Researchers observed this knack for numbers in a computer model composed of virtual brain cells, or neurons, called an artificial neural network. After being trained merely to identify objects in images — a common task for AI — the network developed virtual neurons that respond to specific quantities. These artificial neurons are reminiscent of the “number neurons” thought to give humans, birds, bees and other creatures the innate ability to estimate the number of items in a set (SN: 7/7/18, p. 7). This intuition is known as number sense.
A team led by neurobiologist Andreas Nieder of the University of Tübingen in Germany taught an artificial neural network to identify animals and vehicles using 1.2 million labeled images. The team then used patterns of one to 30 dots to record how the virtual neurons responded.