Cognitive Science: Q&A With Bernard Molyneux

Illustration: brain as unfinished jigsaw puzzle

Cognitive Science Program Director Talks About Popular New Major

If you ask Bernard Molyneux about the origin of UC Davis' new cognitive science major, he will tell you it was the brainchild of undergraduate students who wanted an all-around approach to studying the human mind.

Steve Luck, a professor of psychology and director of the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain, on the other hand, says: "I like to think the genesis was when the philosophy department hired Bernard Molyneux."

Not long after Molyneux arrived in 2008, Luck invited him to give a talk on philosophy of mind at the Center for Mind and Brain. There Molyneux also met David Corina, a professor of linguistics and psychology who studies the brain and language processing.

That alliance would prove key when a few students asked Molyneux to supervise their individual majors in cognitive science. He proposed to his colleagues that they create a major. "As soon as he suggested it," Luck recalls, "I said, 'Yes!'"

Students have been enthusiastic as well. Launched this year, the Cognitive Science Program is taking off fast—with about 200 first-year students identifying it as their intended major.

Molyneux answers some questions here about the major.

What is cognitive science? 

“Cognitive science arises from the observation that different people were all studying the same thing—the human mind—from different perspectives.

"Philosophers had long been interested in the enduring questions about mind. Is the mind physical? How do electrochemical signals in a piece of meat—which we call the brain—give rise to a person with a point of view, with sensations and emotions? Linguists were studying the brain indirectly, as a device that produces strings of elaborate code—what we call language. Psychologists had moved from studying human behavior to asking questions about the internal processes that produce such behaviors. Neuroscientists were looking at the physical brain itself, as you might open a computer and look at the wiring. And artificial intelligence engineers were trying to build robots that walked and talked and avoided collisions, as if they had minds of their own.

“All of these disciplines started to converge on the hypothesis that minds were information processors, like computers, that worked by manipulating internal representations. This hypothesis provided us with a unifying framework within which various researchers from different fields could work productively together.”

Who might want to consider the major?

"I would flip the question. Who wouldn't be interested in acquiring a better scientific perspective on what is most central and intimate to all of us: our own minds?

"The major is of particular interest to people—like me—who have an abiding interest in the human mind and are enthusiastic to learn about it in whatever way we can, without worrying about where the boundaries are between "linguistics" and "philosophy," "psychology" and "neuroscience," and so on. 

"When I was an undergraduate, there wasn't a major that allowed students to integrate information from all these fields. So I majored in philosophy, which gave me a lot of flexibility, and took (or audited) courses from linguistics and psychology on an ad hoc basis. I then went on to take a master's program, it would have been just what I was looking for."

What can you do with a cognitive science degree?

"The major aims to produce graduates with an understanding of computation, of human psychology, of our most powerful code of communication—language—and of the related philosophical and ethical issues.

"As such, cognitive science should also be an extremely attractive major to anyone who wants a skill set tailored to the 21st century economy. 

"Consider law. It is set to be increasingly preoccupied with ethical and legal issues surrounding advancing technology. How are we to ethically and legally combine powerful search algorithms with respect for human privacy? Who is legally responsible for the actions of an artificial agent—whether a robot or an algorithm searching through people's private data? What are the ethical and legal implications of drone strikes, especially when the drones stop being piloted by humans and start flying under their own programming? How is jurisdiction determined over the Internet? The 21st century lawyer needs to be able to relay between technical details concerning cognitive robotics and web-based Al, on the one hand, and legal and philosophical issues, on the other.

"Similar transformations will be occurring in medicine. The 21st century medic will be faced with artificially intelligent diagnostic systems, cognitive and perceptual prosthetics, the use of robotic arms in surgery, 3-D printed organs, and so on. Everything we see is being transformed by a tech industry that is trying to build machines to perform the cognitive and manual work that used to be performed by unaided humans. A person planning to go to medical school should be preparing for these challenges now. A major in cognitive science will help provide the required background. 

"Then there is tech design itself. We are increasingly offloading work that used to be done by smart humans to computer programs or, as we now call them, 'apps.' These apps need to perform tasks with a kind of human intelligence and to integrate seamlessly into the human workflow. The design, development and marketing of these programs create a demand for specialists with an understanding both of machines and of humans. For example, in getting a machine to communicate using a natural language like English or ASL, some knowledge of linguistics is essential. Or imagine designing an automated workflow assistant. The app might need to be designed, for example, to anticipate how people forget appointments, deadlines, and so on, and to choose on that basis the best time to remind them. That means being informed by the latest psychology. And as we authorize programs to make ever more decisions on our behalf, we are going to have to program them to behave ethically. That’s going to mean encoding the ethical insights that philosophers have made over centuries into the machines themselves. And so on. 

"Lastly, the major is great preparation for anyone who wishes to do graduate work in the mind sciences and who wishes to be able to communicate with people from different parts of the cognitive science cluster. The research proposals that get the grants are, increasingly, those with an interdisciplinary perspective. But interdisciplinary research is challenging. Communicating with researchers from another discipline is often a bit like learning a new language. The vocabulary is different, the assumptions are different, what’s important is different. It takes time and effort to become a good interdisciplinary researcher. Cognitive science majors start learning those skills right from the start."

Kathleen Holder, content strategist in the UC Davis College of Letters and Science