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Octopus Study Could Aid Artificial Intelligence

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Tom Kleindinst/Marine Biological Laboratory

Octopuses… we don’t have a lot of them here in Nevada, but the University of Nevada, Reno just got a big grant to study them.

The grant is from the National Science Foundation, and the study aims to find out how the cephalopods think.

There’s just one catch – octopuses don’t really have brains.

“It’s to some degree a mystery how it works,” Gideon Caplovitz, an associate professor of psychology at UNR, told KNPR's State of Nevada.

The giant sack that we see as the head of an octopus is actually its digestive system. It's central processing units are distributed throughout its eight arms.

“The octopus is about a different a brain as you can come up with on the plant from ours,” he said.

However, octopuses can do extraordinary things.

“Despite the fact that we have these tremendous differences, octopus show some pretty sophisticated behaviors,” Caplovitz said, those behaviors include problem-solving, escaping from tanks, camouflage and observing human behavior.

“This raises questions about how do they do it? How do these very distinct brains accomplish these things? Do they use similar solutions to us? Are they different solutions? And what can we learn from these similarities?” Caplovitz said.

Caplovitz explained the human brain uses a core set of foundational computations that it uses to express thoughts and feelings. Scientists hope to understand those core computations and see what causes them to go haywire after an injury or because of an illness.

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Beyond helping someone with a brain injury, researchers also want to use that information to build better computer chips or artificial intelligence.

Caplovitz and his colleagues hope to observe how the brains' of octopuses work and compare the similarities and differences to human brains. 

“In our wildest dreams, I think there will be a goal of identifying whether convergent evolution, the idea that octopuses have evolved either a similar set of foundational computations or a perhaps a completely unique set,” he said.

With that knowledge, researchers might be able to better understand the human brain and apply that knowledge to a myriad of ways. 

Caplovitz was clear that all the projects being done with the octopuses are non-invasive and the animals are being very well cared for.

 

Guests

Gideon Caplovitzassociate professor of psychology, University of Nevada, Reno

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