Christian Balkenius

Interview with Prof. Christian Balkenius

Associate Professor, Lund University Cognitive Science
Kungshuset, Lundagård, 222 22 Lund, Sweden
Personal website

What do you think cognitive systems are?

That is a good question actually since the first time I heard about it I had no idea. Since I knew what cognition was and what a system was but it was not entirely clear what the combination would be. I think that everyone agrees today that cognitive systems are some sort of system that is motivated by biology or psychology. It can be both artificial systems that are motivated by human cognition but also cognitive systems models where a lot of different components interact to model some psychological or cognitive phenomenon.

What is your area of research within Cognitive Systems?

It is a bit of everything. I am working on both robotics and especially epigenetic robotics, robots that develop as infants, but I am also interested in perception and learning.

Why did you become a researcher?

I think it started very early. I always wanted to build intelligent machines, not only robots and maybe intelligent computers so I started to think about these things very early in life and I have been sort of aiming towards this all the time.

How did you get into Cognitive System research?

I was very interested in artificial intelligence initially and realised it did not work very well for the things I wanted to do. So I started to study things that eventually became cognitive science, things like linguistics, psychology, and computer science. I wanted to build models of cognition with some sort of brain for future robots.

Where did you study and what subjects did you study?

I have been at Lund University all the time. I started there as an undergraduate and I received my PhD there and continued there as professor eventually. Initially I started to study mathematics and computer science. Then I continued on to psychology and linguistics and after that the cognitive science department started in Lund so I was probably one of the first students there.

Can you describe briefly how you are doing what you do?

So it is a lot of reading of data from other people from experimental studies about different experiments with animals and humans. That is one major part of it. Another part is building models of various cognitive phenomena which involve a lot of programming. Finally, I also build robots so that is a lot of electronics and mechanical parts as well.

What are the techniques used in your research?

The main technique is computer simulation.

Can you tell me why they are important?

It is a good way to test your theories. It is different from just writing that you have a model that just works in a particular way. When you do computer simulations you can really test how different components interact. It is also necessary if you have very complex systems because it is very hard to understand them if you do not do simulations.

What are the major implications of your work?

It is hard to give a short answer to that. I think one important implication might be that we have a lot to gain from studying biological systems if we want to build advanced technical systems. There are a lot of things we can catch on from biology and I think I have shown that in my work that we can take ideas about how animals and humans operate and use that for technical things.

Who will benefit from your research / techniques?

Hopefully in the future everyone. I think this will allow us to build intelligent robots in the future that can actually be used for something unlike robots today that do not do very much. That is also maybe closer in time since I am working on intelligent prosthetics maybe that are things that can be used perhaps in ten years or so.

What skills do you think are most important to a Cognitive Systems researcher?

Since it is about putting together a lot of things you need a lot of different skills. In most cases you need groups of people with different skills. I think one major thing is actual programming because it is the only thing that is hard to learn later on if you did not know about it. It is easier for computer scientists to learn neurophysiology but it is much harder for a neurophysiologist to learn computer science. So that is a good start.

What do you think is most satisfying about Cognitive Systems research?

That is the feeling you get when you realise that you understand something really complex that you did not understand before.

What do you consider is the most challenging about being a Cognitive Systems researcher?

That relates to what I said before that you have to have so many different skills, so many different things that you have to understand and know about. So it is almost impossible to do anything on your own. Even if I try.

What do you think are the main challenges for the future?

This really relates to the previous question. It has to do with getting everyone to work together sort of forming coalitions where people can support each other. Since it is a very complex area and you need input from many different directions. So the main challenge may not be a research challenge but rather an organisational one to make it possible for everyone to benefit from what everyone else is doing.

There are several discussions or debates associated with Cognitive Systems research.

Could you mention issues relating to your work?

I think the main perhaps debate (maybe it is not has hot as it used to be) is really what a cognitive architecture should look like. It is a conflict between say more neural network based models and more sort of classical based models… so that might be the most important debate and it is still going on. Not so much in robotics, but it is still discussed in neuroscience.

Can you outline the arguments of the opposing sides of the debate?

It is mainly based on what kind of things people study so if I study things like visual perception then I think that brain is some sort of connectionist system because that fits very well with visual processing. But if you are studying things like planning and problem solving it looks much more like a symbolic system. And within each position it is very hard to realise how you could do what other groups are doing with your tools. So it seems like you need different tools but somehow that does not work very well anyway. So no one really knows how to combine these different perspectives.

Thank you!

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