truly mimic the mind has long been the Holy Grail of computer scientists. And like the path to that mythical prize, the quest for artificial “brains” that can balance a checkbook or recognize flaws in aircraft engines with all the aplomb of a human is strewn with failed attempts But now there is a promising new contender. The approach goes by the name artificial neural network, because it works by duplicating the neural structure of the brain and it is already proving its mettle in perhaps the sternest test of all—the cutthroat competition for investment capital.

A new wave of entrepreneurs anxious to turn the fledgling science into profitable products is on the scene, and dozens of small startup companies are springing up across the country (see chart page 7). Already it is possible to buy neural net programs that predict the movement of the Standard &...

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