Daniel Wolpert: What’s a brain for? A moving story

Daniel Wolpert
FMedSci FRS Royal Society Research Professor & Professor of Engineering, Department of Engineering, University of Cambridge

What’s a brain for? A moving story

Movement is the only way we have of interacting with the world, whether foraging for food or attracting a waiter’s attention. Indeed, all communication, including speech, sign language, gestures and writing, is mediated via the motor system. Taking this viewpoint, the purpose of the human brain is to use sensory signals to determine future actions.The effortless ease with which humans move our arms, our eyes, even our lips when we speak masks the true complexity of the control processes involved. This is evident when we try to build machines to perform human control tasks. While computers can now beat grandmasters at chess, no computer can yet control a robot to manipulate a chess piece with the dexterity of a six-year-old child. A major factor that makes control hard is the uncertainty inherent in the world and in our own sensory and motor systems. Daniel will explain how the brain deals with this and demonstrate that a key feature of skilled human motor performance is the ability of the brain to perform optimally in the presence of uncertainty.

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Daniel Wolpert read medical sciences at Cambridge and clinical medicine at Oxford. He completed a PhD in the Physiology Department at Oxford and was a postdoctoral fellow at MIT, before moving to the Institute of Neurology, UCL. In 2005 he took up the post of Professor of Engineering at the University of Cambridge and was made a Fellow of Trinity College. He was elected a Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences in 2004 and was awarded the Royal Society Francis Crick Prize Lecture (2005), the Minerva Foundation Golden Brain Award (2010) and gave the Fred Kavli Distinguished International Scientist Lecture at the Society for Neuroscience (2009). In 2012 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) and made a Wellcome Trust Senior Investigator. In 2013 he was appointed to the Royal Society Noreen Murray Research Professorship in Neurobiology. His research interests are computational and experimental approaches to human sensorimotor control.