Collaboration examines animal behavior to inform AI

Venkatesh N. Murthy.

Venkatesh Murthy is the Raymond Leo Erikson Life Sciences Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology and the Paul J. Finnegan Family Director of the Center for Brain Science. Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard file photo

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Neurobiologists at Harvard University have entered a joint research agreement with NTT Research, Inc., a division of NTT, to study animal neuro-responses with the hope of informing future artificial intelligence systems. The five-year research project, launched in the fall of 2021, enables researchers at the two organizations to collaboratively study how animals maintain behavioral flexibility, specifically in the task of navigation. Greater understanding of how this challenge is approached in biology may eventually enable the design of new computing machines with similar capabilities. The agreement was coordinated by Harvard Office of Technology Development.

The principal investigator is Venkatesh Murthy, the Raymond Leo Erikson Life Sciences Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology at Harvard and the Paul J. Finnegan Family Director of the Center for Brain Science. Murthy’s counterpart at NTT Research for the joint project is Physics & Informatics (PHI) Lab Research Scientist Gautam Reddy, who was previously an Independent Post-Doctoral Fellow at Harvard’s NSF-Simons Center for Mathematical and Statistical Analysis of Biology.

This joint research aims to better elucidate how animals maintain the ability to respond appropriately to a wide variety of complex real-world scenarios. The investigators expect the results from one aspect of the research to be a source of new, biologically inspired ideas for artificial reinforcement learning systems that rely on representation learning. Such ideas have played a major role in recent advances in artificial intelligence. Results from another aspect of the research should provide a quantitative understanding of how animals track trails, as well as identify the basic elements of general behavioral strategies that perform flexibly and reliably in the real world. Murthy’s lab has a long track record in experimental and computational neurobiology. Expertise relevant to the joint research includes the ability to record from or image many individual neurons in the brain while an animal performs behavioral tasks. This technical expertise will enable the research team to understand what computations are performed by biological neural networks when an animal is navigating in a complex world.

Murthy and Reddy have previously worked together on understanding the computational principles behind olfaction. Their focus was on how the smell receptors in the nose respond to blends of odorous compounds. During his time at Harvard, Reddy worked on the theory behind how animals track scent trails and on developing a computational framework to explain how evolution optimizes organisms.

“I am delighted to continue this line of inquiry with Dr. Reddy through the NTT Research PHI Lab,” Murthy said. “The brain is an example of an extremely efficient computational device, and plenty of phenomena within it remain unexplored and unexplained. We believe the results of these investigations in neurobiology will reveal basic understandings and prove useful in the field of artificial intelligence.”