Malcolm A. MacIver
Professor MacIver believes that the body’s mechanical intelligence can be just as important, if not more important, than what’s going on in your head. His primary scientific efforts are in understanding how animal mechanics and sensory abilities fit together, and he pursues that problem using approaches from neuroscience, animal behavior studies, robotics, mathematical modeling, and computer simulations. In engineering, he has pioneered the development of a new sensor inspired by the ability of certain fish to sense using a self-generated electric field, and highly maneuverable propulsion systems based on fish locomotion. In 2009 he received the Presidential Early Career Award for Science and Engineering from President Obama at the White House, the highest award given to emerging scientists by the government. He develops science-inspired interactive art installations that have exhibited internationally, has served as science advisor for several sci-fi TV series and movies (Battlestar Galactica prequel Caprica, Tron Legacy, Terminator Genisys), and has been a blogger for Discover Magazine.
Online media for a general audience:
Video on discovery of a new form of convergent evolution (2 min) (via New York Times). Written synopsis here; Publication here.
TEDx Talk: Can We Expand Our Consciousness with Neuroprosthetics? 16 minute talk at the 2013 Caltech TEDx on The Brain, Pasadena, California USA
Energy, information, and the emergence of choice. 30 minute talk at the 2012 Foundational Questions Institute (FQXi), Copenhagen, Denmark
Sensory and motor spaces and the emergence of multiple futures. 40 minute talk at the 2012 Turing Summer School on the Evolution of Consciousness, Montreal Canada
Scale, the electric fish orchestra. 4 minute documentary on an interactive immersive sound installation involving twelve species of electric fish from the Amazon that has exhibited at China's National Art Museum and at the Netherland's Art and Science festival STRP.
2001 Ph.D. Neuroscience, University of Illinois and the Beckman Institute of Advanced
Science and Technology, Urbana IL
1994 (through to 1996) Course work only of dual Ph.D. in Cognitive Science and
Philosophy, Indiana University, Bloomington IN
1992 M.A. Philosophy, University of Toronto
1991 B.Sc. Double major, Philosophy and Computer Science, University of Toronto
Neural engineering laboratory class: Neuromechatronics [Link to Class Website]. Connecting machines to simple nervous systems. Class code: BME 464. Offered: Every two years. Next scheduled offering is Spring 2014.
Course Description: A core competency for neural engineering is the construction of closed loop systems that combine a biological/neural component with control of a mechatronic system. This laboratory course will do this with several simple biological systems in interaction with simple mechanical systems. Students will engage in preparation of a biological specimen for recording, data acquisition, design of simple mechatronic systems that will interact with the specimen, and the coupling of the acquired data to the mechatronic system. Early in the course, signals will be acquired with either minimal or no dissection, while later in the course dissections will be performed to obtain neural signals from animals to drive a mechatronic device.
Some of the topics to be covered: Basic biological & neural signal acquisition and processing, relevant neurobiology, and mechatronics, including the use of xPC (a real time control system that interfaces with MATLAB), EMG electrodes and force transducers for doing closed-loop activation of muscle.
Neural engineering lecture course: Computational Neuromechanics & Neuroethology. Class code: BME 461. Offered: Every two years. Next scheduled offering is Fall 2014.
Course Description: The mechanical interaction of the body with its environment is a key player in nervous system function. In this course, we will take a systems-level view of animals and explore relationships between behavior, biomechanics, and the nervous system through examples from the literature and through MATLAB projects with a classic vertebrate model system from neuroethology.
Topics Include: Basic principles of evolution and development, and how this has affected sensory and motor system interactions; Whole-animal behavior modeling techniques, capture and simulation of behavior; Sensory signals, basic physics and simulation; Optimality theory in understanding animal behavior; The energetic cost of information and how this affects behavior and morphology.
Other courses taught include BME 271, Introduction to Biomechanics, and ME 224, Experimental Engineering.
Art and Science
Malcolm MacIver, Marlena Novak, and Jay Alan Yim
Sponsored and funded by the National Science Foundation, the Northwestern University's Center for Interdisciplinary Research in the Arts, and the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, Office of the Dean. Exhibited at Eindhoven Holland, Nov 18-28 2010, at the STRP Festival. scale was subsequently presented at the TransLife Triennial at the National Art Museum of China in Beijing, 27 July-17 August 2011 (New York Times Review).
scale is an interspecies collaborative audio installation that celebrates a type of fish from the Amazon River Basin. These fish continually discharge a weak electric field of constant frequency that is audible when amplified through a speaker. Similar to sonar used by bats and dolphins, the fish use this field to detect their surroundings and prey while hunting at night; they have contributed greatly to our understanding of the nervous system.
Their electromagnetic discharges fall within a range of 30-1200 Hz that approximate the lowest B-natural on a piano to the D-sharp six octaves higher, depending on the species. We assemble a "choir" of individuals, comprising a minimum of 12 fish (from 12 species). Fish are housed individually in comfortable tanks outfitted with electric field sensors. The tanks are configured into a sculptural installation, arranged in a shallow arc. Colored LED displays mounted under each tank respond in real time to the audio output from each fish, providing user-activated visual feedback. To facilitate and encourage audience interaction, we build upon commonly recognized musical metaphors as access points for participants to experience the sonification of the electrical signals made by these fish. A modified Nintendo Wii wireless controller serves as a conductor's baton. Participants can cue an individual fish to start it "singing" and a second cue to the same fish will signal it to stop. A programmable touchscreen is configured to provide control over their relative volumes.
Visitors hear the fish "sing" together, producing rich and unusual harmonies unlike any human choir. Participants leave the installation with the unique experience of having conducted a live performance with an ensemble of remarkable fish.
BODY ELECTRIC, 2003
Sponsored and funded by Caltech and the National Science Foundation. Exhibited at the Williamson Art Gallery in the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena CA, April 15-June 29 2003.
Computers, projectors, speakers, infrared lights, cameras, custom software
Until recently, the prevailing orthodoxy concerning perception was rooted in an enlightenment-objectivist model which proposed that sensory systems take in the world passively, with information funneling into our brain to form rich internal representations of the world for guiding our behavior. David Marr began his influential book on vision by saying "vision is the process of discovering from images what is present in the world, and where it is." Andrew Blake called this approach "a prescription for the seeing couch potato."
The passive view of perception is embedded in scientific culture and as a result, structures the hardware and software of our technologies, with its characteristic lack of sensory intelligence and dynamic engagement with the world. A more recent view of perception is that behavior is tightly coupled to the way we sense the world, that perception is a temporally extended process of active, embodied engagement with the world. Rather than develop rich internal models, animals, including people, maintain close sensorimotor contact with the world, allowing the world to be its own best model. Diverse embodied human cultural practices, including various art forms, are also incompatible with the objectivist view. In sensory neuroscience, the role of behavior in perception is especially clear for certain sensory champions, studied to address questions about how all animal sensing occurs. One of these is the weakly electric fish. These fish hunt at night, in muddy rivers where vision is useless. They utilize a weak self-generated field to sense their surroundings. Thousands of sensors covering the body surface become stimulated by nearby objects, and their nervous system decodes this to analyze the type and position of the object. Body Electric combines active sensing in interactive cultural experience with the study of such systems in neuroscience. In Body Electric, we simulate the electrosensory system of these fish through a custom multimodal real-time sensing and display system. The 'spectactor' engages in a complex sensorimotoric exploration of a novel environment.