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Harvard Center for Brain Science Receives Up to $1.7 Million Gift from NTT Research

The Harvard Center for Brain Science is located in the Northwest Building. The center received a gift of nearly $2 million from the NTT Research Foundation.
The Harvard Center for Brain Science is located in the Northwest Building. The center received a gift of nearly $2 million from the NTT Research Foundation. By Emily T. Schwartz
By Eunice S. Chae, Patil Djerdjerian, and Rachel M. Fields, Contributing Writers

Harvard University’s Center for Brain Science received a gift of more than $300,000 per year for up to five years from the NTT Research Foundation, the foundation announced Thursday.

According to the announcement, the program will be funded for two years with a possible three-year extension. The gift will establish a fund supporting postdoctoral research in the physics of intelligence, which intends to use physics to address fundamental questions in intelligence while bridging the areas of computer science, neuroscience, and psychology.

Kazu Gomi — president and CEO of NTT Research, the global research and development arm of NTT — said the foundation hopes “the center is going to use that money to hire postdoctoral fellows.”

Venkatesh Murthy, director of the Center for Brain Science and a Harvard professor, said that the center is looking for “a lot of amazing new Ph.D.s, graduate doctoral students who are really excited about this thinking, this interdisciplinarity new thing.”

Gomi said that allowing the Center to take “the lead on this research field, from the worldwide scale perspective” will usher in a “new wave of computations using a new physics.”

The gift — which comes after a 2021 joint research agreement between the Center for Brain Science and the NTT Research Physics & Informatics Lab — came from “some bidding process,” according to Gomi.

Before selecting Harvard’s Center for Brain Science as the gift recipient, NTT Research embarked on a process of getting to “know the professors and laboratories of each institution” to “find the professors or the directors that are in line with what we think and what we dream of,” Gomi said.

The gift is structured with the option for an extension in order to allow for innovative research “without putting too much pressure” on quickly returning a product, Gomi said.

With the gift and more postdoctoral fellows, the CBS will embark on its efforts to explain “how brains produce intelligent behavior.”

One core focus of the center is neural circuits — in particular, their structure, development, and various functions. With the rise of artificial intelligence, researchers at CBS have also begun to explore how it can be applied to fields like neuroscience.

Hidenori Tanaka, a CBS associate and NTT Research Physics & Informatics Laboratories researcher, highlighted “how interdisciplinary our research agenda is.”

“What’s really crucial when trying to build such a new field is to have people from diverse backgrounds,” Tanaka said.

Receiving industry funding from NTT Research will allow flexible recruitment of Ph.D. students from different departments, such as “physics, neuroscience, even psychology, and then electrical engineering, computer science and applied math,” he added.

Despite the Center’s broader goals to explore intelligence, Murthy said the exact next steps are yet to be determined.

“This is new for all of us,” he said. “How do you explain intelligent behavior in equations or in physics terms?”

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