IK 2016

For the second time in a row, I attended the interdisciplinary college, a spring school/workshop/conference medley, which again brought together students and experts from psychology, cognition, artificial intelligence, robotics all the way to neuroscience. This year’s topic was transitions and transformations – dynamic interactive systems. The format was up to 5 simultaneous courses, which mostly consisted of 3-4 lectures, as well as plenary evening lectures, and of course lots and lots of interactions with the other attendants in between courses as well as late into the night. I’d like to share some of the highlights of the courses I attended (though undoubtedly there were many that I missed, since I only attended a minority of those on offer).

The first highlight was Regan Mandryk’s course entitled ‘Games for behaviour change’. She is a computer science professor at the university of Saskatchewan, and took us on a tour of what a game is, what elements it has, and finally, how game elements can be used to change people’s behaviour. Cool stuff! As a result, we discussed over dinner how we could gamify the PhD, or even gamify science – let me know if you have any ideas!

In another course, Yvonne Rogers from UCL told us about research in-the-wild. To a biologist like me this sounds just like field work, but what she meant was taking cognitive science from the lab to people’s everyday lives, to see whether the theories and framework hold up at all outside the lab. The case studies were the most interesting part – ‘experiments’ on how to make people give feedback on something, or how to reduce the power consumption of a neighbourhood. The latter, called tidy street project, got quite some media coverage, for instance in the Guardian.

Terry Stewart from the University of Waterloo presented many examples of what can be computed with neurons – i.e. modelling with fairly tight biological constraints. His program to implement such models is very impressive and freely available at www.nengo.ca, so go try it out for yourself! Or check out Spaun, their simulation of a brain with 2.5 million neurons.

Bertram Gerber shared his crucial insight on motivation, which resulted from learning and memory experiments in the larva of the fruitfly: namely, that turning memory into action requires some motivation, which is basically like an inverse prediction error. Let’s say you expect your salary on your bank account at the end of each month, but this month you only got half of it – that leads to an expected gain of half of the salary, which will motivate you to look into this asap.

During the rest of the week, I mainly listened in to talks and courses on insects: Lars Chittka presented evidence that should make us very wary that bigger brains are better, and suggested we should always think about whether a particular cognitive task is ‘hard’ from an evolutionary perspective. Andrew Straw presented impressive virtual reality experiments from freely walking or flying fruit flies. Finally, Stephen Pratt told us about emergent behaviour in social insects – can a single ant or a colony of ants make better decisions? It turns out, of course, that it depends on the task.

Time passed very quickly – IK 2016 was a lot of fun! A huge thank you to the organisers, and also to the participants, who made IK what it was: fantastic!

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