FOCS 2020 Tutorial:
Computation in the Brain

Christos H. Papadimitriou and Santosh S. Vempala

Fri Nov 13, noon-3pm EST.

The goal of this tutorial is to showcase the opportunities for Theory to contribute to the greatest scientific challenge of our time: how the mind emerges from the brain. Tremendous advances in neuroscience over the past two decades have led to an avalanche of data and sophisticated models at the lower levels (molecules, neurons, synapses, circuits), while cognitive scientists have made leaps towards outlining the brain correlates of cognitive phenomena. And yet the gap (in both scale and methodology) between these two levels remains unbridged. As Nobel laureate Richard Axel recently put it “we don’t have a logic to translate neural activity into thought...” Obviously, this is a call for the development of formal computational systems of the kind our field has pioneered.

The first part of this tutorial will be a quick yet comprehensive introduction to those basic facts and classical results in neuroscience which we believe are central to this quest. The second hour will present a theoretical framework for brain computation, of the kind Axel speaks, based on assemblies of neurons (aka ensembles, engrams), and how it helps capture cognitive phenomena from memorization and association to language, connecting it to several groundbreaking experimental results. Finally, the third part will expose some of the many fascinating theoretical questions that arise.

12-1pm Neuroscience Essentials for the TCS Researcher [slides], [video]
1-1:15pm (break)
1:15-2pm Computation with Assemblies of Neurons [slides], [video (for parts 2 and 3)]
(NB: this part is based on our recent work)
2-2:15pm (break)
2:15-3pm A Smorgasbord of Research Directions for TCS [slides], [video (part 3 starts at 1:01)]