Thursday, April 26, 2007

Models of Action Selection

Discovered today that a special issue of the Royal Society Proceedings (B) has been published, with the subject of Models of Action Selection (link here). It comprises of 14 articles, on subjects as wide ranging as animal behaviour (one on the concept of optimal animal behaviour caught my eye in particular), social decision making (politics etc), and of course models of human decision making. One which jumped out at me was a paper by Botvinick on what looks like an implementation of Fuster's hierarchical memory theory, which has been the subject of a few of my posts (e.g. here and here). This one is a must-read, for me at least... The special issue blurb follows:

Action selection, at its simplest, is the problem that every human and animal faces at each instant of "what to do next?". To scientists this problem raises a plethora of further questions: How do we know how to do the right thing? Why is it that we sometimes make poor choices? How do we plan ahead for complex tasks and remember what we are trying to do as we go along? Are there central decision-making mechanisms in the brain or do actions somehow 'select themselves' through the interaction of many concurrent brain processes? What happens when different parts the brain want to do different things? How do the actions selected by individuals shape and change the social groups in which they live?

This theme issue addresses these questions by focusing on a particular strategy for finding scientific explanations - computer modelling. The contributions employ state-of-the-art modelling techniques ranging from large networks of simulated brain cells, through to models of individuals (people or animals) viewed as agents operating in simulated worlds. The research has broad applications, from understanding brain disorders such as Parkinson's disease and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, to explaining how we choose which political parties we vote for, and how they adapt to
increase their appeal to us.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Encephalon #21

The 21st issue of Encephalon is now up at Ouroboros - an excellent installment as usual.

After a cursory read-through, there are two picks for me: at the Skeptical Alchemist comes a brief overview of ciliated neurons, and the implications of these often overlooked cells on maladies as wide ranging as obesity and vision defects; and at PsyBlog a concise look at the easy and hard problems of consciousness, and whether this point of view has any utility in scientific investigation.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Hierarchical Temporal Memory (HTM)

Some very brief thoughts and notes on this article: In Aprils issue of the IEEE Spectrum, Jeff Hawkins (of Palm Pilot fame, and his book "On Intelligence") briefly discusses the Hierarchical Temporal Memory theory/framework as a novel engineering tool, and actual and potential applications. The HTM framework is based on the proposed operation of the human neocortex, which makes up around 60% of the brain. Although the neocortex is very uniform at both the macro- and micro-scopic levels, different regions of it are 'responsible' for a wide range of functions and differing modalities, leading to the view that its underlying functionality (that is, the 'mode of neural processing') is also uniform - that it is a general purpose learning machine. Jeff Hawkins proposes that (as further detailed in his book) that the interconnectivity of the neocortex may be traced out forming a hierarchy. It is this hierarchical connectivity, between elements of equivalent functionality, which forms the basis of the HTM. It would be useful to quote one of the concluding paragraphs which gives insight into the motivation of the work:

"HTM is not a model of a full brain or even the entire neocortex. Our system doesn't have desires, motives, or intentions of any kind. Indeed, we do not even want to make machines which are humanlike. Rather, we want to exploit a mechanism that we believe to underlie much of human thought and perception. This operating principle can be applied to many problems of pattern recognition, pattern discovery, prediction and, ultimately, robotics. But striving to build machines that pass the Turing Test is not our mission."

This emphasis on HTM's as an engineering solution is made quite explicit, with a number of examples mentioned where the tools which have been developed on these principles have been used. These include modelling networks (e.g. computer or social), and image processing (e.g. for use in the automotive industry). The limitations of the system, on the other hand, are acknowledged: HTM's work best when there is inherent hierarchical structure in the data, due to the hierarchical structure and nature of the HTM's themselves. Also, in its current state, HTM's are unable to deal with long memory sequences, or specific timing events, rendering them unable to deal with natural language processing or robotics, however there is nothing in principle that makes it impossible at some point in the future.

The basic principles of operation are of course not completely novel in themselves, even as acknowledged by the author. A number of other efforts and theories have used similar hierarchical structures, including Hierarchical Hidden Markov Models, and the Network Memory theory of Professor Fuster, which I have writen about in previously. I think it serves as another example of how this type of hybrid between parallel processing (a central tenet of the theory of brain information processing) and hierarchical structure is a promising line of research (indeed, it is in this area that I am working), which may be considered biologically non-implausible given our current understanding of the brain.