Saturday, March 8, 2008

Keeping up with the Jones-Hickoks (TB West)

Between the semantic dementia course -- Thank You, Greg! -- and the travelogue, I can barely keep up with all the reading ... Greg, you are a good citizen, and I have been a slacker.

One of us, DP from TB_East, attended two curious meetings recently. Here 's a little update on that.

AAAS in Boston: This meeting is largely for the media, apparently over 900 journalists attended. There were a few sessions that were relevant to our research interests. Phil Rubin from Haskins chaired a session on language technologies which included Dominic Massaro (Talking Faces) and Justine Cassell (Northwestern University). Massaro presented the work with Baldi, the talking head -- which is a cool tool to investigate audio-visual speech but seems a little bit behind-the-times in terms of state-of-the art animation and visualization. Given the quality of animation in current cinema, it should be possible to generate analytically precisely specified faces that give more realistic/naturalistic output. That being said, Massaro has been a leading figure in the investigation of audiovisual speech perception, and (whether one likes his Baldi figure or not) anyone studying AV speech is certainly (or should be) aware of how Massaro's FLMP model handles multi-sensory integration. Justine Cassell presented some provocative data on how children interact with avatar-style computerized friends onscreen. She applied her ideas about 'embodied conversational agents' to the interaction between autistic chuldren and the onscreen partner. A little puzzling but fascinating. The work is not yet published but bstay tuned.

I chaired a session on brain and speech that had three interesting talks. First, Pat Kuhl presented her program of research on language development/speech perception, the highlight being the new baby MEG scanner that Pat apparently convinced the Finnish MEG manufacturer to build. Pictures of babies in an MEG machine ... how can you go wrong? I am looking forward to seeing the new data coming from this approach. Jack Gandour presented a lot of data on the neural basis of tone language perception and comprehension. Jack is arguably the world's leading expert on the cognitive neuroscience of tone languages, and a 30 minute presentation cannot do justice to the huge range of data he has on these issues. Finally, former TB_East graduate student Nina Kazanina presented some of her recent work, published last year in PNAS. Nina's paper (with TB_East faculty Bill Idsardi and Colin Phillips) is called The influence of meaning on the perception of speech sounds and uses a clever cross-linguistic design (Korean, Russian) in the context of a mismatch study to test how native phonology shapes early auditory responses. Nina is now on the faculty of the University of Bristol, and we are all very proud of her.

The session in Boston that really got my blood pressure high was called The mind of a tool maker, and concerned -- allegedly -- the evolution of language and cognition. A very high-powered cast, a terrible session. The cast: Lewontin, Berwick, Walsh, Hauser, Deacon, as well as some other folks I did not know, and whose performance did not make me wat to run out and read their work (e.g. Mimi Lam, Dean Falk). There were, to be sure, some sensible ideas buried in there, and one genuinely good talk, by Marc Hauser. Among other reasons it stood out as good (contrast enhancement) because (a) he stayed within his alloted time (b) the talk had a point/hypothesis (c) the work actually related to the topic of the session. Berwick had an interesting idea about FoxP2, a really nice deconstruction/debunking based on a computational analysis, and Deacon presented some interesting ideas -- but too many and too scattered. But the bottom line is this: the study and discussion of evolution of cognition and language requires extreme caution, subtlety, rigor, nuance, a high-pass filter for bullshit, and so on and so forth. And, alas, the level of speculation and pure unadulterated paleo-nonsense was off the scale. This session made me appreciate why the French Academy forbade language evolution as a topic. The audience deserved better. My favorite line: the organizer of the workshop, Dr. Lam, in her opening remarks, said that one reason she wanted to have this workshop was because she had such a hard time getting her ideas on evolution of cognition published .... Yikes!


Greg Hickok said...

Welcome back, David. Glad to see you are back in the saddle!

Anita Bowles said...

AAAS is big for science writers. The audience for the sessions is very mixed so you usually get some interesting questions.

Anonymous said...

I just read your comment about the AAAS session "The mind of the toolmaker". Be a man and apologize to Drs Lam and Falk. Even if you dont "like' or agree with their work you have no reson to be rude and righteous with the ladies.