Tom Dean, Visiting Scholar & Lecturer. Stanford University

You can find the slides from Professor Dean’s talk here!

On the Role of Search in Brain Inspired Architectures for Automated Programming

In CS379C in the Spring of 2020 we discussed a paper by Josh Merel, Matt Botvinick and Greg Wayne entitled “Hierarchical motor control in mammals and machines”. Josh gave an invited lecture on their work that you can find here and joined in discussions with us during the remainder of the quarter. The Merel et al paper focuses on motor control and in our class discussions we investigated what lessons could be learned from their model in developing cognitive architectures for solving problems like automated programming.

The SARS-CoV-2 outbreak and shortened quarter were not conducive to class projects requiring substantial coding, but we spent a lot of our time thinking about what such architectures might look like. At the end of the quarter, I asked several students if they were interested in developing a cognitive architecture based on our discussions in class and five of us spent a substantial fraction of the next six months working on the project. In this talk, I will describe the project and the lessons we learned that led to developing a very different perspective than one might expect given our technical leanings at the outset of the project.

Readings: Josh Merel’s recorded lecture and slides are available here. The paper in Nature Communications is open access and available here. I call your attention to the inset Box 1 entitled “Reusable motor skills for hierarchical control of bodies” for an overview of the neural network model, and Box 2 entitled “Review of the neuroanatomical hierarchy” for the corresponding biological inspiration. I kept copious notes concerning our discussions during the six months that we worked on the project. Figure 2 in the online notes summarizes the status of the model in early November when I gave a talk in one of Jay McClelland’s weekly lab meetings, but the accompanying summary description in the main text was not intended to be self contained and I will attempt to succinctly summarize the basic features of the model and associated implementation in my talk.

My students often ask about my background and some are incredulous listening to my accounts. It is hard to convey what it was like in those years to people who followed a more conventional path. Given the impersonal nature of our shelter-in-place arrangements early in the pandemic, I wrote a condensed biographical history for the students in CS379C in the Spring. I think it provides a more balanced perspective on what is admittedly a road less traveled. My abbreviated personal history is accessible on the course website here if you’re interested.