This Week’s Reading Salon

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Allan Ajifo

Salon? Yep. Inspired by Maxine Greene and the Sunday Salons she held weekly in her apartment with students, friends, and colleagues. Their goal was to expand their thinking on the topics of art and the imagination, Maxine’s areas of expertise. They’d discuss works of literature and philosophy and explore how these works informed their practice as researchers, educators, and human beings.

This post is a far cry from Maxine’s inspiring salons, but is inspired by them. My goal is a simple one: to share a few of the things I’m reading this week that inspire, challenge or expand my thinking in some way. While I may read a number of things one week, I may read very little the next. I welcome a virtual discussion.

I reference five sources this week. Nearly all have some connection to the brain and the field of neuroscience.

Here goes!

Lighting the Brain by John Colapinto (he’s one of my favorite New Yorker writers – definitely worth reading past articles of his). I’m always looking for new insights in the field of neuroscience, and this article about Karl Deisseroth (Stanford University) and his research on optogenetics is outstanding. It’s incredible what his work is doing for the field and how it’s helping us think in more complex ways about how the brain functions and how mental health issues can be treated. Deisseroth is both a researcher and a practicing psychiatrist.

Among scientists, he is best known for his development of optogenetics, a technology that renders individual, highly specific brain cells photosensitive and then activates those cells using flashes of light delivered through a fibre-optic wire. Optogenetics has given researchers unprecedented access to the workings of the brain, allowing them not only to observe its precise neural circuitry in lab animals but to control behavior through the direct manipulation of specific cells. Deisseroth, one of the rare neuroscientists who are also practicing psychiatrists, has made mental illness a major focus of his optogenetic research. Other scientists around the world are using the method to investigate some of the most stubborn riddles of neuroscience, including the fundamental question of how the physical brain—the nearly hundred billion neurons and their multitudinous connections—gives rise to the mind: thought, mood, behavior, emotion.

By sheer coincidence, I ended up reading A Swiss Army Knife for Neuroscience about neuroscientific researcher and MIT professor, Polina Anikeeva, who spent time in Deisseroth’s lab learning about his optogenetic techniques, in order to expand on her materials science background. She’s taking his work into areas of spinal cord injury and targeted drug release.

Next, I got caught up in an article, World without End, on Sean Murray’s game-in-process, No Man’s Sky. Here’s a quote that I think captures what’s so exciting about this game: “Because the designers are building their universe by establishing its laws of nature, rather than by hand-crafting its details, much about it remains unknown, even to them.” How cool is that? And he offers terrific insights when it comes to how they employ algorithms to generate random terrain shapes and forms:

When Murray wasn’t being pulled away from his computer, he worked on the terrain. He told me that he was always searching for ideas. Last year, he saw the film “Interstellar,” which features scenes of a lifeless snowy planet that “had some very perfect ‘mathlike’ terrain.” The next day, he developed formulas that would create similar crevasses. More recently, he had noticed geological formations that an artist had hand-designed for another video game, and realized that the algorithms of No Man’s Sky were not equipped to make them. The problem nagged at him, until he found an equation, published in 2003 by a Belgian plant geneticist named Johan Gielis. The simple equation can describe a large number of natural forms—the contours of diatoms, starfish, spiderwebs, shells, snowflakes, crystals. Even Gielis was amazed at the range when he plugged it into modelling software. “All these beautiful shapes came rolling out,” he told Nature. “It seemed too good to be true—I spent two years thinking, What did I do wrong? and How come no one else has discovered it?” Gielis called his equation the Superformula.

Murray’s goal is to develop a game that entices the brain through discovery and exploration. Because of the nature of the algorithms they’re using, they get to discover as they design and build.

Finally, I’m reading Jeff Hawkins’ On Intelligence. It’s a book about the brain in which Hawkins places a great deal of emphasis on the brain’s predictive capabilities in relation to intelligence. Though it’s now a decade old, it’s definitely worth reading. What brought me back to it was a lot of what I’m reading right now about artificial intelligence (really doing a deep dive on that topic right now). Hawkins recognized a decade ago that we were very limited in our thinking about AI. In just ten years, though, what we’ve learned and have been implementing is incredible. Reading it just to remind myself of that delta has been incredible. In fact, read Kevin Kelly’s recent article, The Three Breakthroughs That Have Finally Unleashed AI on the World, to see how far we’ve come.



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