The Japanese government is throwing its weight behind the development of computers made in the image of the human mind.

The Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) wants to conduct a $165,000 feasibility study into "brainy" neural computers that could lead to a 10-year, multibillion dollar project starting in the early 1990s."Our goal is to develop a completely new neural model better than those currently existing," said Taizo Nishikawa, deputy director of MITI's electronics policy division.

Neural computers would be modeled after the human brain, which through its dense network of interconnected nerve cells can process awesome quantities of data and perform many tasks simultaneously.

Though still the stuff of science fiction, neural computers portend a radical departure from conventional computers, which operate on a system of ones and zeros.

Conventional computers are fast, but stupid - they can do only one thing at a time and do only what they are told.

Neural computers - in theory at least - could learn, judge and infer at a basic level, letting them interpret novel situations. But they won't be ready until the next century.

Although the West leads in organized research into "thinking" computers, Japan could win the race to commercialize the technology, argues Tom Murtha, an electronics analyst at Baring Securities.