Previous Power of Information Fellowship Awardees

Larissa Albantakis (2016)

Larissa Albantakis is Assistant Scientist in the Department of Psychiatry, and researcher in the Wisconsin Institute for Sleep and Consciousness, at the University of Wisconsin—Madison. She obtained her Diploma in physics from Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich in 2007, and her PhD in Computational Neuroscience from Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona in 2011. She has been at the University of Wisconsin since 2012.

Larissa’s research has focused on the insight that the brain and mind form the primary information bottleneck for understanding the physical world. In her PhD she explored the neural computations underlying sensorimotor decision-making given multiple choice-alternatives and the option to “change one’s mind.” During that project she made use of large-scale, biophysically-realistic neural models and a novel psychophysics experiment investigating changes-of-mind in a multiple choice paradigm with human subjects. Her postdoctoral work exploring the relationships between causation, information, and consciousness in neural networks has proved essential for developing Integrated Information Theory (IIT). Her contributions to IIT have included a demonstration of adaptive advantages of high information integration in simulated, evolving organisms; a body of work that reveals the possibility of macro-level causation, which can supersede micro-level causal interactions; and an account of the relation between causal and dynamical complexity in discrete dynamical systems.

Larissa’s Templeton Independent Research Fellowship project is entitled Informational autonomy and causal responsibility. This is how she describes it:

“Both common sense and the law treat people as free and responsible agents. Yet, any deliberate action, such as raising one’s hand, is necessarily preceded by a chain of neural events, predicting the action even before the subject becomes aware of having initiated it. As many philosophers have argued, the fact that physical events are either determined by previous events, or emerge from (quantum) randomness, seem to preclude us from being autonomous and causally-responsible agents. My project aims to demonstrate that these seemingly unavoidable conclusions rest on an inadequate, reductionist notion of causation that lacks an informational basis and fails to distinguish “what happened” from “what caused what”. I will develop a theoretical framework to quantify causation at multiple spatiotemporal scales, in order to identify the actual, maximally-informative cause of an event. Combined with a formal account of autonomous systems as maxima of intrinsic, integrated information across space and time, one can determine when an autonomous agent, rather than external events, or the agent’s underlying micro-structure, deserves responsibility for an action and how much. Deliberate, spontaneous, forced, and reflex actions can thus be distinguished based on the origin (intrinsic vs. extrinsic) and specificity (information) of their actual cause. I will demonstrate this using simulated agents (“animats”) with small “brains” having varying autonomy from the environment, for which integrated information, actual causes, and external influences at different spatiotemporal levels can be assessed exhaustively. Adaptive animats will moreover be used to identify environmental conditions that are particularly suited to evolve freely-acting agents.”

Chiara Marletto (2016)

Chiara Marletto is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Materials at the University of Oxford. After dabbling in Italian literature, she obtained her Laurea in Physical Engineering from Politecnico di Torino in 2008, and her Laurea Magistrale from the same institution and in the same subject area in 2010. She was awarded her DPhil in quantum computing from the University of Oxford in 2013, and has been at Oxford since then.

Her research has been driven by her interest in the relationship between physics and information, and she has previously explored fundamental issues in quantum physics, quantum information theory, condensed-matter physics, theoretical biology and thermodynamics. Her doctoral thesis included the first error-correction protocol for systematic errors in quantum state transfer. In the midst of that research she began collaborating with David Deutsch on Constructor Theory (CT), a theory that seeks to generalise quantum computation theory to the whole of physics. During her postdoctoral research she and Deutsch used CT to bring information into fundamental physics for the first time. She then applied CT to theoretical biology, and also developed an exact information-theoretic reformulation of the laws of thermodynamics. She has also applied CT to the vexing problem of the origin of probabilities in quantum theory.

Chiara’s Fellowship project is entitled The Physics of Counterfactuals – Applications of the Constructor Theory of Information to Thermodynamics, the Physics of Time and Quantum Information. In this project, Chiara says, she will further develop Constructor Theory by applying a “constructor-information-theoretic approach to fundamental problems in three new areas: (1) thermodynamics, thereby providing an exact information-theoretic understanding of single-particle heat engines, thermal equilibrium and thermodynamic irreversibility; (2) the physics of time, specifically developing an exact, information-theoretic operational approach; and (3) quantum information, focusing particularly on expressing quantum-information properties, (e.g., entanglement and coherence) within CT’s local, non-probabilistic framework.” Chiara will formulate new information-theoretic laws about ‘counterfactual entities’ in those areas, especially those—such as heat—that have long been considered emergent and not fundamental. This will demonstrate the power of information in fundamental physics, while also establishing CT both as a new field of physics, and—beyond physics alone–as a profoundly positive framework for science, one in which everything that is not physically impossible can be achieved.

Lee Rozema (2016)

Lee Rozema currently works in the Quantum Information Science and Quantum Computation Group at the University of Vienna. Lee was awarded the Bachelor of Science degree in physics and computer science from Brock University in 2008, and then completed a PhD in physics at the University of Toronto in 2014. He has been a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Vienna since 2014.

Lee’s previous efforts have focused primarily on experimental studies of quantum mechanics. His PhD research demonstrated that considerations about the mathematical structure of quantum states and processes can have profound effects on measurements. He designed several experiments that show how different aspects of quantum mechanics can be exploited to perform more accurate and more efficient measurements. Since moving to Vienna he has continued to look at experimentally testable implications of the structure of quantum mechanics, and has collaborated with researchers there who study the causal structure of quantum mechanics.

Lee’s Fellowship project is entitled Experimental Investigation of Indefinite Causal Orders in Quantum Mechanics. He describes the project as follows:

“A causal order determines the order in which events occur, and how these different events can affect each other. Recently, a description of quantum mechanics making no explicit assumption about the order of events was developed. In this formalism, events are treated in terms of the ability to exchange information between each other.

Applying this new formalism to quantum mechanics has shown that processes without a predefined causal order can exist. Information can nonetheless be transferred through these processes. Extraordinarily, these processes can accomplish tasks which are not possible when the causal order is definite. The goal of my project is to investigate these processes in more detail, finding practical ways to build them in a laboratory, efficient ways to characterize them, and new applications for them.

This project will begin with a novel construction of a process—the quantum SWITCH—which lacks a definite causal order. In this process, quantum information will be encoded in a photonic system travelling in a network of optical fibres. The quantum SWITCH will be built using fibre-optic technologies, as this will result in a flexible architecture. I will use this fibre-based quantum device as a test bed to demonstrate that information can be processed and transmitted more efficiently when there is not a well-defined causal order. I will develop theoretical methods to characterize such processes, and will test these methods using the quantum SWITCH. In addition, I will search for other processes lacking a definite causal order.”

Natalia Ares (2017)

Natalia Ares is a researcher in the Department of Materials at the University of Oxford. She was awarded a Masters degree (equivalent) in Physics by the Universidad de Buenos Aires in 2009, followed by a PhD in physics from the Université de Grenoble in 2013. Her recent research has been supported by a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellowship.

Natalia’s research has focused on coherent quantum phenomena. For her master’s degree she pursued theoretical research on quantum chaos, and then switched to experimental work for her PhD. At Grenoble she developed nanocrystal devices that realised long-lived quantum bits, and also discovered a mechanism for fast electrical control of hole-spins in quantum devices. In her recent postdoctoral research she has gained experience in nanomechanical resonators and radio-frequency reflectometry for fast and sensitive probing of quantum devices.

During her Fellowship Natalia will work on a project entitled Quantum Information Thermodynamics in Nanoscale Devices. She describes the project as follows:

“Maxwell’s demon, born in 1867, still thrives in modern physics. This intelligent being had information about the velocities and positions of the particles in a gas, and could therefore transfer the fast, hot particles from a cold reservoir to a hot one, in apparent violation of the second law of thermodynamics.

In the classical regime, the connection between information and thermodynamics has been studied extensively, but very little is known of how it is revised in the quantum world. The time is right now to dive in this unexplored field; I will draw on the fast-paced development of nanodevices operating at cryogenic temperatures to build an experimental platform to explore how thermodynamics and information relate in a quantum mechanical picture. For example, in classical mechanics and thermodynamics, work is determined by the force needed to move a particle along a trajectory. For quantum systems the situation is much more subtle, since unique trajectories do not exist. Quantum thermodynamics has thus remained somewhat elusive with many peculiar features and open questions. These questions range from definitions of work, for which there is no consensus in the community, as well as unknowns in the thermalisation of quantum systems (approached by quantum information theory), to the efficiency and power of quantum engines.

My project aims at pushing the limits of conventional thermodynamics to include quantum effects. I will develop hybrid nanodevices that combine electronic and mechanical degrees of freedom to give access to thermodynamic experiments at the nanoscale.”

Celia Herrera-Rincon (2017)

Celia Herrera-Rincon is a postdoctoral fellow in developmental and regenerative biology at Tufts University. She was educated at the Complutense University of Madrid, obtaining her Bachelor of Science degree in biology, Master of Science in neurobiology, and PhD in neuroscience in 2008, 2010, and 2014 respectively.

Celia states that her long-term research goal is to comprehensively understand the evolutionary processes that lead to cognitive functioning and the formation of a functional brain. During her doctoral degree she focused on the plasticity of cortical circuits induced by neuroprosthetic stimulation in rodents. This gave her expertise in neurosurgery, morphological and electrophysiological methods, and a deep knowledge of the brain-machine interface. Since moving to Tufts she has applied her skills in neuroscience to cognitive plasticity and the mechanisms by which neural signals integrate with control of growth and form in Xenopus.

For her Fellowship Celia will work on a project entitled From Microbes to Minds: Using a Neural-Bacteria Interface to Discover a Universal Code for Information Processing Across Scales of Biological Organization.

In this project, Celia says, “We will probe the universality of information processing, using prokaryote biofilms and vertebrate brains, the two ‘ends’ of the biological spectrum. Current studies on the brain-gut-microbiota axis have revealed several molecular mechanisms by which the components can communicate, but these studies have largely neglected the informational aspects of this communication. My hypotheses are that (1) there is a universal ancestral communication code, which would allow effective information transfer across biological kingdoms, and that (2) a computational analysis of cross-talk between bacteria and neural cells will reveal unique aspects of how Information-processing underlies emergence of complex systems.

To test these hypotheses, I will design and construct the first integrated electrical-optical neural-bacteria interface, a versatile, multi-site stimulation and recording platform specifically suited to extract information in real time across biological entities. The experiments will validate the health of the two biological components and will verify that we can read (monitor information transfer) and write (provide stimuli) information into the system. I will then characterize the communication channel and generate a quantitative model of cross-level communication by computationally analyzing communication between the two biological components in real time using information metrics. Subsequent experiments will manipulate and re-write active communication between the neural and bacterial components to test and refine our specific models, and integrate the existing data into a wholistic picture of Information dynamics. This platform will enable our laboratory and many others to probe fundamental questions of Information embodiment and action.”

Arnaud Pocheville (2017)

Arnaud Pocheville is a research fellow in the Department of Philosophy and the Charles Perkins Centre at the University of Sydney. He received his university training in France, having obtained a Bachelor of Life Sciences degree at the University of Paris 11 in 2002, a Masters degree in ecology, biodiversity, and evolution at the University of Paris 6 and Ecole Normale Supérieure in 2004, a Masters degree in logic, philosophy, history, and sociology of sciences from University of Paris 7 in 2006, and finally a PhD in life sciences from Ecole Normale Supérieure in 2010.

Arnaud’s early research experiences convinced him that foundational questions in evolutionary biology were yet to be resolved, particularly those pertaining to the nature and boundaries of the objects and processes of evolution. In his PhD he proposed that hypotheses of time-scale separation between evolutionary processes are key to identifying the building blocks of classical evolutionary theory. After a brief stint as a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Philosophy of Science at the University of Pittsburgh, he began working on theories of biological information at the University of Sydney.

Arnaud’s Fellowship project is called Biological Information and Biological Function. He describes the project as follows:

“Biologists routinely speak of living systems as if they were information-processing systems and many think this is what distinguishes life from non-life. I and my collaborators previously developed quantitative measures of biological information that move this idea from the realm of metaphor to the realm of scientific model building.

Information has two very different aspects. Formal measures of information concern how objects covary. Here, information is causal. The second aspect of information concerns how objects can have function, meaning, and intentionality. This aspect is semantic. My previous work with collaborators focused on causal information. In this new project I will explore how semantic information emerges from causal information.

This will first require showing how living systems process causal information, and then exploring how this processed causal information can lead to biological function and purpose. Starting with cell biology, I will simulate and measure the transfer and processing of causal information between molecules during cellular functioning. I will evaluate whether more complex, informational objects are more likely to be functional, using data on the catalytic properties of RNA sequences.

At the other end of the biological hierarchy, I will look at how causal information can lead to representation and intentionality in signalling networks. I will use agent-based models developed in collaboration with behavioural ecologists to simulate the evolution of these networks.

The overall aim is to show that biological information per se can bear a biological function. Information gives rise to purpose.”