The Genius Neuroscientist Who Might Hold the Key to True AI
When King George III of England began to show signs of acute mania toward the end of his reign, rumors about the royal madness multiplied quickly in the public mind. One legend had it that George tried to shake hands with a tree, believing it to be the King of Prussia. Another described how
More than two centuries later, this story about Queen Square is still popular in London guidebooks. And whether or not it’s true, the neighborhood has evolved over the years as if to conform to it. A metal statue of Charlotte stands over the northern end of the square; the corner pub is called the Queen’s Larder; and the square’s quiet rectangular garden is now all but surrounded by people who work on brains and people whose brains need work. The National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery—where a modern-day royal might well seek treatment—dominates one corner of Queen Square, and the world-renowned neuroscience research facilities of University College London round out its perimeter. During a week of perfect weather last July, dozens of neurological patients and their families passed silent time on wooden benches at the outer edges of the grass.
On a typical Monday, Karl Friston arrives on Queen Square at 12:25 pm and smokes a cigarette in the garden by the statue of Queen Charlotte. A slightly bent, solitary figure with thick gray hair, Friston is the scientific director of University College London’s storied Functional Imaging Laboratory, known to everyone who works there as the FIL. After finishing his cigarette, Friston walks to the western side of the square, enters a brick and limestone building, and heads to a seminar room on the fourth floor, where anywhere from two to two dozen people might be facing a blank white wall waiting for him. Friston likes to arrive five minutes late, so everyone else is already there.
His greeting to the group is liable to be his first substantial utterance of the day, as Friston prefers not to speak with other human beings before noon. (At home, he will have conversed with his wife and three sons via an agreed-upon series of smiles and grunts.) He also rarely meets people one-on-one. Instead, he prefers to hold open meetings like this one, where students, postdocs, and members of the public who desire Friston’s expertise—a category of person that has become almost comically broad in recent years—can seek his knowledge. “He believes that if one person has an idea or a question or project going on, the best way to learn about it is for the whole group to come together, hear the person, and then everybody gets a chance to ask questions and discuss. And so one person’s learning becomes everybody’s learning,” says David Benrimoh, a psychiatry resident at McGill University who studied under Friston for a year. “It’s very unique. As many things are with Karl.”
At the start of each Monday meeting, everyone goes around and states their questions at the outset. Friston walks in slow, deliberate circles as he listens, his glasses perched at the end of his nose, so that he is always lowering his head to see the person who is speaking. He then spends the next few hours answering the questions in turn. “A Victorian gentleman, with Victorian manners and tastes,” as one friend describes Friston, he responds to even the most confused questions with courtesy and rapid reformulation. The Q&A sessions—which I started calling “Ask Karl” meetings—are remarkable feats of endurance, memory, breadth of knowledge, and creative thinking. They often end when it is time for Friston to retreat to the minuscule metal balcony hanging off his office for another smoke.
Source : WIRED