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Artificial Intelligence Research Gaining Momentum

September 11, 2013


On Monday, the National Science Foundation announced that it had awarded a 5-year, $25 million grant “to Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study how the brain creates intelligence and how that process can be replicated in machines.” [“Harvard, MIT join on artificial intelligence research,” by Sharon Gaudin, Computerworld, 9 September 2013] The grant will be used to establish a Center for Brains, Minds and Machines that will be based at MIT. According to a press release from the National Science Foundation, the Center for Brains, Minds and Machines will partner with a number of other U.S. and international institutions and organizations. [“New center to better understand human intelligence, build smarter machines,” 9 September 2013] Those institutions and organizations include:


Academic institutions

  • California Institute of Technology
  • Cornell University
  • Harvard University
  • MIT
  • Rockefeller University
  • Stanford University
  • University of California, Los Angeles


Broadening Participation institutions

  • Howard University
  • Hunter College
  • Universidad Central del Caribe, Puerto Rico
  • University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras
  • Wellesley College


International partnerships

  • City University, Hong Kong
  • Hebrew University of Jerusalem
  • Italian Institute of Technology
  • Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics, Tübingen
  • National Center for Biological Sciences, Bangalore, India
  • University of Genoa
  • Weizmann Institute of Science


Commenting on the announcement, Samantha Wood writes, “The search for artificial intelligence is jumping out of the world of sci-fi movies and into a world much closer to home — MIT.” [“National Science Foundation Pours $25M into MIT’s New Artificial-Intelligence Research Center,” BostInno, 9 September 2013] Wood also reports that the Center for Brains, Minds and Machines (CBMM) was only one of three new research centers the NSF announced it was going to fund through its Science and Technology Centers Integrative Partnerships program. Although the NSF press release didn’t give details about the other two centers, it did contain a statement from Wanda Ward, head of NSF’s Office of International and Integrative Activities, which oversees the program. Ward Remarked, “NSF is pleased to support a cohort of exceptionally strong center proposals in Fiscal Year 2013 that scientifically ‘top the charts’ in terms of their timeliness and their potential contribution to U.S. competitiveness. These new leading-edge centers will produce the next generation of diverse, globally engaged talent and have the potential to attract more Nobel Prize-caliber researchers.”


The NSF press release also noted that the CBMM was part of the broader BRAIN Initiative announced by the White House back in April 2013. The White House press release about the Brain Initiative stated that it was “designed to revolutionize our understanding of the human brain.” [“Fact Sheet: BRAIN Initiative,” White House press release, 2 April 2013] The release continued:

“Launched with approximately $100 million in the President’s Fiscal Year 2014 Budget, the BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative ultimately aims to help researchers find new ways to treat, cure, and even prevent brain disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease, epilepsy, and traumatic brain injury. The BRAIN Initiative will accelerate the development and application of new technologies that will enable researchers to produce dynamic pictures of the brain that show how individual brain cells and complex neural circuits interact at the speed of thought. These technologies will open new doors to explore how the brain records, processes, uses, stores, and retrieves vast quantities of information, and shed light on the complex links between brain function and behavior.”

The CBMM will be headed by Professor Tomaso Poggio, the Eugene McDermott Professor of Brain Sciences and Human Behavior at MIT. According to NSF press release, the CBMM will be able to use the grant “to benefit from the expertise of neuroscientists, engineers, mathematicians and computational scientists through a global network of academic, industrial and technological partnerships” as well as “help train the next generation of scientists and engineers. A summer school program, technical workshops and online courses are planned to create a new community of interdisciplinary researchers fluent in the study of intelligence.” According to the release, the Center’s other principal investigators include Haym Hirsh, Dean of the Faculty of Computing and Information Science and Professor of Computer Science and Information Science at Cornell University; Lakshminarayanan Mahadevan, the Lola England de Valpine Professor of Applied Mathematics at Harvard University; and Matthew Wilson, the Sherman Fairchild Professor of Neuroscience and Picower Scholar at MIT.


According to an MIT press release, Poggio is hoping to revive some of the ambitious goals for artificial general intelligence that were first discussed over half century ago. To date, these goals have so far proven elusive. [“Artificial-intelligence research revives its old ambitions,” by Larry Hardesty, MIT Media Relations, 9 September 2013] The release states:

“In recent years, by exploiting machine learning — in which computers learn to perform tasks from sets of training examples — artificial-intelligence researchers have built special-purpose systems that can do things like interpret spoken language or play Jeopardy with great success. But according to Tomaso Poggio, the Eugene McDermott Professor of Brain Sciences and Human Behavior at MIT, ‘These recent achievements have, ironically, underscored the limitations of computer science and artificial intelligence. We do not yet understand how the brain gives rise to intelligence, nor do we know how to build machines that are as broadly intelligent as we are.’ Poggio thinks that AI research needs to revive its early ambitions. ‘It’s time to try again,’ he says. ‘We know much more than we did before about biological brains and how they produce intelligent behavior. We’re now at the point where we can start applying that understanding from neuroscience, cognitive science and computer science to the design of intelligent machines.'”

In past posts about the quest to develop artificial general intelligence, I’ve cited skeptics who believe that it will be decades (at least) before a genuine AGI system will be developed. Some skeptics doubt that such machine intelligence will ever be achieved. Skepticism, however, is no reason to halt the pursuit of better machine intelligence. Regardless of whether all of the Center’s goals are achieved, there is much that is going to be learned that will prove helpful and useful in the decades ahead. Wood reports that the U.S. isn’t the only place where serious AI research is taking place. She writes:

“Not to be left out of artificial intelligence research, Italy, Germany, Hong Kong, India and Israel are all getting in on the act, as well, through various universities and institutions. Multiple industries, including Google and Microsoft, are also providing support. This collaboration will be cemented with the intertwining of both graduate students and postdocs, who will have joint advisors in different research areas at the center.”

In the NSF press release, John Wingfield, assistant director of NSF’s Biological Sciences Directorate, concluded, “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. Progress in this area holds enormous potential to improve our educational, economic, health and social institutions.” According to the MIT press release the CBMM will focus on four main interdisciplinary research themes. “They are the 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.” The fact that the Center is focusing on interdisciplinary research bodes well for its efforts. Some of the greatest innovations in history have resulted from interdisciplinary collaboration.

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