…with important implications for AI

The mind tries to understand the world in terms of concepts, most of which are dressed in language and in some cases, in mathematics.

But our conceptual understanding of the world suffers from a chicken-and-egg problem: where do the concepts in which this understanding is modeled come from in the first place? How can you build a new theory with old terminology and make sure that it doesn’t suffer from the implicit assumptions inherent in the terminology?

The 18th-century empiricist around Locke, Hume, and Berkeley still exert a strong influence on the way modern science is thought of and thinks…


On the limitations of reductionism

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

“The ability to reduce everything to simple fundamental laws does not imply the ability to start from those laws and reconstruct the universe”.
P.W.Anderson

What is the most real thing in the world? Is it the number pi? Is it the quantum fields merrily vibrating us into existence? Or is it the white and black on the screen on which you are reading this text?

In describing reality, the natural sciences go through a transition from the abstract universal to the idiosyncrasies of our lived reality: from quantum physics and relativity to molecules, cells, organisms, individuals, from solving Schrödinger’s equation…


On the interplay between art, emotions, and our brains that construct them

“‘Tristan und Isolde’ is the central work of all music history, the hub of the wheel… I have spent my life since I first read it, trying to solve it. It is incredibly prophetic.”
- Leonard Bernstein

Richard Wagner in 1862, three years before the Tristan was first performed, and the chemical structure of Dopamine, Cäsar Willich+NEUROtiker, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan and Isolde from 1865 was one of the most important events in the history of classical music. Taking up the medieval story of the star-crossed lovers Tristan and Isolde that fall intensely in love after accidentally drinking a love potion, Wagner transformed the material into a spiritual reflection on love, death, and transcendence.

There is no country, no town…


The role of attention in neuroscience, deep learning, and everyday life

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is one of the most intricate machines mankind has ever built. When it’s running, every second approximately one billion particles smash into each other at velocities close to the speed of light, probing physics beyond the edges of the current standard model of particle physics.

A lot can happen in these one billion particle collisions, and immense detectors are built around the ring of the LHC to not miss out on anything important. But such large quantities of collisions, coupled with complex detectors, generate a lot of data. Seriously, it’s a lot of data. …


Looking beyond the data surface

“Look beneath the surface; let not the several quality of a thing nor its worth escape thee.”
― Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Photo by Etienne Pauthenet on Unsplash

Science firmly rests on the power of observation. Models triumph or fall after they are compared to observations in the real world.

But in more sophisticated models, something very complicated can happen beyond the surface of what is actually being observed, and it is not always clear how to relate the limited scope of the observables available to our limited human faculties to complex underlying processes.

String theory is a prime example where extremely intricate physics are assumed to…


How the virtues of GANs could turn into problems for our societies

As the story goes, adversity builds character.

As another story goes, Ian Goodfellow was drinking was his friends one night when an idea occurred to him that would have a big impact on the landscape of machine learning. It sounded good in theory, sounded good in the realm of speculative discussion over beer among friends, but with many things that sound good in theory, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they will also be sound in practice.

So Ian Goodfellow went home and implemented his idea. It was a relatively simple idea, so it took him only a couple of hours…


Traditionally, human beings are said to have five senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch.

Our senses bring us into contact with the outside world. All we know about the world has to come in through our sensory organs before it can be processed and made sense of.

The sense of hearing in Brueghel and Ruben’s series “The Five Senses”. Jan Brueghel the Elder / Public domain

Our senses have developed to serve an evolutionary need. While in our fishy ancestral times, we spent our days underwater, not being able to see very far around us, eyesight improved dramatically on land to deal with the constant threat of snakes and the likes slithering into our field of vision, threatening to…


It’s scary how much people believe in science.
Stephen Wolfram

Immanuel Kant, perhaps the most important philosopher of modernity, hated determinism. How could man retain what made him most humane in the face of the unfolding clockwork of the universe? (Wo)man, after all, is (wo)man only because she chooses, and choosing what is right allows her to act morally, allows her to realize her innermost humaneness.

If it were possible to know the position and velocity of every particle in the universe, then we could predict with utter precision the future of those particles and, therefore, the future of the…


How human history is shaped by neural anatomy

“Two souls, alas, dwell in my breast,
each seeks to rule without the other.
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust

At the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century, a movement erupted in Europe that Isaiah Berlin (in his fantastic lectures on Romanticism, on which some of this article is based) would later call “the most dramatic shift in the history of European consciousness”. From the order of the century of Enlightenment, of “le siècle des lumières”, broke forth with violence a new mode of thinking about the world and of being in the world.

Romanticism would…


“If the doors of perception were cleansed, every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”
William Blake

William Blake, Jacob’s Ladder/ Public domain

In our everyday life, we inhabit a low-resolution version of the world. Cognition is expensive, and so when we live in familiar surroundings, our brains go into energy-saving mode. …

Manuel Brenner

I love new ideas. My science podcast: https://anchor.fm/acit-science Connect via LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/manuel-brenner-772261191

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store