Mind. Matter. Machine - Cognitive Science and Computing

What is a mind? Is it just another part of our brains? Is it the sum of our consciousness and unconsciousness? Or is it something much more complex and intriguing than we realise? These were some of the questions posed to the 400-strong crowd of students and teachers that attended the IHPC Seminar Series on Cognitive Science and Computing on 19 February 2009 at Biopolis.


The mind remains one of the scientific frontiers that is still much unknown to mankind. As human beings, we are capable of thinking, reflecting, pondering, contemplating, reasoning and making decisions about the on-goings in the world we live in. Our reactions are a direct result of the workings of our minds, but we still seek to understand why an individual’s reaction to one type of situation may differ from another. This is where the exciting field of Cognitive Science comes in – simply put, Cognitive Science is the scientific study of the mind and its workings.


Within the field, Cognitive Science encompasses more than one facet of study; it is the convergence of many other disciplines from psychology and artificial intelligence to neuroscience, mathematics and even philosophy. To fully embrace the subject would be a daunting task, so at IHPC, researchers from the Computational Cognition for Social Systems (CCSS) team mainly focus on the development of intelligent systems that can plugged into a wide array of cutting-edge technological applications.  


Professor Andrew Ortony, Programme Director of CCSS and Professor of Psychology, Education and Computer Science at Northwestern University (USA), gave a riveting introduction with simple yet comprehensive explanations on the various aspects of cognitive science. Firstly, he touched on the differences between the brain and the mind, comparing the former to a piece of hardware in a computer and the latter, the software. With this analogy, Prof Ortony further delved into the differences between perception and conception. Using a simple still picture, he was able to create an illusion of movements to fool the audience. This demonstrated that it is not enough for an individual to depend on the five primary senses – sight, smell, sound, taste and touch – to conceptualise and perceive one’s surroundings. It is the power of the mind that allows one to differentiate and understand when the impossible happens. Another amusing moment came when Prof Ortony played a short video clip involving some basketball players and a man in a gorilla suit. Unable to believe that they were not able to spot the man in the gorilla suit and that they had been duped again by the perceptions of their own minds, the audience’s gasp of bewilderment gave way to cheers and applause.


Next, Dr Tei Laine and Miss Swati Gupta took to the stage to present on Language and Cognition. Since time began, language, be it physical or verbal, has been the most basic form of communication between human beings. It allows one to convey thoughts and emotions and in the context of cognitive science, becomes a ‘starting point’ for the mind in the process of conceptualisation and perception. Through examples shown in various video clips, the speakers were able to demonstrate the amazing evolution of language, not just between human beings and between animals, but crossing between the two different species as well. The similarities demonstrated in human and animal communication highlight the possibilities and prospects of bringing language understanding in artificial, intelligent systems to a new frontier.    


Last but not least, Dr Quek Boon Kiat presented on Mind, Matter, Machines, giving the audience a glimpse of how intelligent systems are slowly finding their ways into our everyday lives. Toys, for example, such as the Tickle-Me-Elmo, Baby-Goes-Potty and the Sony Aibo, have evolved from mere playthings to interactive entities that are capable of responding and adapting in a play environment. However, the ultimate goal is to achieve what can only be seen in fiction – hyper-intelligent artificial life-forms with a mind of their own. Although it may take some time before this vision becomes a reality, many scientists in cognitive robotic research are en-route and making breakthroughs in their research. An example is Geminoid, a remote-controlled droid designed and modelled after Hiroshi Ishiguro, professor atOsakaUniversity and researcher at ATR Intelligent Robotics and Communication Laboratories. The creation is able to mimic his creator’s every move, from his mannerisms to the way he speaks. Another example is ‘Julia’, a computer program known as a Verbot Player that allows interaction with knowledge bases such as personalities, simple logic games, quiz programs, and reference materials.



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19 February 2009 : Mind. Matter. Machine - Cognitive Science and Computing

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