Riding through the mysteries of human and robotic minds
For Dr Massimiliano Cappuccio, the power of discovery and innovation is all in the mind – literally. The Associate Professor of Cognitive Science at the College of Humanities & Social Sciences of United Arab Emirates University (UAEU) is focused on studying how the cornerstones of the human mind – such as memory, perception, and decision-making – work and how they can be augmented, channeling the power of the ‘computer’ inside our heads.
Dr Cappuccio – who is also director of UAEU’s Interdisciplinary Cognitive Science Laboratory, or ‘Cog Sci Lab’, coordinates the university’s Cognitive Science Program, and is commonly known as Max by his colleagues – describes this process as akin to “reverse engineering of the brain”, consistent with the assumption that “the mind can be studied as if it is a computer, through digitally-emulating its functions.” And six years after joining UAEU, he remains committed to promoting appreciation of cognitive science, a “fascinating discipline” that he sees as pivotal for the highly informatized, knowledge-based and innovation-focused economy the UAE is rapidly developing.
“Information, knowledge, and innovative thinking depend on cognitive processing,” explains the globally-respected researcher, 40 year old. “Cognitive science is concerned with problem-solving, skill development, human performance, artificial intelligence, and robots. It studies human mental functions to learn how to train them, fix them when they are impaired, or artificially replicate them through robots or computer programs.
While Dr Cappuccio’s research involves both experimentation and computational modeling, he also has a background in philosophy. “Cognitive science is, intrinsically, an interdisciplinary endeavor that requires shoulder-to-shoulder collaborations between researchers with varying backgrounds. Philosophy works as an ‘instant translator’ for scientific disciplines that don’t normally talk to each other, and provides the ‘conceptual glue’ that allows them to work together. You cannot work in cognitive science without a strong philosophy of cooperation, intellectual curiosity, and team spirit.”
This philosophy runs through Dr Cappuccio’s body of work, which has seen him co-author numerous peer-reviewed publications with distinguished psychologists, psychiatrists, neuroscientists and primatologists, and regularly participate in international conferences and interdisciplinary research projects in the sphere of cognitive science. His quest for discovery saw him amass a wealth of academic experience in the Netherlands, France, the UK and the US, and receive his PhD from the University of Pavia, before taking him to UAEU in 2011.
As well as offering an interdisciplinary minor for undergraduates, the Cognitive Science Program he designed and coordinates has led to him organizing a series of internationally-publicized scientific events, including three editions of the Joint UAE Social Robotics Symposium, and the First International Conference in Sport Psychology and Embodied Cognition – all raising the profile of cognitive science, and of how UAEU, and the UAE as a whole, aspires to be at the forefront of generating new knowledge on this field.
That is also the goal of two current National Research Foundation-sponsored projects on which Dr Cappuccio is the principal investigator, in collaboration with academic partners in Australia, Germany, Italy, and the UK, where he is a regular visiting faculty. One project focuses on understanding why professional athletes succumb to pressure, and how they can optimize their performance and prospects of victory: this led Dr Cappuccio to edit and publish the MIT Press Handbook of Embodied Cognition & Sport Psychology, considered a milestone in the field.
The second project is centered on social robotics and the quality of human-robot interaction, using the relationship between robots and autistic children as its basis. “The next generation of robots is going to enter our lives soon,” says Dr Cappuccio. “They will help us as co-workers and social companions. To maximize the reciprocal understanding between robots and humans, this project will study interaction protocols and design patterns.”