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Q&A: Vogelstein ’00 discusses neuroscience, intelligence technology

Award-winning researcher discusses advancements in applied neuroscience technologies

R. Jacob Vogelstein ’00 works at the intersection of United States intelligence and neuroscience and received a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers in January. The award is the highest honor offered by the U.S. Government for science and engineering professionals in the early stages of their careers.

Herald: Can you explain what the award is for?

Vogelstein: The award is an early career award for my … contributions over the first few years of my research career. My research is focused on applied neuroscience technologies. I look to the brain for insights about how people think and how our brain is wired up to perform the algorithms that are the basis of our cognitive thoughts and processing. Then I try to build devices that replicate those processes or leverage the processes to allow people to do things that are smarter or faster.

How is neuroscience research related to U.S. intelligence?

In the U.S. intelligence communities, analysts are the bread and butter. Human analysts primarily use their brains to do their job. That means that any way we can use tools to increase the speed of thought and efficiency of analytical processing or to replicate human thought using machines are all ways we can advance our intelligence capabilities.

Where do you see the intelligence community in five years?

I see a convergence of technology in machine learning and in conventional approaches. What we know about systems today is that while they are far more effective (than those from) decades ago, they are much less effective than the brain in processing tasks. We really need to move some of our processing off the human brain and onto computer systems that think like humans. The work I was doing for the intelligence community was looking at how the brain computes and trying to build intelligence systems that compute like the brain.

Do you foresee any ethical dilemmas as intelligence technology becomes more attuned with humans?

I think a lot of ethical questions are in building automated systems that make decisions. As society in general, we have to become comfortable that we are building decision-making into machines.

Do you think the administration of President Trump will bring any changes to the way the government conducts or funds scientific research?

Every administration brings its own unique perspective on science and engineering. The Obama administration was very supportive and began the (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative, which infused a lot of excitement and money into neuroscience research. I hope the new administration continues to pursue those kinds of investments.

What experiences at Brown were particularly impactful on your career?

Brown was incredibly influential on my career. In particular, I took Introduction to Neuroscience my freshman year as an engineering concentrator. When I took the class, it was really eye-opening and really intriguing to see the parallels between the way the brain computes and the way the computer systems compute. There are great synergies that could be exploited between the two. It was that class that really made me interested in pursuing this kind of neuroscience.


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