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Timo Honkela: From Brain Tumour to Peace Machine.

CC BY-SA 4.0, by Wikipedia user Soppakanuuna

This is not a billion dollar idea. This is a hundred billion dollar idea.

Timo Honkela is a computer scientist, cognitive scientist, artificial intelligence researcher and a machine-learner. Three years ago he was diagnosed with a brain tumour. He underwent a dramatic treatment in the course of which half of his visual cortex was removed — in particular. Fortuntely, he remained totally sane; in his own words, only some “vocabulary got cut out”. But the danger of the tumour re-activating in any part of his brain remains hanging in the air.

What do you do in a situation where you hear death breathing behind your shoulder? Some get smashed down and depressed. But not Timo. He thought: “If I am going to die soon, what can I do with all the knowledge and expertise that I have gained so far in my life?”

Having the strongest expertise in the field of automatic language processing, he decided to  exploit it — and eventually other machine learning techniques — to make communication between people more peaceful. Sounds ambitious? Yes it does. We all understand words a little differently and while you may write a short e-mail just because you don’t have time to write a long one, the recepient might interpret it as laconic and unfriendly. Question is: with the enormous amount of data that we have today (and Google and Facebook have of our chats and e-mails), what would it take to write a machine learning algorithm which will put up a small warning sign next to your Compose-window whenever it thinks that there is a risk of unintended negativity-induction? This of course can be extended to devices measuring heart-rate variability, voice recognition systems and so on and so forth to help people from anticipating arguments with their spouse to softening political conflict situations.

This is a controversial and curious idea which according to Timo is not a billion dollar idea, but a hundred billion dollar idea…. To learn more, read Timo Honkela’s new book  (now only in Finnish, English version is coming), follow him on Twitter at @THonkela and listen to this podcast episode which was recorded this August:

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Self-exploration in Constantly Changing Environment – Interview with Nandita Kumar

Mauritius-born New Zealandian-Indian artist Nandita Kumar is all over the place – in a good way. She is on a quest to find connections between art, science and technology through her own art as well as community projects to shift consciousness of people – in her own words. I met Nandita at the exhibition opening of ARS17 in Kiasma, Helsinki. A glass bulb with a small technological world inside it – that’s what I saw. It reminded me of one of these self-sustained ecosystems in a bottle. Nandita’s ecosystem is an artificial one. It consists of very carefully manufactured detailed metal made plants. This is what she says about it:

pOLymORpHic hUMansCApE is an interactive biosphere in a bottle which explores two days in an urban landscape. This installation wishes to evoke discussions on the problems faced by Indian Cities due to urbanization, high population growth and development of slums. Read more at nanditakumar.com…

In this interview we discuss Nandita’s story and how her artistic identity formed in an ever-changing environment: she was born in Mauritius, grown up in India and moved to New Zealand at the age of 19 where she still works part time – and part time in Mumbai. See below the full line-up indexed with time stamps and stream the interview here:

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How to aim for the top and other secrets for success in science: an interview with Professor Emeritus Erkki Oja


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In this episode I have the honour of introducing you to one of the giants of unsupervised machine learning and more generally of mathematics applied to statistical algorithms, Professor Emeritus Erkki Oja. I met Erkki met an artificial intelligence meetup in Helsinki Read more

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How Does Music Influence Brain? Interview with Cognitive Scientist of Music Perception Mari Tervaniemi

Mari and I in Minerva Building

Does playing music to a not-yet-born child in the womb have a positive effect on the brain’s development? Yes, says Mari Tervaniemi, a brain research scientist who was one of the pioneers in the cognitive science of music perception when the field started in the 1980’s. She is still working in that area. On the other hand music can also help to treat dementia and Parkinson’s disease. The  youngest (born) participants in a Mari Tervaniemi’s experiment was 2 days old and the oldest were in their 90’s.

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Currently Mari is working projects which you can find here: Read more

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Art vs. Mathematics and How to Get Something from Nothing: An interview with Markus Rissanen

I wrote previously about Markus Rissanen when I still didn’t know him personally. Markus is a professional artist who has been fascinated by tilings and their mathematical properties such as symmetries and regularities ever since he was very young. As explained in my previous post, Markus eventually solved the problem of generalising some quasiperiodic properties of Penrose tilings from 5-fold symmetry to n-fold symmetry for any positive integer n. In this interview we briefly touch the subject of tilings. Then we talk about the difference between mathematical work, artistic work and the work of writing a PhD thesis in which Markus was engaged for the past four years. I got to ask him a question that has been bothering me for a long time: Why don’t artists, especially painters do joint work? At least significantly less frequently than, say, mathematicians, who are traditionally considered to be “lonely workers” (not the case! See my interview with Olli Martio). Another important topic we touch upon is what to do when you do not have inspiration? Here is part of Markus’ answer:

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How to Turn 5 Seconds a Year into Unlimited Source of Motivation: An interview with Professor Emeritus Olli Martio

Olli Martio and Vadim Kulikov

Olli Martio (right), me (left).

For no less than 25 years out of his career, Olli Martio (born 1941) was a chair of one of the mathematics departments in Finland: at the universities of Jyväskylä and Helsinki. He retired seven years ago, but he hasn’t stopped working nor making ground breaking progress in mathematics. For the last six years he was employed by the Academy of Finland. In 1964, when he was still a graduate student, he had a side job programming one of the first IBM computers in Europe. I was rather surprised to hear what was the main purpose of these machines at the time: printing lots of data on paper. Well, at the time paper was the main medium for data storage after all.

For me the main take-aways of this interview include:

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Ewa and Vadim at Jeff Koons exhibition London
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Art as sanity coping and how to follow your passion: An interview with Ewa Wilczynski

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My parents wanted me to be a dentist

In this episode I interview Ewa Wilczynski.  Read more