Monday, December 11, 2006

Cognitive Science 50 years symposium

The Cognitive Science Unit of the Helsinki University celebrated the past 50 years of cognitive science with a symposium. In a panel discussion titled "Theoretical and Historical Foundations of Cognitive Science" professors Peter Gärdenfors (Lund University), Timo Kaitaro (University of Helsinki) and Göte Nyman (University of Helsinki) discussed the paradigms of cognitive science in the past decades and their influences to the current and future directions. The session was chaired by Pauli Brattico.

The session began with a discussion of the origin of the computer metaphor of the brain -- the notion that the brain could essentially be described as a machine executing symbol manipulation tasks and algorithms to process input information as computers do. The computer metaphor and the 'cognitive psychology revolution' of the 1950s was seen as a counter reaction to behaviorism -- which in turn was a counter reaction to the earlier paradigm of German introspective psychology.

In addition to being a relatively new area of science, cognitive science has a distinct feature of having multiple, often contradictory, views on the roles of learning and adaptation (as opposed to innate structures) and statistical information processing (as opposed to symbol manipulation).

Brattico asked each of the panelists to give their take on whether symbol manipulation has a role in human cognition. All three panelists were quite sceptical about symbol manipulation taking place in the mechanisms of the brain although the brain is able to solve symbol manipulation tasks. Quoting Timo Kaitaro - 'Does symbol manipulation occur? Yes. Does it happen in the brain? No.'

Later questions asked the panelists to elaborate what the next 50 years of cognitive science could be like. Gärdenfors' answer to this was the expansion of the concept 'cognition' outside the brain organ to consider the important components of embodiment and cultural interaction. Also, Gärdenfors noted that 'the mind' might not be a good term to use anymore as a separate entity as there is no clear border between the cognition 'leaking out' of the brain into the environment.

An interesting question left without a good answer was the nature of robots and computational cognitive systems of the future. Göte Nyman's opinion was that there is no need for computational systems to be very human-like to serve humans similarly as we don't need airplanes to look like birds. Nyman also emphasized the role of a more complex top-down system model of human cognition.

But does this apply in cases where human-computer interaction would require skills which are generally thought to be possible only for humans, such as natural language processing/learning or image segmentation?

When asked to select a single central question yet to be answered in the next 50 years of cognitive science, Kaitaro presented the question of the connection of biology and cognition and whether cognition could ever be isolated from the biological realm. Gärdenfors' question was simply 'where does the meaning come from?'.

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