Interview with…Manuel G. Bedia


Manuel G. Bedia is an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Zaragoza. He is one of the founders of the Spanish Network of Cognitive Science (retecog.net). This network has been established to promote and coordinate research in Cognitive Systems with goals overlapping those of the European Network EUCognition but with more emphasis on the relationships between scientific and educational policies, and the Spanish university system. He holds a BSc in Physics, a MSc.in Technological Innovation management and a Ph.D. in Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence (Best PhD Thesis Award, 2004), all from the University of Salamanca (Spain). He has worked as a Technological Consultant in Innovation and knowledge management (Foundation COTEC, Madrid, Spain) and as a research fellow in the field of artificial cognitive systems in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Salamanca, the Planning and Learning Group at the University Carlos III of Madrid (Visiting Professor, 2005-07) and the Multidisciplinary Institute at the University Complutense of Madrid (2004-07). He has also been a visiting postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Perception, Action and Behavior (University of Edinburgh, 2005) and the Centre for Computational Neuroscience and Robotics at the University of Sussex, 2008.

1.     Your area of research is Cognitive Sciences. Could you give us a brief introduction about the focus of your work? 

Cognitive science is a space for interdisciplinary research where we aim to understand how the mind works. It joins together neuroscientists, psychologists, philosophers, engineers and of course statisticians too!

During the past five decades, analogies between the human mind/brain and computer software/hardware have led the work of researchers trying to understand how we think, reason and solve problems.

However, over the last few years, new conceptions have arisen doubting this conceptualisation. The biggest influence behind this change in perspective has come from engineers rather than scientists; in particular a group of engineers using the disciplinary tools of engineering to generate new scientific hypotheses instead of applying knowledge generated from other areas.

In a reversal of the usual role of engineers using models for the development of artifacts, the process develops tools to think about mind phenomena.

2. Could you give us an example of this?

Imagine we purposefully build a very simple artifact or software program that is capable of performing a certain task in a novel way. This proves the existence of explanatory alternatives to phenomena that were supposed to work in a certain way. In the words of other authors, the models serve as “mental gymnastics”. They are entities equivalent to classical mental experiments: They are artifacts that help our thinking. These tools are the foundations of modelling exercises: dynamic systems, probability theory, etc.

3. Is probability an important tool in your work?

It is indeed very important and relevant at many levels of the research in this area.

At a fundamental level, the mathematical languages that the early Artificial Intelligence (AI) researchers developed were not sufficiently flexible (they were based on the use of logic and rule systems) to capture an important characteristic of our intelligence: its flexibility to interactively reorganise itself. This led to a growing interest in tools that would embrace this uncertainty.

Recently a very interesting approach has been developed in the area where fundamental principles are based on probability: Artificial General Intelligence (AGI). The original goal of the AI field was the construction of “thinking machines” – that is, computer systems with human-like general intelligence. Due to the difficulty of this task, for the last few decades, the majority of AI researchers have focused on what has been called “narrow AI” – the production of AI systems displaying intelligence regarding specific, highly constrained tasks. In recent years, however, more and more researchers have reapplied themselves to the original goals of the field recognising the necessity and emergent feasibility of treating intelligence holistically. AGI research differs from the ordinary AI research by stressing the versatility and entirety of intelligence. Essentially, its main objective was to develop a theory of Artificial Intelligence based on Algorithmic Probability (further explanations can be found here).

At a more concrete level, there are several examples. For instance, it is well known that the reasoning model of the clinical environment is fundamentally Bayesian. The clinicians analyse and reflect on previous conditions and status of patients, before reaching a diagnosis of their current condition. This fits very well with the whole idea of Bayesian probability. Following the same line of reasoning, probability appears as a fundamental tool to model artificial minds thinking as humans.

In general, this Bayesian framework is the most used in our field.

4. How can this be applied in your area of research?

The Bayesian framework for probabilistic inference provides a general approach to understanding how problems of induction can be solved in principle, and perhaps how they might be solved in the human mind. Bayesian models have addressed animal learning , human inductive learning and generalisation, visual perception, motor control, semantic memory , language processing and acquisition , social cognition, etc.

However, I believe that the most important use comes from the area of neuroscience.

5. So what is the neuroscientific viewpoint in the field of the understanding of our mental functions, the Cognitive Sciences?

Neuroscience intends to understand the brain from the neural correlates that are activated when an individual performs an action. The advances in this area over the years are impressive but this conceptual point of view is not without problems. For instance, as Alva Noë states in his famous book Out of Our Heads, the laboratory conditions under which the measurements are taken substantially affect the observed task…This is a sort of second order cybernetics effect as defined by Margaret Mead decades ago. The history of neuroscience also includes some errors in the statistical analysis and inference phases…

6. Could you explain this further?

In the early 90s, David Poeppel, when researching the neurophysiological foundations of speech perception, found out that none of the six best studies of the topic matched his methodological apparatus (read more here).

Apparently, these issues were solved when functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) emerged. As this technique was affordable it allowed more groups to work on the topic and indirectly forced the analytical methods to become more standardised across the different labs.

However, these images brought in a new problem. In an article in Duped magazine Margaret Talbot described how the single inclusion of fMRI images in papers had arguably increased the probability of these being accepted.

7.  You have also mentioned that big mistakes have been identified in the statistical analysis of data in the area. What is the most common error in your opinion?

In 2011 an eye-opening paper was published on this topic (find it here). The authors focused their research on the misreported significance of differences of significance.

Let’s assume one effect is statistically significantly different from controls (i.e. p<0.05), while another is not (p>0.05). On the surface, this sounds reasonable, but it is flawed because it doesn’t say anything about how different the two effects are from one another. To do this, researchers need to separately test for a significant interaction between the two results in question. Nieuwenhuis and his co-workers summed up the solution concisely: ‘…researchers need to report the statistical significance of their difference rather than the difference between their significance levels.’

The authors had the impression that this type of error was widespread in the neuroscience community. To test this idea, they went hunting for ‘difference of significance’ errors in a set of very prestigious neuroscience articles.

The authors analysed 513 papers in cognitive neurosciences in the five journals of highest impact (Science, Nature, Nature Neuroscience, Neuron and The Journal of Neuroscience). Out of the 157 papers that could have made the mistake, 78 use the right approach whereas 79 did not.

After finding this, they suspected that the problem could be more generalised and went to analyse further papers. Out of these newly sampled 120 articles on cellular and molecular neuroscience published in Nature Neuroscience between 2009 and 2010, not a single publication used correct procedures to compare effect sizes. At least 25 papers erroneously compared significance levels either implicitly or explicitly.

8. What was the origin of this mistake?

The authors suggest that it could be due to the fact that people are generally tempted to attribute too much meaning to the difference between significant and not significant. For this reason, the use of confidence intervals may help prevent researchers from making this statistical error. Whatever the reasons behind the mistake, its ubiquity and potential effect suggest that researchers and reviewers should be more aware that the difference between significant and not significant events is not itself necessarily significant.

I see this as a great opportunity and a challenge for the statistical community, i.e., to contribute to the generation of invaluable knowledge in the applied areas that make use of their techniques.

Selected publications:

Bedia, M. & Di Paolo (2012). Unreliable gut feelings can lead to correct decisions: The somatic marker hypothesis innon-linear decision chains. FRONTIERS IN PSYCHOLOGY. 3 – 384, pp. 1 – 19 pp. 2012. ISSN 1664-1078

Aguilera, M., Bedia, M., Santos, B. and Barandiaran, X. (2013). The situated HKB model: How sensorimotor spatialcoupling can alter oscillatory brain dynamics. FRONTIERS IN COMPUTATIONAL NEUROSCIENCE. 2013. ISSN 1662-5188

De Miguel, G and Bedia, M.G. (2012). The Turing Test by Computing Interaction Coupling. HOW THE WORLD COMPUTES: TURING CENTENARY CONFERENCE AND 8TH CONFERENCE ON COMPUTABILITY IN EUROPE, CIE 2012. Cambridge, ISBN 3642308694

Santos, B., Barandiaran, X., Husband, P., Aguilera, M. and Bedia, M. (2012). Sensorimotor coordination and metastability in a situated HKB model. CONNECTION SCIENCE. 24 – 4, pp. 143 – 161. 2012. ISSN 0954-0091


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s