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Brains Behind the Institute

Surya Ganguli

Surya Ganguli

Assistant professor of applied physics

Accumulating diverse knowledge can lead to the most serendipitous connections.

When I was a kid, I wanted to work in artificial intelligence (AI); I read all the books about it in my local public library. But my first college course on AI did not inspire me. It covered old AI technologies, and ignored insights from the brain. So, I started exploring physics, math, and computer science, and ended up majoring in all three.

On a whim, I decided to pursue a doctoral degree in physics. And I randomly focused on string theory, since it seemed absolutely fundamental. While that was fun, at the end of my PhD I discovered the existence of theoretical neuroscience, and I completely fell in love with it. For the first time, I learned that theory could substantially impact biology—you could test theories against experiments, and try to reverse-engineer the brain.

In hindsight, I feel like I couldn't have planned my career better, even though it just fell together by luck. When I was an undergraduate majoring in three subjects, I sometimes woke up in the middle of the night wondering what on earth I was doing. But it added up to more than I could ever have imagined. The brain is among the most complicated objects in the known universe, so you need many different perspectives to study it.

Now, my lab and I are searching for unified principles of computation that apply to both biological and artificial circuits, which could lead to a unification of AI, psychology, neuroscience, and more. If we really understood these principles, we could augment what artificial circuits can do, and gain insights into biological circuits, too. A lot of our success depends on being aware of work that's being done across diverse fields. But you also have to be comfortable with uncertainty, and ready to rethink all assumptions. Indeed, the frontiers of neuroscience research are very murky. But that's part of why it's so exciting – many conceptual surprises will emerge.

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