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MIT Wins $3 Million NSF Grant

By Sarah Y. Keightley
News Editor

The National Science Foundation has granted MIT's Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences $3 million to open a new Center for Biological and Computational Learning, which will investigate human learning at the cognitive, biological, and computational levels and apply the results to high-performance computing.

The new center will replace the former Center for Biological Information Processing in Building E25. The center's opening date is not definite, but it will be set up very soon, said Professor Emilio Bizzi, head of the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences.

The co-directors of the new program are Robert C. Berwick PhD '82, professor of electrical engineering and computer science and computational linguistics, and Tomasso A. Poggio, a professor of vision sciences and biophysics.

Goals of the new center

The center will be interdisciplinary, with researchers from the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy, and representatives of parallel computer manufacturers, such as Thinking Machines, Inc.

Bizzi said that involving Thinking Machines Inc. is a "novelty for MIT," but "makes sense" because they use several MIT professors as consultants.

"The goals are to use the advances in high performance computers in combination with some of the recent advances people at MIT have made in understanding learning both at the cognitive level, biological level, and the computational level," Berwick said.

"The aim is really to understand learning from the level of molecules all the way up to higher cognitive abilities," he said. Then researchers will actually produce hardware based upon what they learn, he continued.

According to Berwick, the center will have four major projects. The first is to look at new algorithms for learning -- researchers will be looking for a connection between neural network systems and mathematics. The second objective will be to see how these algorithms relate to biological control, motor control, and visual perception. The third project will be to study higher levels of cognitive ability, including language and face recognition. And the fourth goal is the production of computer chips that will be able to include learning methods.

The center will coordinate projects linking existing research with the research of others doing similar work in different disciplines. Also, some professors will start new projects, Berwick said.

Developing the new center

Berwick said that ideas for this type of center have been developing over the last few years. A meeting last January "served as a springboard," he said.

The NSF grant of $3 million will be spread out over a five-year period. "We plan to build on that through a number of sources, mostly other foundations. We definitely plan to expand on it," Berwick said. The NSF gave similar grants to five other institutions around the country to develop new technologies for the next century.

The new center will replace the former Center for Biological Information Processing. The new center is more focused on getting machines to learn, Berwick said. Additionally, the new center is more interdisciplinary, and as a result its researchers come from a broader background and have greater expertise, he said.