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$25 million for new center to study intelligence

The National Science Foundation announced Monday that it would award $25 million over five years to a new MIT-based Center for Brains, Minds and Machines. Researchers at the center will endeavor to both understand intelligence in humans and create intelligence in computers.

“50 years have gone by, and it’s time to try again,” Tomaso Poggio said, referring to unfulfilled dreams from the early days of artificial intelligence. Poggio, a brain sciences professor, will be the head of the new center.

Poggio emphasizes both interdisciplinary and inter-institutional collaboration. “There is no single person that can solve the problem of the brain,” he said. The center’s website includes in its vision “cross-fertilization between computer science, math and statistics, robotics, neuroscience, and cognitive science,” and lists 26 partner companies and institutions, including managing partners at Harvard University and Cornell University.

Before the 1980s, many artificial intelligence researchers took a “symbolic” approach, building systems that manipulated symbols according to certain rules. Later approaches would include leveraging computers’ processing power to analyze troves of data.

The result was machines that were extremely good at specific tasks like playing chess or Jeopardy, or searching the Internet. Yet machines today cannot carry on a convincing conversation or explain the beliefs and intentions of people in a short video.

“There is still no intelligent machine,” Poggio said. But he hopes that advances in computer science, neuroscience, and cognitive science will change that.

He said that the center would pursue four broad directions of research: how intelligence works in terms of “algorithms and strategies,” how intelligence is implemented in neural circuits, how intelligence develops in children, and how intelligence makes sense of social situations.

The center, which will be funded under the NSF’s Science and Technology Centers: Integrative Partnerships program, has started to hire graduate students and postdoctorates, according to Poggio. The center will also sponsor sabbaticals for professors at other universities, center manager Kathleen Sullivan said.

The center is required to have an educational component as well, according to Sullivan, and will host seminars, worshops, summer programs, and — an NSF press release adds — online courses.

“It’s not something that will be solved in 10 years. This is one of the oldest problems mankind has been thinking about,” Poggio said. But, he says, “I think we have the expertise together to make a dent in it.”

—Leon Lin