IBM’s new cognitive computing business unit…

There are a lot of good stories on this. A good summary at The Economist, here. I’m particularly interested in the notion of cognitive computing. On the one hand, Watson looks to me to be a version of strong AI, using conventional high performance computing to drive an expert’s expert system. On the other hand, there are host of folks (including Dharmendra’s group out at IBM Almaden) who are using neurally-inspired architectures with an aim towards a new version of cognitive computing whereby the machine computes in ways that are like the way the human brain does. This latter approach is more interesting to me if only for its incredible efficiency (20 watts of energy in to power a human mind).

Mind and brain…

An excellent essay ultimately about consciousness and what neuroscience may reveal about it by Adam Zeman and Oliver Davies is here from the UK magazine, Standpoint.

Money quote:

Recent research, and the thinking that it has inspired, does not point to any simple reductive identity of mind and brain. An influential, and representative, theory of consciousness, Giulio Tononi’s theory of “integrated information”, suggests that all of nature has a – sometimes – hidden potential for mentality. The Canadian philosopher Evan Thompson has underlined the way in which the precursors of minds like ours can be glimpsed in even the simplest of organisms. Other contemporary philosophers, including Edinburgh’s Andy Clark, have emphasised that human minds are sustained by culture and community. The role of action and the body in forming and mediating consciousness has been a key theme in the work of the American neurologist Antonio Damasio, the Parisian psychologist Kevin O’Regan, the Berkeley philosopher Alva Noë and the Brighton-based psychiatrist Hugo Critchley. In the work of these thinkers, mind is understood to be “extended, embodied and embedded” – extended in its interactions with space and time, embodied through its dialogue with both the body and the brain, and embedded in human culture and society. 

Read it all. Very worthwhile.

The Institute and digital reconstruction of neurons

A terrific conference is winding up at the Krasnow Institute today, the web site is here. Organized by Krasnow’s own, under the visionary leadership of Giorgio Ascoli, with the sponsorship of Burroughs Wellcome Fund USA and MBF Bioscience, the conference has brought together some of the best and the brightest in the field. To my mind, this is the single most important event for scientists working in this arena since the DIADEM challenge event of several years ago.

Small conferences like this one are a key example of what Krasnow does really well for the global advanced studies community. For readers who may have heard about the White House BRAIN project, or the Connectome, all of those initiatives depend of advances in automated digital reconstruction of neurons.

Krasnow’s own Hippocampome Project is an example of how this type of data can be mined and harvested to yield new neurobiological knowledge, in this case, about the brain region most clearly identified with learning and memory in mammals (such as us).

Our Annual Krasnow Symposium…NeuroX

This year, we’ll be bringing together thought-leaders and discipline experts to talk about the current neuroscience meme that’s become ubiquitous…from neuromarketing, to neurolaw to…..neuroX. The deep question for our audience and speakers will be simply: how much of this stuff has substance? What’s hype? What’s not?

The context for the neuroscience meme extends from the concussion problem that the NFL may or may not have all the way to the promised replacement of the polygraph by the fMRI machine. Simply put, neuroscience occupies a central piece of the cultural zeitgeist in a way that it never really has before. For many decision-makers, investors, and members of the intelligent lay-public the practicality of becoming “very smart” about this new meme will play an important role in real choices: do I allow my child to play American-style football? Should I listen to those ads for brain training on Pandora? Do I chose 100 dollars right now or 200 next week?

Our speakers will be outstanding…Caltech’s Antonio Rangel, MIT’s Aude Oliva, FT’s Gillian Tett, Jim Ecklund of the NFL players’ Mackey-White TBI Committee and Phil Rubin of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy are among them….

We’ll convene on May 8-10 in George Mason’s Founder’s Hall….located conveniently proximal to the GMU/Virginia Square Metro Station on the Orange Line in Arlington. I’m looking forward to meeting many of our readers there.

The Carr debate morphs: the internet does not equal a brain

Charles Arthur of the Guardian evolves the debate. It’s now about the complexity of the net versus the complexity of the brain (which of course is not a scientific debate unless you are talking about the brain of a simple animal like Aplysia californica).

Money quote on the idea the hyperlinks are like synapses:

This is simply rubbish. A hyperlink is nothing like a synapse, except that both describe a connection between two points… a synapse is a responsive, organic mechanism that has been tuned by hundreds of millions of years of evolution to react more strongly to some inputs rather than others. Throw in something between 1 and 10 quadrillion (1 quadrillion = 10^16) synapses in a human brain, and you have an organism that somehow becomes conscious, and yet can also function unconsciously, which uses chemicals for its transmission systems (across the synaptic gap, which is key to how synapses can vary in behaviour).

I’m with Arthur here.


Neuroscience on the Mall

This evening I’m giving a talk at the Smithsonian about where neuroscience is as a field, here early in the 21st century. In some senses I’ll be optimistic. Certainly there has been much progress understanding some of the fundamental processes that underlie neural function, particularly where it is mainly homeostatic as opposed to cognitive. But in another sense, there is a real frustration–one that I’ve expressed before, that we are very very far from a coherent theory of brain function. That is why I have a real worry, with all the new “neuro” social fields (eg. neurolaw, neuroeconomics) that the field will get “over-sold” the way AI did in the 1960’s.

How to avoid.

Well, I believe we need to really adopt integrative approaches that study the brain across the different spatial and temporal levels (and there are many). For example, if we are to understand why music is the muse for so many humans, that it is–across cultures–then we need to know something about the auditory pathways. But we also need to understand something about the brain’s dopamine reinforcement systems…and perhaps something about synaptic plasticity….but also we need to look at a phenomenon like perfect pitch. All of these various aspects of music (within the context of brain function) need to be integrated. Without studying the phenomenon across multiple levels, it’s just hair cell physiology, auditory cortex tonotopic maps, and a human with a smile on his or her face.

Which brings me to the subject of “mind” and the notion of a federal investment into a “Decade of the Mind”. Why, given the above worries, do I believe that now is the time for a Decade of the Mind? The answer I believe has to do with an emerging critical mass of scientists (across many fields, not just neuroscience) who are seriously studying the phenomena of mind (such as music) across levels. They are using new imaging techniques. They are using high performance computation to build models and then testing those models against real data. They are sharing that data. And most importantly they are approaching this monumentally important scientific question in an integrative manner.

The pay off: in terms of people healed, technologies developed, economic growth and security (writ large) would without a doubt be huge.