Archive for December, 2015

The power of music

December 6, 2015

On Thursday, I went to hear the Scottish Symphony Orchestra playing in the City Hall, Glasgow. They played three pieces, but the one that made the strong impression on me was Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde”, composed between 1908 and 1909, but as powerful today as ever it was. It’s a long piece, a setting of some Chinese poems by Mahler, in which a contralto (Anna Larsson) and a tenor (Andrew Staples) sang against a whole orchestra. The programme notes included the texts of the poems in German and English: though I do have some German, having the text in both languages strengthened the effect. The programme notes say “…it is in fact a deeply felt farewell to life and the joy of life”, and one might imagine that one would leave the auditorium saddened by it.

But in fact, it made me re-evaluate where I am in my life: I’ve a couple of years before retirement, and (unlike Mahler) I seem to be in good health. I’ve just had a major grant proposal, to maintain the UK’s membership of the INCF, and to strengthen Neuroinformatics in the UK turned down by the Medical Research Council, and I’ve been thinking about ways forward. Mostly I was thinking about working on early auditory processing for robots and for hearing aids, about moving towards a position as an emeritus professor, and about playing more music.

But this made me think: “If not now when?”.

If Mahler could produce such a masterwork when everything was was on a downward spiral for him, why should I move quietly into retirement, or be hurt by the rejection of this proposal. Surely the answer is to think hard about what it is that I can do now, with more than 35 years as an academic, with more than 30 years experience of working at the boundaries between computing, neuroscience, and artificial intelligence. What can I do now that will take this work forward, that will use the experience that I have, that will take advantage of what I now can do?

And I think I know the answer to that: to try to bring together the different strands of Neuro research: Neuroscience (of its various forms), Neuroinformatics (as defined by INCF), Neuromorphic systems (of all the different types), in particular.

No, it does’t fit nicely into a research council proposal, but instead crosses three UK councils, MRC, BBSRC and EPSRC. Instead of the giant projects beloved of the EU (the Human Brain Project), of the US (the BRAIN initiative), let’s start something that brings together the different areas of research so that each can learn from the other. My experience shows me that, by and large, these different communities don’t talk to each other much at all. More can be gained by simply getting these communities to talk to each other, to share not only their data and analytical techniques, but their ideas, and their ways of thinking than by creating a big new UK brain research project.

And that’s my plan: to try to organise (and get funded, because without funding its hard even to hold meetings) a network that includes all of these communities, and gets them to work together towards both understanding the brain, and developing engineering from it, prosthetics and synthetic brain-like systems as well.

Where to start from? Probably a little quiet discussion and emailing of a number of selected individuals, followed by some sort of manifesto, to gather together a group big enough to build a proposal, followed by a proposal. And soon. If not now, when?




Computational Thinking

December 2, 2015

There’s been quite a lot of material on computational thinking as part of the Computing curriculum over the last few years, and I’ve been teaching some of it to the 1st year students at Stirling University for a number of years. A recent post in the British Computer Society magazine website on Computational thinking set me looking back through what I wrote about this area, in preparation for giving this part of our 1st year course. What we did was to teach some Java programming, and then put in two lectures on this area: we reckoned that trying to teach computational thinking without exposure to programming first would mean that the students would have no context. Re-reading my article made me decide to put it online So here it is: Two Lectures on Computational Thinking: a brief essay, as written in October 2012.

It’s as relevant now as it was then – indeed, I gave essentially the same two lectures just two weeks ago as part of the CSCU9A1 module at Stirling. The lectures themselves are hidden: if anyone’s interested, I can supply them – though they essentially follow the essay above.