A team of University of Canterbury researchers are taking on global computer giants in a race to create an intelligent computer chip for the mass market.
The chip will give technology such as cell phones and computers the ability to process information similarly to how a brain does.
Principal investigator and physicist Saurabh Bose said as technology - such as cellphones - gets faster, the hardware inside it must get smaller to allow room for more features.
But Dr Bose said the internal components of devices cannot get much smaller.
"It's like, how many times can you cut a block of cheese - there is only so far you can go."
The UC team have completed a proof of concept, and filed for an international patent.
They received funding from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, as well as a $300,000 Marsden grant, in an effort to take on global tech giants such as IBM and Hewlett-Packard, who are also researching the technology.
The UC team found if they collided a large amount of nanometer-sized balls on a surface they could make them connect and disconnect from each other in a similar way to what happens inside a human brain.
The computer chip could then be trained to recognise patterns in the same way humans learn and understand the environment around them.
"It may sound crazy, but it has a lot of functional applications", Dr Bose said.
He said even though the technology could not keep up with a human brain, it shared many characteristics, such as its ability to recognise patterns.
The next step was learning how this could be applied to everyday products.
"We believe that if we can implement the ideas in our devices, we can compete with the big guys," Dr Bose said.
Dr Bose said he expected a product to be ready in a few years, with smaller industries adopting the technology first.
Agriculture was one obvious application, where drones could be installed with the chip and autonomously monitor fields where pesticide was needed, he said.
This would be without any human direction.
Dr Bose said the next step was finding consumer applications.
"It's going into areas we haven't gone before, and it's pushing the boundaries of what's been done before, but that's where the fun is."
According to a Markets and Markets research survey, the neuro-chip industry could be worth $US4.8 billion by 2022.
Dr Bose said scenes from movies such as The Matrix or iRobot were unlikely to play out in real life any time soon.
"I don't think there is a near future fear of that", he said.