Tenenbaum Puts MacArthur Funds to Good Use

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Tenenbaum Puts MacArthur Funds to Good Use

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Anne Trafton, MIT News
Professor Josh Tenenbaum sits at a table of toys and objects used in cognitive neuroscience
Professor Joshua Tenenbaum, now in the second year of his MacArthur “genius grant,” told The Tech, “one of the things I might use the grant for is to seed new, far-out, crazy projects. The other thing is to support programs that increase access to and participation in our field for people from underrepresented groups.”

Cognitive neuroscientist Josh Tenenbaum is now well into the first year of his MacArthur Fellowship, which was announced last autumn.

The fellowships, often nicknamed “genius grants,” come with a five-year, $625,000 prize, which recipients are free to use as they see fit. Tenenbaum, a professor of computational cognitive science, investigator in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), and Research Thrust Leader in the Center for Brains, Minds, and Machines, says he would like to use the grant money to fund some of the more creative student projects in his lab, which are harder to get funding for, as well as collaborations with MIT colleagues that he sees as key partners in studying various aspects of cognition. He also hopes to use some of the funding to support efforts to increase research participation of under- represented minority students.

Using computer modeling and behavioral experiments, Tenenbaum seeks to understand a key aspect of human intelligence: how people are able to rapidly learn new concepts and tasks based on very little information. This phenomenon is particularly noticeable in babies and young children, who can
quickly learn meanings of new words, or how objects behave in the physical world, after minimal exposure to them.

“One thing we’re trying to understand is how are these basic ways of understanding the world built, in very young children? What are babies born with? How do children really learn and how can we describe those ideas in engineering terms?” Tenenbaum says.

Including Tenenbaum, 24 MIT faculty members and three staff members have won the MacArthur Fellowship.

Image credit: John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.