State of mind

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By Roger Snodgrass

SANTA ANA PUEBLO – Leading researchers in the bewildering field of cognitive studies met this week to share new thoughts and assess progress.


A three-day conference sponsored by Sandia National Laboratory, with cosponsors including Los Alamos National Laboratory, the Santa Fe Institute and the Mind Research Network of Albuquerque, advanced an initiative for boosting a national program of neuroscience and cognition studies.


The movement behind the fourth Decade of the Mind symposium is patterned after former President George H.W. Bush’s Decade of the Brain proclamation for the 1990s.


The conference leaders propose a new $4 billion, cross-disciplinary and multi-agency super project to consolidate new science, inspire new technologies and try a new assault on understanding how the mind emerges from the brain.


“The president’s budget is closely held information,” said James Olds, director of the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study at George Mason University in Virginia. “I can say that over the last six months, I’ve been in close contact with Obama’s transition team and this idea has caught fire.”


“The application space is unusually broad,” said John Wagner, manager of Sandia’s Cognitive and Exploratory systems, where the science and technology of thinking has been a research focus area in recent years.


Cognitive projects at Sandia have included machine learning, memory research and “smart” cars.


Chris Forsythe, a Sandia neuroscientist, said he was working on a project with Daimler-Benz that would enable a car to sense when the driver was approach information overload.


“For example, his cell phone rings just when he is ready to pass another car. Forsythe said. “We’ve demonstrated a system that uses brain data to know when the brain is too busy for anything but urgent communication and if so, puts that information in a queue for later.”


Among the luminaries at the conference were James Giordano, director of the Program in Brain-Mind Healing Research and director of the Center for Neurotechnology Studies at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies in Arlington and an expert on neuroethics; James Albus, senior fellow at the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study at George Mason, a pioneer in cerebellum modeling and co-inventor of the Real-time Control System that has been used in major intelligent systems like a robotic submarine and autonomous armored vehicles and Kevin Moses, of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Janelia Farm, who is working on the eye of the Drosophila fly, with a goal of understanding the fly mind in 10-20 years and after that, the mouse mind.


Christof Koch of the California Institute of Technology, who gave the Robert O. Oppenheimer Memorial lecture in Los Alamos in 2005, updated his research with a presentation on “Studying the Brain Basis of Consciousness.”


“We have no accepted theory of consciousness,” he said. “We need better measures of consciousness.”


His advice in a nutshell was to stop arguing and measure more.


“We need better tools to record the brain,” he said.


One of the major recurring arguments apparent in the proceedings had to do with what Robert Shulman of Yale University called a philosophical crisis.


“The question is, are there absolute qualities (of the mind) for which there are brain locations that can encode them,” he said.


There were many other versions of the question.


“What is mysterious to the philosopher, is a very mundane thing to an engineer,” Shulman said, concerned that the subtle qualities of which the brain is aware will be explained away in mechanical representations.


“You just have to have a sensor,” he said to Albus, the engineer of intelligent systems and robots.


Garrett Kenyon, a LANL physicist who organized the conference poster session and is one of the leaders in an area of research known as synthetic visual cognition, talked about a project known as petaVision.


The investigators employ the lab’s Roadrunner supercomputer, to answer questions like, can the fastest supercomputer in the world begin to perform like a human.


“The best programmers at the laboratory have jumped into this,” Kenyon said. “We’re trying to model the visual cortex, to see if the computer can answer more than trivial questions about whether there is an animal in the picture, for example.”


The petaVision simulation in its preliminary form was the first scientific computational effort to break the petaflop speed barrier, as the Roadrunner came up to speed last spring. A petaflop is a quadrillion operations per second. LANL researchers estimate the performance of the human visual cortex to be about the same.


Kenyon, like many of the researchers at the conference was thrilled by the prospects while awestruck by the task ahead.


“Neuroscience is in the most primitive state; it’s in a pre-paradigm state,” he said. “You can’t show Google a picture and ask for more images like that, but in 25 years you will be able to put a picture in Google and Google will know what it is. We’re going to know how the brain does that.”


The conference was held at the Hyatt Regency Tamaya Resort and Spa and was the fourth in a series. The Decade of the Mind initiative proposes to focus on healing, protecting, understanding, enriching and modeling the mind.


“There is a notion that if you can understand it, you can build it yourself,” Olds said.