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Physicist, Startup Founder, Blogger, Dad

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Like little monkeys: How the brain does face recognition



This is a Caltech TEDx talk from 2013, in which Doris Tsao discusses her work on the neuroscience of human face recognition. Recently I blogged about her breakthrough in identifying the face recognition algorithm used by monkey (and presumably human) brains. The algorithm seems similar to those used in machine face recognition: individual neurons perform feature detection just as in neural nets. This is not surprising from a purely information-theoretic perspective, if we just think about the space of facial variation and the optimal encoding. But it is amazing to be able to demonstrate it by monitoring specific neurons in a monkey brain.

An earlier research claim (which, four years ago, she recapitulates @8:50min in the video), that certain neurons are sensitive only to specific faces, seems not to be true. I always found it implausible.

On her faculty web page Tsao talks about her decision to attend Caltech as an undergraduate:
One day, my father went on a trip to California and took a tour of Caltech with a friend. He came back and told me about a monastery for science, located under the mountains amidst flowers and orange trees, where all the students looked very skinny and super smart, like little monkeys. I was intrigued. I went to a presentation about Caltech by a visiting admissions officer, who showed slides of students taking tests under olive trees, swimming in the Pacific, huddled in a dorm room working on a problem set... I decided: this is where I want to go to college! I dreamed every day about being accepted to Caltech. After I got my acceptance letter, I began to worry that I would fall behind in the first year, since I had heard about how hard the course load is. So I went to the library and started reading the Feynman Lectures. This was another world…where one could see beneath the surface of things, ask why, why, why, why? And the results of one’s mental deliberations actually could be tested by experiments and reveal completely unexpected yet real phenomena, like magnetism as a consequence of the invariance of the speed of light.
See also Feynman Lectures: Epilogue and Where Men are Men, and Giants Walk the Earth.

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