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MIT Gets Bundle To Research Brains, Minds, and Machines

The idea of getting machines to think and act more like people is nothing new. In the Iliad Homer described Hephaestus's 20 self-moving tripods that could scale Mount Olympus to deliver his forged goods to the other gods. Now the subject is a getting a modern twist. MIT has just received a five-year, $25 million grant specifically to study how human intelligence emerges from brain activity. The National Science Foundation made the award to fund creation of a multi-institutional research facility called the Center for Brains, Minds and Machines.

"Understanding the brain is one of the grand scientific challenges at the intersection of the physical, life, behavioral and engineering sciences," said John Wingfield, assistant director of NSF's Biological Sciences Directorate. "Despite major research and technological advances achieved in recent decades, a comprehensive understanding of the brain--how thoughts, memories and intelligent behavior emerge from dynamic brain activity--remains unexplained."

The new Center grew out of the MIT Intelligence Initiative, an interdisciplinary program that paired Tomaso Poggio, a professor of brain sciences and human behavior at MIT, with Joshua Tenenbaum, a professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences (BCS) and a principal investigator in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. The two researchers proposed a program that would pull together work being done at BCS and the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

"With a system as complicated as the brain, there is a point where you need to get people to work together across different disciplines and techniques," Poggio said. That earlier initiative was launched in 2011. The latest version expands on the vision by bringing together 20 faculty members, 10 from MIT, five from Harvard University, and the rest from Cornell, Rockefeller University, the University of California at Los Angeles, Stanford, and the Allen Institute for Brain Science. The Center will also tap international partners such as the Italian Institute of Technology and the Max Planck Institutes in Germany, among others.

The Center will have four areas of research focus: integration of intelligence, including vision, language and motor skills; circuits for intelligence, which will span research in neurobiology and electrical engineering; the development of intelligence in children; and social intelligence. Poggio will also lead the development of a "theoretical platform" intended to serve as a foundation for work in all four areas.

"Those four thrusts really do fit together, in the sense that they cover what we think are the biggest challenges facing us when we try to develop a computational understanding of what intelligence is all about," explained Patrick Winston, a professor of engineering at MIT and research coordinator for the Center.

Funding will also go to creating a summer school program, technical workshops, and online courses to train students who are "fluent" in the study of intelligence.

"Investments such as this in collaborative, fundamental science projects will ultimately lead to discoveries that revolutionize our understanding of the brain, which is the goal of the new BRAIN Initiative," the NSF's Wingfield said. "Progress in this area holds enormous potential to improve our educational, economic, health and social institutions." The BRAIN initiative was kicked off earlier this year during an NSF workshop that brought together researchers and other representative from multiple disciplines to share the latest findings on physical and mathematical principles of brain structure and function.

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