A podcast about neuroscience, artificial intelligence, and science more broadly, run by a group of computational neuroscientists.
E51: Motor Control
To some neuroscientists, the brain exists to produce movement and everything else it does should be understood in light of this goal. On this episode, we talk about these "motor chauvinists" and the broader topic of how motor control is studied in neuroscience and artificial intelligence. First we briefly discuss the tangled anatomy of motor control in animals. Then we get into how artificial motor control is done, including optimal feedback control, reinforcement learning, and the six core principles of hierarchical motor control. Finally we relate these principles back to the biology and talk about what the future of the study of motor control needs. Throughout we conduct an experiment on ourselves, reflect on what makes motor outputs different from other tasks, and hear what Alex thinks is undeniably true or undeniably false about the motor system.
E50: Brain Organoids
Most neuroscience research takes place in a full, live animal. But brain organoids are different. Brain organoids are three-dimensional blobs of brain grown from human stem cells and they offer novel access to the study of human brain development. On this episode we go beyond our computational comfort zone to talk about the history of stem cells, the potion of chemicals needed to get these little blobs to grow, and the extent to which they mimic features of the human brain when they do. We also discuss the promise of studying and treating disease through personalized organoids, and how this gets hard for higher level disorders like schizophrenia. Then we get into questions of embodiment and if giving these organoids more means to interact with the world would make them better models of the brain and of information processing. Finally we get to the ethics of it all, and find that bioethicists these days are actually chill AF. Throughout, we find out that Josh is not surprised by any of this, and we tackle the pressing moral issue of our time: is it OK to eat your thermostat?
E49: How Important is Learning?
The age-old debate of nature versus nurture is now being played out between artificial intelligence and neuroscience. The dominant approach in AI, machine learning, puts an emphasis on adapting processing to fit the data at hand. Animals, on the other hand, seem to have a lot of built in structure and tendencies, that mean they function well right out of the womb. So are most of our abilities the result of genetically-encoded instructions, honed over generations of evolution? Or are our interactions with the environment key? We discuss the research that has been done on human brain development to try to get at the answers to these questions. We take about the compromise position that says animals may be "born to learn"---that is, innate tendencies help make sure the right training data is encountered and used efficiently during development. We also get into what all this means for AI and whether machine learning researchers should be learning less. Throughout, we ask if humans are special, argue that development can happen without learning, and discuss the special place of the octopus in the animal kingdom.
E48: Studying the Brain in Light of Evolution
The brain is the result of evolution. A lot of evolution. Most neuroscientists don't really think about this fact. Should we? On this episode we talk about two papers---one focused on brains and the other on AI---that argue that following evolution is the path to success. As part of this argument, they make the point that, in evolution, each stage along the way needs to be fully functional, which impacts the shape and role of the brain. As a result, the system is best thought of as a whole---not chunked into perception, cognition and action, as many psychologists and neuroscientists are wont to do. In discussing these arguments, we talk about the role of representations in intelligence, go through a bit of the evolution of the nervous system, and remind ourselves that evolution does not necessarily optimize. Throughout, we ask how this take on neuroscience impacts our own work and try to avoid saying "represents".
E47: Deep Learning to Understand the Brain
The recent advances in deep learning have done more than just make money for startups and tech companies. They've also infiltrated neuroscience! Deep neural networks---models originally inspired by the basics of the nervous system---are finding ever more applications in the quest to understand the brain. We talk about many of those uses in the episode. After first describing more traditional approaches to modeling behavior, we talk about how neuroscientists compare deep net models to real brains using both performance and neural activity. We then get into the attempts by the field of machine learning to understand their own models and how ML and neuroscience can share methods (and maybe certain cultural tendencies). Finally we talk about the use of deep nets to generate stimuli specifically tailored to drive real neurons to their extremes. Throughout, we notice how deep learning is "complicating the narrative", ask "are deep nets normative models?", and struggle to talk about a topic we actually know about.
E46: What We Learn from Model Organisms
From worms to flies, and mice to macaques, neuroscientists study a range (but not very large range...) of animals when they study "the brain". On this episode we ask a lot of questions about these model organisms, such as: how are they chosen? should we use more diverse ones? and what is a model organism actually a model of? We also talk about how the development of genetic tools for certain animals, like mice, have made them the dominant lab animal and the difficulty of bringing a new model species onto the scene. We also get into the special role that simple organisms, like C. elegans, play and how we can extrapolate findings from these small animals to more complex ones. Throughout, special guest Adam Calhoun joins us in asking "What even is the purpose of neuroscience???" and discussing the extent to which mice do or do not see like humans.