Professor Ajit Narayanan is a man concerned with the big questions: What is consciousness? What is self identity? He approaches ancient metaphysical problems through the field of computing and biology inspired artificial intelligence.
With a childhood aptitude for languages that later extended to computer languages, Professor Narayanan did an interdisciplinary honours degree in linguistics and computer science at the University of Aston, Birmingham. He followed with a PhD in philosophy at the University of Exeter, comparing human and computer languages.
By the mid ‘80s attempts by computer scientists to get machines to communicate like humans had dwindled, as understanding of the human ability to learn language remained elusive. The focus turned instead to computer emulation of other signs of intelligence such as classification, pattern recognition and game play.
In the mid ‘90s researchers began to ask whether biology matters and Professor Narayanan embarked on a research programme looking at intelligence in a wide spread of biological phenomena, from individual cells to multi-cellular creatures such as ourselves.
On the simple cellular level he has researchers mapping biological immune systems, looking at how they learn and applying that to computers. One application is computers with built in immune systems that adapt to fight viruses.
Another research area is how animals avoid collisions – from flocks of birds and schools of fish to people walking down the street. These collision avoidance techniques are of interest to the robotics industry and applicable to autonomous vehicles.
The implications of Professor Narayanan’s research are fascinating. Will computers ever be intelligent, would this require self awareness? Questions, he says, which are rooted in those ancient philosophical questions about our own self identity.