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The Art and Science of Human Facial Perception

The New York Academy of Sciences’ Barbara Knappmeyer applies her expertise in human facial reception to her analysis on an exhibition of the late artist Chuck Close.

Published June 4, 2024

By Dorian DeBose

Images courtesy of Pace Gallery and the Chuck Close Estate

Recently the Pace Gallery in New York City, unveiled “Red, Yellow, and Blue: The Last Paintings,” an exhibition devoted to the work of the late artist, Chuck Close. The exhibition – the first of Close’s work since his death in 2021 – showcased the final evolution of the great artist.

Close’s paintings play with a viewer’s perception. His later work consists of painted squares that together reveal brilliant portraits. The painting’s resolution ranges drastically – some are photorealistic, others more abstract – yet they still register undeniably as human.

Human Facial Perception

Barbara Knappmeyer, PhD, Associate Director of Fellowships for The New York Academy of Sciences, knew Chuck Close for over 20 years and was fascinated by his paintings long before then. His work had a clear overlap with Dr. Knappmeyer’s own area of study: human facial perception.

“He was doing this very intuitively,” Dr. Knappmeyer said. “I don’t think he would have been able to explain to you in scientific terms what it does to your visual perception system. [But] he knew how to create it.”

Dr. Knappmeyer contributed an article to the journal regarding Close’s final exhibition. In it, she elaborates on the science of how work like Close’s challenges the visual system. We take in enough information from viewing the paintings at a distance to construct a face in great detail, then have our assumptions dashed upon closer viewing.

She writes: “Human visual perception is a very active process. At every step of the way—from the retina via the optic nerve to the primary visual areas of the brain on to the high-level cortical areas—the signals get translated, filtered, amplified, or deemphasized, combined with preexisting information, and compiled with information from other brain regions. All of this active signal processing happens automatically in our brains within split seconds and leads to a seemingly instantaneous perceptual experience. We like to believe that what we see is the truth, but it’s just our perception of the truth.”

Recognizing Faces, Sensing Emotion

Humans are extremely adept at identifying faces. Recognizing familiar faces or sensing the emotion in another person’s expression are vital traits for humans as a social species. Even newborn babies can pick up on the roughest outline of a face.

“When a baby is born – literally just opens their eyes – and you show them a pattern that has two dark dots on the top and one dark dot and on the bottom (the basic template of a face), they will look at this more than at anything else,” said Dr. Knappmeyer. “They already have some built-in detector that draws them to faces more than anything else.”

Indeed, it is because humans are so good at recognizing faces that art like Close’s is so riveting. It engages our most base assumptions then challenges us to delve deeper. Illusionists of all kinds use this trick. From magicians who use sleight of hand to exploit the visual system to artists like M.C. Escher who create impossible structures through depth; making the audience think twice about their own observations can lead to some very interesting art.

The Science of Illusions

And the science is just as interesting. Illusions that challenge our visual perception are a rich area of exploration for both artists and scientists. Most optical illusions have been studied endlessly, according to Dr. Knappmeyer.

“Some scientists have made their whole career out of investigating this intersection,” she said.

Michal Rovner’s work “Data Zone, Cultures Table #3” depicts what appears to be a culture growing in a petri dish, which is revealed to be masses of people upon inspection. This work uses the audiences’ assumptions against them to create a powerful illusion.

“These are people, something that we are very familiar with, but we are not familiar with that perspective from so far away and from high up,” Dr. Knappmeyer said. “That’s another interesting example of how our brains constantly make assumptions on what we see and when those assumptions are disrupted, we’re surprised.”

Dr. Knappmeyer also highlighted the work of Richard Serra, the late sculptor whose massive structures often appeared to be on the verge of collapse.

“How could they be built the way they are and still be stable?” asked Dr. Knappmeyer. “I think it sort of plays with our assumptions of gravity and the world around us.”

The Use of Light

The final artist Dr. Knappmeyer mentioned is James Turrell. Turrell’s work uses light to create structures and textures where there is only empty space.

“Even when you come close, it’s hard to know this,” Dr. Knappmeyer said. “You realize there is no surface there, and all it is, is diffused lighting, but so brilliantly done that your brain tricks you into believing that there is a surface.”

For Dr. Knappmeyer, knowing the science behind the illusions adds another layer of depth to Close’s work without tarnishing the appeal. As she wrote in the conclusion of her essay in the journal for the exhibition: “It makes it even more magical to me.”

HPAI A(H5N1) Transmission Among Dairy Cattle in the U.S.: New Findings and Safety Measures

While the risk to the public remains low, the highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) A(H5N1) is on the radar of those in sectors like livestock breeding, animal sciences and food production.

Published May 28, 2024

By Syra Madad, DHSc; Jason Kindrachuk, PhD; and Rick A. Bright, PhD

Image courtesy of USDA NRCS Montana/Flickr

Recent observations on highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) A(H5N1) have highlighted the virus’s transmission among dairy cattle in the United States. Key findings include ongoing detection and transmission of H5N1 among cattle, a second human case of H5N1 infection in a farmworker; mixed virus receptor distribution in mammary gland tissue of cattle, genetic evolution of H5N1 with onward transmission, evaluation of pasteurization effectiveness for virus inactivation, and a clinical description of HPAI H5N1 influenza A virus infection in a U.S. dairy farm worker.

Genomic and Epidemiologic Insights

In May 2024, investigators at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported genomic and epidemiologic data showing HPAI A(H5N1) spillover to, and transmission among, cattle. While prior data on Influenza A virus in cattle is scarce, the current geographic expansion of HPAI H5N1 among herds across multiple U.S. states demonstrates clade’s affinity for cattle.

Reduced food intake, milk production, and shifting milk quality was first noted in January 2024, followed by detection of influenza A virus, specifically H5N1 clade genotype B3.13, by the National Animal Health Laboratory Network and National Veterinary Services Laboratories. Subsequent analysis suggested movement of genotype B3.13 between dairy cattle farms and domestic poultry.

The study’s authors suggested a single spillover event from wild birds with limited cattle-to-cattle transmission around December 2023. Additional spillovers were identified from infected cattle to poultry and other nearby mammals, with the virus potentially shedding from infected cattle for 14-21 days. Genome sequencing indicated ongoing evolution, possibly linked to mammalian adaptation.

Viral Receptor Distribution

Sialic acid receptors utilized by influenza A viruses for cellular attachment, are found in multiple cattle tissues, including the respiratory tract, mammary glands, and brain. Though all type of sialic acid receptors could be found in each of these areas, the types and concentration of sialic acid receptors varied by tissue; those used by human and duck viruses were more prominent in the mammary gland and to a lesser degree in the respiratory tract, while those used by chicken viruses were more prominent in the respiratory tract and to a lesser degree in the mammary glands.

These findings provide insights into HPAI A(H5N1)’s tissue tropism in cattle and its transmission patterns. The presence of multiple types of species-specific receptors for influenza A viruses located throughout the dairy cattle also permits hypotheses on potential for them to serve as a mixing vessel for accelerated reassortment of influenza viruses, increasing a potential for the evolution of an influenza A virus with human pandemic potential.

 Pasteurization and Food Safety

On May 1, 2024, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration confirmed that pasteurization inactivates H5N1 virus in a variety of milk products. No infectious H5N1 virus was found in nearly 300 retail dairy samples that were positive for viral nucleic acid by quantitative PCR. Additionally, neither viral nucleic acid nor infectious virus was found in retail powdered infant formula and powdered milk. This supports pasteurization’s effectiveness in inactivating concentrations of H5N1 virus found in the milk supply among samples collected in April. Advisories against consuming raw/unpasteurized milk or milk products remain in place.

Clinical Case in a Dairy Farm Worker

A recent study reported on the first reported human case of H5N1 infection in a U.S. dairy farm worker who experienced ocular discomfort without respiratory symptoms or fever.  The worker had close contact with symptomatic dairy cows from farms with confirmed H5N1 infections. Personal protective equipment included gloves but no ocular protection. Swab specimens from the conjunctiva and nasopharynx confirmed H5N1 through RT-PCR and viral genome sequencing. Home isolation and oral oseltamivir were recommended, leading to resolution of conjunctivitis.

No secondary infections were reported among household contacts. Importantly, viral sequences showed no mutations suggesting changes in receptor binding or antiviral susceptibility. However, a mutation in the internal PB2 gene showed a change that is more commonly associated with human adaptation and warrants close monitoring.

Implications and Recommendations

These reports underscore the need for comprehensive HPAI A(H5N1) surveillance in agricultural settings. While cattle infections have been reported by the USDA to be generally transient with mild symptoms, the potential impact on milk production and food security is significant. The risk of ongoing viral evolution and broad transmission among cattle could lead to further mammalian adaptation. Although human infections from cattle seem to be rare at this time, the burden of infection necessitates detailed assessments of human spillovers, especially in areas with current or prior outbreaks. This includes serology to establish spillover rates to humans and monitor for changes in spillover frequency.

While the general public’s risk remains low, those at higher risk include individuals with routine or frequent contact with potentially infected birds, livestock, other animals or contaminated animal products and environments (e.g., farmers, livestock workers, animal handlers, employees of milk and meat processing facilities, milk or carcass transport drivers, and veterinarians).

Human infections with H5N1 can occur when the virus enters the eyes, nose, or mouth, or is inhaled. This can happen through airborne droplets, small aerosol particles, or dust that settles on mucous membranes. Infection can also occur if a person touches a contaminated surface and then touches their mouth, eyes, or nose. Exposed individuals should monitor for symptoms within 10 days, including fever (100°F [37.8°C] or higher), chills, cough, sore throat, difficulty breathing/shortness of breath, eye tearing, redness, or irritation, headaches, runny or stuffy nose, muscle aches, and diarrhea.

About the Authors

Syra Madad, DHSc, MSc, MCP, CHEP is an internationally renowned epidemiologist in special pathogens preparedness and response, biosecurity advisor and science communicator. She serves as the Chief Biopreparedness Officer at NYC Health + Hospitals, the U.S.’s largest municipal healthcare delivery system. Dr. Madad is a fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs where she leads the Women in STEM and Diversity in STEM series; she’s Core Faculty at the National Emerging Special Pathogens Training and Education Center (NETEC), and affiliate faculty at Boston University’s Center on Emerging Infectious Diseases.

Her work focuses on the prevention, preparedness, response, and recovery from infectious disease outbreaks with an emphasis on healthcare and public health biopreparedness. She is known for her innovative strategies, which integrate emergency management principles with epidemiological methods, contributing significantly to the development of robust healthcare systems that can respond to emerging disease threats. You can follow her on X (twitter) and Instagram: @syramadad

Read more from Dr. Madad on the Academy blog: The COVID-19 Pandemic at Year Four: The Imperative for Global Health Solidarity; Crossing Species: The Rising Threat of H5N1 Bird Flu in the U.S.

Jason Kindrachuk, PhD is an Associate Professor, Canada Research Chair, Department of Medical Microbiology & Infectious Diseases, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, MB, Canada.

Rick A. Bright, PhD is CEO, Bright Global Health and Former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Celebrating the 2024 Innovators in Science Award

A close up shot of the 2024 Innovators in Science Award medal.

The 2024 Innovators in Science Award winners, sponsored by Takeda, include a biomedical engineer from Columbia University and an immunologist from Washington University in St. Louis.

Published May 20, 2024

By Nina R. Montoya, PhD

A posed shot of award winners as well as officials with The New York Academy of Sciences and Takeda.
Left to right: Brooke Grindlinger, PhD, Chief Scientific Officer of The New York Academy of Sciences; Nicholas Dirks, President & CEO of The New York Academy of Sciences; Robert D. Schreiber, Senior Scientist winner; Elham Azizi, Early-Career Scientist winner; Andrew Plump, President of R&D at Takeda; P.K. Morrow, Head of the Takeda Oncology Therapeutic Unit. Image courtesy of Studio B Photography.

While much work remains in the fight against the second-most common cause of death in the United States, thanks to breakthrough research in genetics and immune-based therapeutics, the “big C” is no longer the life-threatening diagnosis of years ago. 

On Thursday, April 11th, Takeda and The New York Academy of Sciences recognized two outstanding scientists in cancer immunology with the 2024 Innovators in Science Award. Established in 2016 in partnership with Takeda, each cycle the Innovators in Science Award recognizes one Early-Career scientist and one Senior-Scientist who have distinguished themselves with the creativity and impact of their research. Each winner receives an unrestricted prize of USD 200,000.

Celebrating Outstanding Science

The 2024 honorees included, Early-Career Scientist winner, Elham Azizi, PhD,  assistant professor of biomedical engineering and the Herbert and Florence Irving Assistant Professor of Cancer Data Research at Columbia University, and Senior Scientist winner, Robert D. Schreiber, PhD, the Andrew M. and Jane M. Bursky Distinguished Professor of Pathology and Immunology and director of the Bursky Center for Human Immunology and Immunotherapy at Washington University in St. Louis. They were recognized for their innovative research and ongoing commitment to increasing the fundamental understanding of how cancer interacts with the immune system and designing novel biomedical approaches for personalized cancer immunotherapeutics.

At the morning Symposium hosted by Takeda, an eager group of Takeda scientists assembled both in person and virtually to hear the highlights of the winners’ work.

Schreiber shared a story of perseverance; his career has been dedicated to describing the process of “cancer immunoediting,” challenging long-standing paradigms, and proving that the immune system can recognize and interact with developing cancers.

Azizi shared an inspiring example of the power of cross-disciplinary research, illustrating creative AI and machine learning-based approaches to gain insight from complex collections of patient samples about crucial differences in patient outcomes. Both winners closed with hopeful messages about the future of cancer immunotherapeutics, particularly their aspirations for developing cancer vaccines.

Academia and Biotechnology: Cultivating Powerful Partnerships

One of the Symposium highlights was a panel entitled “Delivering Innovation to Patients Through Partnership.”

The 2024 winners were joined by scientific leaders from Takeda, Chris Arendt, PhD, and Kathy Seidl, PhD, and keynote speaker, Prof. Adrian Hayday, founder of GammaDelta Therapeutics. The panelists discussed the connections between academic science and the biotechnology industry, noting the key role these partnerships play in accelerating clinical innovation. Arendt set the tone by citing Takeda’s mission as a “patient first, science-focused company” that relies on “evaluating and leveraging the amazing science across the ecosystem.”

The panelists explored the benefits and potential pitfalls of partnerships between academic scientists and biotechnology companies through the lens of the successful build-to-buy partnership between Takeda and GammaDelta Therapeutics. The fundamental message was clear: partnerships between academia and biotechnology are essential to accelerating the bench-to-bedside pipeline and transforming basic biological research into cures.

The events continued with an evening award ceremony, attended by international experts in cancer immunology, leaders in science philanthropy, and R&D leaders from Takeda. Presenter of ceremonies, Laura Helmuth, PhD – editor-in-chief of Scientific American – took the stage at The Tower in Boston, decorated with delicate origami butterflies and cherry blossoms, a nod to Takeda’s Japanese roots. Joined by leadership from both Takeda and The New York Academy of Sciences, they championed the themes of perseverance and creativity and led the audience in a sake toast to science.

A New Immunological Paradigm

Senior Scientist winner, Robert D. Schreiber is a well-established name in the field of cytokine biology and tumor immunology, but that wasn’t always the case. Schreiber’s early work was met with powerful resistance from leaders in the field and research that suggested that the immune system was unable to recognize developing cancers. Years later, after several advancements in experimental tools including an immunodeficient mouse, Schreiber revisited these old questions with new answers.

Andrew Plump, MD, PhD, President of Research & Development at Takeda, commended Schreiber for his perseverance and dedication to training saying “Despite many prominent doubters and critics, [Dr. Schreiber] dedicated the next 40 years of his career to understanding the relationship between our immune system and cancer. Today, Dr. Schreiber must feel validated for challenging conventional thinking!”

During those 40 years, through a series of mechanistic studies, Schreiber detailed the phases of cancer immunoediting also known as “The Three E’s of Cancer Immunoediting.” By illustrating the processes of Elimination, Equilibrium, and Escape, Schreiber demonstrated that the immune system could not only recognize and kill developing cancers, but could also mold and even promote cancer growth. His lab has identified protein targets on cancer cells, called neoantigens — an essential component of future cancer vaccines, that directs the immune system to kill only cancer cells with the corresponding neoantigens while leaving healthy cells intact.

Schreiber and his lab have designed a comprehensive suite of biological markers, to take spatially-resolved images of immune cells and cancer cells within tumors over time, providing a new understanding of how interactions between different immune cell types may promote cancer clearance after vaccination or other therapies.

Personalized Cancer Medicine Powered by AI

Early-career scientist winner, Elham Azizi is taking a multi-dimensional approach to evaluate differences across individual patient treatment outcomes in pursuit of developing predictive methods to match patients with the best, and safest treatment regimen. P.K. Morrow, MD, head of the Oncology Therapeutic Unit at Takeda, said that Azizi “personifies the award through her creativity and commitment to harnessing the newest data technologies…she was inspired to use AI to help unravel the secret interactions between cancer cells and our immune system. By asking ‘what if?’ and journeying into uncharted waters.”

Azizi’s work focuses on identifying the causes of differences in patient responses to immunotherapies by profiling the environment immediately adjacent to the tumor, also called the tumor microenvironment (TME). The TME is characterized by cellular diversity. Azizi uses single-cell technologies coupled with machine learning and AI to identify the full spectrum of immune cells within the TME and model the trajectories of tumor cells from cancer initiation to remission and relapse.

By adding a third dimension, space, Azizi can create comprehensive cellular maps of the TME showing distinct clusters of cell types and cell states. During the ceremony, Azizi remarked, “These models will serve as personalized navigators, charting the optimal treatment journey for each patient through enhancing the complex coordination between immune cells that is necessary to effectively eliminate cancer.”

Science Marches On

The Innovators in Science Award recognizes both an Early-Career and Senior Scientist, connecting scientists spanning both generations and disciplines, an essential component of new scientific discoveries.  Schreiber’s early work as a fundamental immunologist, demonstrating that immune cells interface with cancer cells, created a platform for Azizi to apply her computational tools to interrogate those interactions with transcriptional and spatial resolution across complex patient samples.

Now, collectively, these two scientists will drive research in personalized medicine and therapeutic or even preventative cancer vaccines. As  Schreiber imagines, “cancer can be relegated to the list of other maladies that are controllable and even curable using immunologic approaches.”

A Patient-Focused Future

In his ceremony remarks, Nicholas B. Dirks, President and CEO of The New York Academy of Sciences, reflected on the impact of the Innovators in Science Award since its inception. He recalled the latest scientific breakthroughs from some of the Award’s previous winners, welcoming the 2024 recipients into this prestigious cohort and reminding us of their personification of Takeda’s mission to “drive research and development to benefit patients foremost, and bring better health and a brighter future to people worldwide.”

A close up shot of the 2024 Innovators in Science Award medal.
2024 Innovators in Science Award medal. Image courtesy of Studio B Photography.

Learn more about the Innovators in Science Award.

To learn more about the 2024 winners, please watch their profile videos at the links below:

Yann LeCun Emphasizes the Promise of AI

The renowned Chief AI Scientist of Meta, Yann LeCun, discussed everything from his foundational research in neural networks to his optimistic outlook on the future of AI technology at a sold-out Tata Series on AI & Society event with the Academy’s President & CEO Nick Dirks while highlighting the importance of the open-source model.

Published April 8, 2024

By Nick Fetty

Yann LeCun, a Turing Award winning computer scientist, had a wide-ranging discussion about artificial intelligence (AI) with Nicholas Dirks, President and CEO of The New York Academy of Sciences, as part of the first installment of the Tata Series on AI & Society on March 14, 2024.

LeCun is the Vice President and Chief AI Scientist at Meta, as well as the Silver Professor for the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences at New York University. A leading researcher in machine learning, computer vision, mobile robotics, and computational neuroscience, LeCun has long been associated with the Academy, serving as a featured speaker during past machine learning conferences and also as a juror for the Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists.

Advancing Neural Network Research

As a postdoc at the University of Toronto, LeCun worked alongside Geoffrey Hinton, who’s been dubbed the “godfather of AI,” conducting early research in neural networks. Some of this early work would later be applied to the field of generative AI. At this time, many of the field’s foremost experts cautioned against pursuing such endeavors. He shared with the audience what drove him to pursue this work, despite the reservations some had.

“Everything that lives can adapt but everything that has a brain can learn,” said LeCun. “The idea was that learning was going to be critical to make machines more intelligent, which I think was completely obvious, but I noticed that nobody was really working on this at the time.”

LeCun joked that because of the field’s relative infancy, he struggled at first to find a doctoral advisor, but he eventually pursued a PhD in computer science at the Université Pierre et Marie Curie where he studied under Maurice Milgram. He recalled some of the limitations, such as the lack of large-scale training data and limited processing power in computers, during those early years in the late 1980s and 1990s. By the early 2000s, he and his colleagues began developing a research community to revive and advance work in neural networks and machine learning.

Work in the field really started taking off in the late 2000s, LeCun said. Advances in speech and image recognition software were just a couple of the instances LeCun cited that used neural networks in deep learning applications.  LeCun said he had no doubt about the potential of neural networks once the data sets and computing power was sufficient.

Limitations of Large Language Models

Large language models (LLMs), such as ChatGPT or autocomplete, use machine learning to “predict and generate plausible language.”  While some have expressed concerns about machines surpassing human intelligence, LeCun admits that he takes an unpopular opinion in thinking that he doesn’t think LLMs are as intelligent as they may seem.

LLMs are developed using a finite number of words, or more specifically tokens which are roughly three-quarters of a word on average, according to LeCun. He said that many LLMs are developed using as many as 10 trillion tokens.

While much consideration goes into deciding what tunable parameters will be used to develop these systems, LeCun points out that “they’re not trained for any particular task, they’re basically trained to fill in the blanks.” He said that more than just language needs to be considered to develop an intelligent system.

“That’s pretty much why those LLMs are subject to hallucinations, which really you should call confabulations. They can’t really reason. They can’t really plan. They basically just produce one word after the other, without really thinking in advance about what they’re going to say,” LeCun said, adding that “we have a lot of work to do to get machines to the level of human intelligence, we’re nowhere near that.”

A More Efficient AI

LeCun argued that to have a smarter AI, these technologies should be informed by sensory input (observations and interactions) instead of language inputs. He pointed to orangutans, which are highly intelligent creatures that survive without using language.

Part of LeCun’s argument for why sensory inputs would lead to better AI systems is because the brain processes these inputs much faster. While reading text or digesting language, the human brain processes information at about 12 bytes per second, compared to sensory inputs from observations and interactions, which the brain processes at about 20 megabytes per second.

“To build truly intelligent systems, they’d need to understand the physical world, be able to reason, plan, remember and retrieve. The architecture of future systems that will be capable of doing this will be very different from current large language models,” he said.

AI and Social Media

As part of his work with Meta, LeCun uses and develops AI tools to detect content that violates the terms of services on social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram, though he is not directly involved with the moderation of content itself. Roughly 88 percent of content removed is initially flagged by AI, which helps his team in taking down roughly 10 million items every three months. Despite these efforts, misinformation, disinformation, deep fakes, and other manipulated content continue to be problematic, though the means for detecting this content automatically has vastly improved.

LeCun referenced statistics stating that in late 2017, roughly 20 to 25 percent of hate speech content was flagged by AI tools. This number climbed to 96 percent just five years later. LeCun said this difference can be attributed to two things: first the emergence of self-supervised, language-based AI systems (which predated the existence of ChatGPT); and second, is the “transformer architecture” present in LLMs and other systems. He added that these systems can not only detect hate speech, but also violent speech, terrorist propaganda, bullying, fake news and deep fakes.

“The best countermeasure against these [concerns] is AI. AI is not really the problem here, it’s actually the solution,” said LeCun.

He said this will require a combination of better technological systems, “The AI of the good guys have to stay ahead of the AI of the bad guys,” as well as non-technological, societal input to easily detect content produced or adapted by AI. He added that an ideal standard would involve a watermark-like tool that verifies legitimate content, as opposed to a technology tasked with flagging inauthentic material.

Open Sourcing AI

LeCun pointed to a study by researchers at New York University which found that audiences over the age of 65 are most likely to be tricked by false or manipulated content. Younger audiences, particularly those who grew up with the internet, are less likely to be fooled, according to the research.

One element that separates Meta from its contemporaries is the former’s ability to control the AI algorithms that oversee much of its platforms’ content. Part of this is attributed to LeCun’s insistence on open sourcing their AI code, which is a sentiment shared by the company and part of the reason he ended up at Meta.

“I told [Meta executives] that if we create a research lab we’ll have to publish everything we do, and open source our code, because we don’t have a monopoly on good ideas,” said LeCun. “The best way I know, which I learned from working at Bell Labs and in academia, of making progress as quickly as possible is to get as many people as possible contributing to a particular problem.”

LeCun added that part of the reason AI has made the advances it has in recent years is because many in the industry have embraced the importance of open publication, open sourcing and collaboration.

“It’s an ecosystem and we build on each other’s ideas,” LeCun said.

Avoiding AI Monopolies

Another advantage is that open sourcing lessens the likelihood of a single company developing a monopoly over a particular technology. LeCun said a single company simply does not have the ability to finetune an AI system that will adequately serve the entire population of the world.

Many of the early systems have been developed using English, where data is abundant, but, for example, different inputs will need to be considered in a country such as India, where 22 different official languages are spoken. These inputs can be utilized in a way that a contributor doesn’t need to be literate – simply having the ability to speak a language would be enough to create a baseline for AI systems that serve diverse audiences. He said that freedom and diversity in AI is important in the same way that freedom and diversity is vital to having an independent press.

“The risk of slowing AI is much greater than the risk of disseminating it,” LeCun said.

Following a brief question and answer session, LeCun was presented with an Honorary Life Membership by the Academy’s President and CEO, Nick Dirks.

“This means that you’ll be coming back often to speak with us and we can all get our questions answered,” Dirks said with a smile to wrap up the event. “Thank you so much.”

The Origin of the Term “Psychedelic”

The man who is known to have supplied author Aldous Huxley with hallucinogenic drugs publicly coined the word “psychedelic” during an Academy event in 1957.

Published April 4, 2024

By Nick Fetty

Psilocybin, also known as “magic mushrooms,” are among the hallucinogenic drugs that are studied for their medicinal and therapeutic benefits.

For many, the term “psychedelic” may conjure familiar images of the 1960s, mind-altering substances, and bands like Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead. What may be less well known is that the public origin of the term itself can be traced to an event held at The New York Academy of Sciences.

Humphry Osmond was a psychiatrist, researcher, and professor of psychology at the University of Alabama. He served as a psychiatrist in the navy during World War II and after his service began conducting research on the use of hallucinogenic drugs to treat mental illness and substance abuse.

The Origins of LSD

Osmond was interested in the work of Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman who, in 1943, discovered the hallucinogenic drug lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD). This discovery actually came by accident, when Hoffman unknowingly ingested a small amount of the substance and experienced what’s believed to be the first “acid trip” as he rode his bike home, with some help from his assistant, after leaving the lab.

Word about the drug’s effects spread and eventually government intelligence agencies became intrigued in it’s (as well as mescaline’s) potential as a way to pry information out of individuals being interrogated. Osmond, however, saw a different application for the newly discovered drug and ironically enough thought it had potential to help treat substance abuse, specifically alcoholism.

Osmond moved to Saskatchewan, Canada in the early 1950s and conducted research at the Weyburn Mental Hospital with support from the Canadian government and the Rockefeller Foundation. Alongside Abram Hoffer, the duo experimented with LSD as a treatment, under carefully controlled conditions, for nearly 2000 patients struggling with alcoholism. The findings were quite promising, and the duo reported that 40 to 45 percent of those treated using LSD between 1954 and 1960 did not return to drinking after one year.

Image courtesy of Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.

The Origin of the Term “Psychedelic”

During this era, Osmond connected with Aldous Huxley, the author renowned for his books Brave New World and The Doors of Perception. Osmond was known to supply Huxley with hallucinogenic drugs like LSD and mescaline.

Huxley and Osmond worked together to come up with a word to describe the effects of LSD. Huxley concocted “phanerothyme” by combining the Greek words for “to show” and “spirit” as well as the tagline: “To make this mundane world sublime, Take half a gram of phanerothyme.” Osmond, however, came up with his own phrase: psychedelic. He combined the Greek words for psyche (for mind or soul) and deloun (for show), along with his own rhyme: “To fathom Hell or soar angelic/Just take a pinch of psychedelic.” Osmond said the term meant “mind manifesting” and that it was “clear, euphonious and uncontaminated by other associations.”

Much like a user drops acid, Osmond dropped the term “psychedelic” during a meeting at The New York Academy of Sciences in 1957.  His appearance at the Academy was part of his effort to discuss his research in this area, which was published as “A Review of the Clinical Effects of Psychotomimetic Agents” in the March 1957 issue of Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.

A Revival of Alternative Therapies

However, as backlash to the “turn on, tune in, drop out” mantra of the 1960s, governments became concerned with the potential harm of the recreational use of LSD. New York State and California made it illegal to possess the substance in 1966, and four years later it became illegal at the federal level.

Research on using hallucinogenic drugs in medical applications has been revived in recent years and is now being studied to treat everything from substance abuse and depression to post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety. In at least one case in Silicon Valley, some have experimented with microdosing of psychedelic drugs (LSD and psilocybin) to improve work performance in areas like concentration and problem solving.

The Academy has a long history of hosting events that promote the use of alternative therapies to treat ailments. Reports from The New Yorker discuss the Academy’s involvement with therapeutic uses of meprobamate in the 1950s and hypnosis in the 1970s, while reporting in The New York Times examined research on the medicinal benefits of cannabis presented at the Academy in the 1970s. Today, the Academy continues to promote promising alternative therapies, including during a 2023 conference that examined near death experiences and the use of psychedelics in medical treatment.