I can hardly believe it's only been two months since I first set wheel onto the Isle. So much has happened in the intervening time, so many things about me and my life have changed, and changed again. I went from being the epitome of the lone traveller to being surrounded by a wide network of friends and acquaintances – and yet I have plenty of time to myself, to retreat and think, to read and write. I went from not knowing where I'd sleep before I'd see the spot, from always being on the move, to having my own bed again – and yet, in nine weeks, I have not been in one place for more than three, and that wasn't the current one, either. I went from having all the time in the world to feeling quite overwhelmed with work – and yet now, I am searching for more things to do in my spare hours.
Indeed, after a rather short-lived flurry of accumulated reading and coursework after my return from Japan, I feel rather lost. Of the four modules in my course, none are very challenging; two are largely repetition of things I learned an embarrassingly long time ago, another advances slowly through a set of contradictory theories to arrive at some rather common-sense conclusions. Only one module has so far managed to give some food for thought – the most philosophical of my modules, and the one that made me choose Sussex even over the prestigious UCL: Cognitive Science (or, as the module's ominous title would have it, the Ghost in the Machine). It is here that, despite the module's first-year, first-term status, questions are being asked rather than answered; it is here that I as a student am being inspired, not taught.
I am not blaming the other subjects or their respective tutors, of course. Foundations need to be laid, facts need to be known, principles understood. Only thus can a scientist do her work, standing on the proverbial shoulders of giants. But whereas in the scientific substrate of neuroscience there are many well-understood principles, the interdisciplinary study of the mind has no easy answers and hardly any basic, uncontroversial building blocks. Indeed, while my biology and psychology modules are laying the foundations from the inside out, the cognitive science module proceeds from the outside in, identifying historic movements and analysing them for their strenghts – and their shortcomings –, slowly homing in on the fields of current, ongoing research. At every turn, new questions pop up, with definitive answers remaining a rare exception.
Some of my colleagues have been scared off by this method; from what was supposed to be an interdisciplinary module group, no linguists were ever included, and all philosophers have backed off, along with at least a couple of neuroscientists. Some of the latter are left, along with psychology, computer science and AI students. Still, that provides for a very diverse and engaging environment, where I – neuroscience student with a background of linguistics and computer science and an intense interest for the philosophy of mind – feel entirely at home.
So much so, in fact, that one of the things I am planning to fill my spare time with is a study-independent project in the field. Without going into too much detail now, what I mean to do is take a shot at a particular feature of current connectionist models of mind. The idea started with a ten-minute presentation I gave earlier this week (and for which I prepared for rather longer than might be expected) and an open research seminar (in the COGS seminar series) on the same day. And though I am as yet rather vague on how to approach the itch I want to scratch, I have taken a first step by buying a credit-card-sized mini-supercomputer to do the heavy lifting with. Until its prospective delivery in May, I hope to have done enough reading, conceptual designing, and perhaps some convincing, to be able to run the first experiments within days. Do I expect publishable results? Hell no. But it'll be fun, and I'll have learned a lot even before failing, and more afterwards.
Only a week ago, I talked with two of my friends who are here for their master's degrees, envying them for their chance to do some actual research this year. Now, I realise taking matters into my own hands is my best bet – and might well beat having to write a thesis in terms of enjoyment. Heck, if a class of pre-teens can research bee cognition, and a bunch of undergraduates can work on untangling the wiring diagram of the retina (and we can all help them), then what could possibly stop me from making a computer learn on its own?
And with that promethean thought, I shall leave you,
Until next time,
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