James McClelland wins Heineken Prize

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James McClelland (Photo: Angela Drury)

Psychology Professor JAMES MCCLELLAND, founding director of Stanford’s Center for Mind, Brain and Computation, has been awarded the C.L. de Carvalho-Heineken Prize for Cognitive Science by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. The prize, which includes a $200,000 award, recognizes McClelland “for his important and fundamental contributions to the use of neural networks to model cognitive processes of the brain.”

The research that led to this prize began in the early 1980s when a group led by McClelland and DAVID RUMELHART (who later joined Stanford’s faculty) pioneered what they called the parallel distributed processing approach to computation in the brain. Instead of thinking of the mind as a single computer, they envisioned it as a vast network of more than 10 billion tiny computers working together every time a person engages in a mental process – from activities as simple as recognizing a word to tasks as complex as solving a difficult mathematical problem. The work, published in the two-volume book, Parallel Distributed Processing (MIT Press, 1986), challenged the popular “mind-as-computer” metaphor, replacing it with a very different way of thinking about the nature of computation in the brain.

Early applications of these theoretical models addressed human perception, language and memory. Today, artificial systems based on the same ideas are sweeping the field of machine learning. “We finally have computing systems that can simulate the massively parallel processing activity that takes place in the human brain,” McClelland said. “Models based on the neural networks of the kind we envisioned in the 1980s are now the state-of-the-art methods for machine speech and vision and may soon take the lead in language processing.” For example, the speech recognition systems in today’s smart phones use advanced versions of the neural network models McClelland and his colleagues explored three decades ago. Capturing insights into how the brain solves mathematical problems remains a challenge that McClelland has recently begun to explore.

McClelland joined Stanford’s faculty in 2006. He is the Lucie Stern Professor in the Social Sciences and served as chair of the Department of Psychology from 2009 to 2012. He also recently received the inaugural National Academy of Sciences (NAS) Prize in Psychological and Cognitive Sciences for his research.

Five Heineken prizes are awarded every other year to internationally renowned scholars in biochemistry or biophysics, medicine, environmental science, cognitive science, and history. A sixth Heineken prize also is given to an artist living and working in the Netherlands. Several recipients of this prestigious international award, including Stanford pathology and genetics Professor Andrew Fire, subsequently won Nobel Prizes. The Heineken prize will be presented Oct. 2 at a special meeting of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences in Amsterdam.

—LISA TREI, School of Humanities and Sciences