Cosyne: Foraging!

I think I have found my people.  The workshops after the main Cosyne meeting were smaller and more focused, and really allowed you to delve into a topic.  I spent the first day at the Neural Mechanisms of Foraging workshop and found myself a bunch of neuroecologists!

I think I’m just going to summarize a bunch of talks instead of any one individually.  I missed the first few minutes of introduction, but I got the impression that this was the first meeting of ‘neuroforagers’ to ever actually take place; Michael Platt called it a “coming out party for foraging”.  Foraging – to define it briefly – is the decision to leave a reward source to explore new options.  It’s apparently a great task for monkeys too – many basic behaviors that we train monkeys to perform can take a long time to train; teaching them to do foraging happens in a single session.  It’s totally natural which is itself a reason for why we should be studying it!

There were two recurring themes at the talks – the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) is the foraging center and that economics approaches aren’t doing much good.  Talk after talk recorded from the ACC or studied how ACC activity is shaped.  Just like the Basal Ganglia meeting that The Cellular Scale attended, every talk included The Dopamine Slide.  Michael Platt suggested at the end that he hoped at foraging meetings every talk would include a figure from one of his papers that I have now forgotten!  Well, I don’t do ACC so probably not for me anyway.

The other theme was the failure of economic models to explain behavior.  Talk after talk included some variant of, “we tried fitting this to a [temporal discounting/risk-preference/reinforcement-learning/optimal foraging]  model but it didn’t account for the data”.  Almost all of them said that!  The naive assumption that we should move to optimize immediate reward is, somehow, failing.  Some kind of new principle (or perhaps better model-fitting) will be needed to consistently explain actual behavior.

Is neuroscience useful? (Updated)

I recently got a quadcopter and in pockets of my spare time I’ve been attempting to make it an autonomous drone. Yet reading this article on unmanned drones has me returning to some thoughts I’ve had while working on the project.  Basically: is neuroscience useful?  Much of the utility from drones comes from their autonomy and adaptability.  In my naive fantasies, I think that the work we do to understand the nervous system should inspire drone makers, hiring neuroscientists left and right to implant the lessons we’ve learned from the nervous system into these machines.

And yet – and yet I’m not aware of anyone doing this.  There are whispers and rumors emanating from the Brain Corporation that this is their mission but I have yet to see anything concrete come out of that (to be fair, they’re a relatively new company).  But even more we should be asking ourselves: are we going to be leap-frogged by those who are working in computer sciences – artificial intelligence, machine learning, vision processing?

That the drones are living in a newly created ecosystem, interacting and invading new niches, is undeniable.  Presumably an enterprising young scientist in ecology, neuroscience, (economic) decision-making should be perfectly suited to at least consulting on these projects.  I guess the question is: does that actually happen?  Outside of ‘explaining the brain’ for ‘medicine’, do we do anything that’s actually useful?  Or is that up to the engineers?

Update: Well here’s a good example of using animal behavior/reflexes to improve robotics.