NTT Research to collaborate with researchers at Harvard University on computational neurobiology

PHI Lab commits to joint research project at Harvard Center for Brain Science

Sunnyvale, Calif. – January 24, 2022 – NTT Research, Inc., a division of NTT (TYO:9432), today announced that it has entered a joint research agreement with scientists at Harvard University to study animal neuro-responses with the hope of informing future artificial intelligence systems. The five-year research project, launched in the fall of 2021, enables researchers at the two organizations to collaboratively study how animals maintain behavioral flexibility, specifically in the task of navigation. Greater understanding of how this challenge is approached in biology may eventually enable the design of new computing machines with similar capabilities. The principal investigator is Venkatesh Murthy, PhD, the Raymond Leo Erikson Life Sciences Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology at Harvard and the Paul J. Finnegan Family Director of its Center for Brain Science. Murthy’s counterpart at NTT Research for the joint project is Physics & Informatics (PHI) Lab Research Scientist Gautam Reddy, PhD, who was previously an Independent Post-Doctoral Fellow at Harvard’s NSF-Simons Center for Mathematical and Statistical Analysis of Biology.     

This joint research aims to better elucidate how animals maintain the ability to respond appropriately to a wide variety of complex real-world scenarios. The investigators expect the results from one aspect of the research to be a source of new, biologically inspired ideas for artificial reinforcement learning systems that rely on representation learning. Such ideas have played a major role in recent advances in artificial intelligence. Results from another aspect of the research should provide a quantitative understanding of how animals track trails, as well as identify the basic elements of general behavioral strategies that perform flexibly and reliably in the real world. Professor Murthy’s lab has a long track record in experimental and computational neurobiology. Expertise relevant to the joint research includes the ability to record from or image many individual neurons in the brain while an animal performs behavioral tasks. This technical expertise will enable the research team to understand what computations are performed by biological neural networks when an animal is navigating in a complex world. 

“Efficient computation is at the heart of quantum computing and neuroscience. Inspired by neuroscience, recent advances in machine learning have recently begun to change how we process data,” said PHI Lab Director Yoshihisa Yamamoto, PhD. “This joint research project could provide a rich source of animal-inspired algorithms that generalize across various research domains within NTT and inspire truly novel interdisciplinary ideas.”

Professor Murthy and Dr. Reddy have previously worked together on understanding the computational principles behind olfaction. Their focus was on how the smell receptors in the nose respond to blends of odorous compounds. As an Independent Fellow at Harvard’s NSF-Simons Center for Mathematical Biology, Dr. Reddy worked on the theory behind how animals track scent trails and on developing a computational framework to explain how evolution optimizes organisms. “I am delighted to continue this line of inquiry with Dr. Reddy through the NTT Research PHI Lab,” Murthy said. “The brain is an example of an extremely efficient computational device, and plenty of phenomena within it remain unexplored and unexplained. We believe the results of these investigations in neurobiology will reveal basic understandings and prove useful in the field of artificial intelligence.”

Gaining insights from neuroscience is an ongoing part of the PHI Lab’s strategy to redesign artificial computers. In July 2021, for instance, NTT Research announced a joint research agreement with the University of Tokyo’s International Research Center for Neurointelligence (IRCN) to develop numerical tools and a simulator for the coherent Ising machine (CIM), an information processing platform based on photonics oscillator networks. In October 2020, PHI Lab Director Yamamoto co-authored a paper in Applied Physics Letters (APL) titled, “Coherent Ising Machines: Quantum optics and neural network perspectives,” which underscored the interdisciplinary nature of the PHI Lab’s pathbreaking research agenda, which could lead to a new field of study

In addition to the researchers at Harvard and the University of Tokyo, investigators at eight other universities have agreed to conduct joint research with the NTT Research PHI Lab. These include the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), Cornell University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Notre Dame University, Stanford University, Swinburne University of Technology, the University of Michigan and the Tokyo Institute of Technology. The NASA Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley and 1QBit, a private quantum computing software company, have also entered joint research agreements with the PHI Lab.

About NTT Research

NTT Research opened its offices in July 2019 as a new Silicon Valley startup to conduct basic research and advance technologies that promote positive change for humankind. Currently, three labs are housed at NTT Research facilities in Sunnyvale: the Physics and Informatics (PHI) Lab, the Cryptography and Information Security (CIS) Lab, and the Medical and Health Informatics (MEI) Lab. The organization aims to upgrade reality in three areas: 1) quantum information, neuroscience and photonics; 2) cryptographic and information security; and 3) medical and health informatics. NTT Research is part of NTT, a global technology and business solutions provider with an annual R&D budget of $3.6 billion.


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