Month: March 2016

Digitally-Interpreted Eye Vision

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In the second installment dedicated to research in Brain related areas, we visit Dr George Azzopardi’s office to chat about brain-inspired computer vision and how this will be used to help numerous industries, including medicine and gaming.

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Dr George Azzopardi

The human body is a marvelous machine. It can repair itself when it’s damaged, it can adapt itself to withstand some of the most unforgiving environments in the world, it sweats to keep our body’s temperature at optimal level, and it even warns us when something isn’t functioning properly.

Among the intricate programming that one can find inside our bodies is the brain and vision system, which, through experience, develops into a never-ending encyclopedia that is able to instantaneously recognise things, even if you haven’t seen anything like them before.

If you think of a regular object, such as a clock, and all the varieties of clocks out there, you quickly realise how robust our visual system is. Our brains simply take into consideration a number of visual factors that then allow us to identify a clock even if it’s not round, even it doesn’t have twelve numbers around the edges, and even if it’s melting down the side of a cliff.

But how does our brain do it? How are we able to recognise objects?

“This research started in the early 1960s, when two famous neurophysiologists, David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel, inserted electrodes in some neurons in the visual cortex, the main area in brain that is responsible for vision, of a cat. They then went on to show different shapes and patterns, and realised that some neurons only fired for certain lines or edges. It was so revolutionary that they won a Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology in the 80s!” says Dr George Azzopardi, a lecturer at the Department of Intelligent Computer Systems within the ICT Faculty of the University of Malta.

But what do humans have to do with cats? Aren’t our brains larger and more evolved?

“Well, we cannot perform such experiments on humans, and the visual cortex of cats shares a lot of similarity with that of humans,” he continues.

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Eye and visual cortex nerves

“Their ground-breaking discovery inspired an increasing number of research groups across the globe to conduct further experiments in different parts of the visual cortex of cats and monkeys… Through this on-going research, neurophysiologists discovered that our visual system is a hierarchal architecture that consists of neurons responsible for stimuli of different complexity and that the output of some neurons is the input of other neurons; thus the so-called ‘neural network’.

“It is still a mystery how the collective response of a group of neurons is used by the brain to store in memory and to retrieve from it the names of all the objects that we see. So far, however, neurophysiologists have discovered that the only objects/shapes for which individual neurons are responsible are faces and hands – a trait that might be the result of our evolution.”

What intrigues him most to follow this approach is the fact that the brain is a rather small device compared to the most powerful supercomputers and yet it has a visual system that is much more robust to various conditions. And, armed with the aforementioned knowledge, Dr Azzopardi, as well as many other scientists all around the globe, has been working on designing algorithms that can simulate some properties of this process.

The brain-inspired algorithms that Dr Azzopardi has already introduced in the literature show superior effectiveness in various applications. For instance, one field that can benefit a lot with computer vision techniques is medical diagnosis using different types of images, such as retinal images, mammograms and X-rays, among others. Other fields include security, robotics, and entertainment could also find this research beneficial.

“That’s why all this is worth the struggle, as perfecting it will usher in a whole new era in what computers can be trusted to do, both in the world of medicine and beyond,” Dr Azzopardi explains. “This will be incredibly useful for any problem that requires object recognition, so everything from traffic sign-recognition, such as in cars that can give warning to truck drivers who drive for very long hours, to mechanically sorting out traditional mail, and checking X-Rays in hospital.”

Now, Dr Azzopardi will be part of the Brain Awareness Week, during which he will be giving sessions to students from both Junior College and Saint Aloysius, to show them the basic properties of our visual system and the way this information is being used to build computational models that are accurate and effective.

“I’m also collaborating with five PhD students on this, as it’s quite an advanced level subject, and it even feeds into the huge European project called The Human Brain Project, which is trying to simulate all the properties of the brain, essentially creating artificial intelligence that is just as intelligent and capable as we are.

“Is it possible? I doubt that we will manage this in the next decade, but considering all the innovations that have been spawned by this study, it’s definitely been worth it,” Dr Azzopardi concludes.

While no one knows where this research will take us, it’s safe to say that we are in for some very high-tech and fantastical times!

You too can be part of this fascinating world of research by supporting researchers in all the faculties of the University of Malta. A fund raising concert will be taking place with proceeds going towards brain related research, featuring internationally acclaimed violinist Carmine Lauri in Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. Please click here for more information on the concert. To book online please click here

 

The Science of Developing Language Skills

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In this installment dedicated to research in Brain related areas, we sit down with Professor Helen Grech, a speech language pathologist and audiologist, to understand how her recent work is helping identify speech and language impairment in Maltese children.

Prof Helen Grech
Prof Helen Grech

As children, language acquisition comes naturally. By listening to others speak and seeing them act out what it is they’re saying, we learn what ‘a table’ is, how questions are formed, and that figures of speech are almost never literal. Yet what comes naturally to many, may not be that straight-forward to others.

That’s why Professor Helen Grech, who has a professorship in communication therapy, and practises as a speech language pathologist and audiologist, set out to develop and standardise a simple test which can identify speech and language difficulties in Maltese children.

“The patterns of Maltese children when it comes to language development are different to those of children in other countries,” Professor Grech explains. “That’s not only because the language is unique but also because most of our children are exposed to Maltese and English to varying degrees. That’s fantastic, of course, but it also changes things when looking to identify any language-learning difficulties.”

Scientists and researchers have discovered, in fact, that children who are bilingual from infancy, initially develop speech and language skills at a different rate and pattern, but in the long run, they are actually better-equipped at language-learning than their monolingual counterparts.

“This makes a world of difference when assessing a child’s ability and whether or not he or she has any impairments,” continues Professor Grech. “Moreover, even though many children in Malta are bilingual, the truth is that most of them have a primary language (English or Maltese), and that is something that we had to take into consideration as well.

“To give you an example, an English-speaking, three-year-old might have difficulty saying ‘ruler’ (they’d pronounce it as ‘yule’), whereas a Maltese-speaking child would say ‘liga’ to signify ‘riga’. But what happens when you mix both of those together is what we’re concerned with,” she adds.

The standardised ‘Maltese-English Speech Assessment’ (MESA) test, for which parents

can refer children to the speech therapy service at their nearest clinic, is relatively straight forward. Using simple images, narrative comprehension text and a test that checks their proficiency, professionals are able to determine if
a child has any language impairments (ie whether that child’s language skills are the typical or atypical for children of his or her age).

Of course, the test is simple due to all bilingual (1)the work that has gone into it, including collecting data from homes across Malta and Gozo and validating it at clinics all over the island; a process which took over six years to complete was done through the Framework Projects of the European Union 6 and 7.

But, some parents may ask: what happens to children whose impairments are not identified?

“What’s important to remember is that speech and language processing is all cognitively processed by the brain, but it is not necessarily related to brain pathology, in that it is not only a side-effect of a neurological condition, which can be primary or secondary to an underlying condition,” Professor Grech continues.

“When left unidentified, language impairment can have a dramatic effect on a child’s life. From bullying in schools to life-long low self esteem, as well as difficulty in communicating and all the byproducts of that.”

Apart from this, the Department of Communication Therapy within the Faculty of Health Sciences, of which Professor Grech is head, is also working on various other research projects to help the development of vocabulary, auditory processing skills and written language skills in Maltese children, as well as a study related to acquired language skills, for example, following a stroke.

“There is still so much that we need to research and understand to help children and adults with speech impairments, and language-learning difficulties, as well as those who have trouble with auditory processing skills,” she concludes.

You too can be part of this fascinating world of research by supporting researchers in all the faculties of the University of Malta. A fund raising concert will be taking place with proceeds going towards brain related research, featuring internationally acclaimed violinist Carmine Lauri in Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. Please click here for more information on the concert. To book online please click here

A man for All Seasons

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In last week’s blog Four Seasons for Brain Research RIDT CEO Wilfred Kenely speaks about the relationship between art and fundraising for research. This week we feature internationally acclaimed violinist Carmine Lauri who will be the soloist for this concert to be held on Sunday 27th March.  Carmine Lauri’s name is synonymous with the violin, but in this interview with Alex Vella Gregory we discover there’s also reel tape and wooden spoons! (Article feature in the Sunday Circle, February 2016)

Carmine LauriIt all started with wooden spoons. Actually, there’s a little bit more than that: wooden spoons and a very musical family. As a tiny tot, Carmine Lauri wanted to join in the weekly music making at home (weekly music making…what a luxury!), and so he picked up two wooden spoons. Most kids would do the obvious thing, and turn every reachable surface into a drum. But instead Carmine Lauri promptly put one spoon under his chin and started fiddling away.

Carmine Lauri needs very little introduction. He is one of the top Maltese musicians of his generation, a violinist who performs regularly with some of the best orchestras around, and a consummate artist whose performances have received great acclaim. But perhaps Carmine Lauri’s best quality is his humanity.

Even though he has years of music making behind him and has made a name for himself abroad, he remains wonderfully down-to-earth. Despite all those years of working in the highest echelons of music-making, he has maintained a fresh approach to music.

People sometimes struggle to understand what the life of a musician is like. True, the thrill and magic of the stage forms an important part of it, but it is a life of great sacrifices. Very often, one is constantly on the go, and has to adapt quickly and constantly to different environments. ‘I lead a very hectic lifestyle, and what I look forward to most is time out at home.’

Being an orchestra leader also has its pressures, and its rewards. An orchestra leader is an important point of reference for the whole orchestra, and a vital connection with the conductor. There is a great responsibility not just on a musical level but also on a human level. On top of that, it’s the orchestra leader who gets all the important (and difficult) violin solos in a piece. It is no easy task, but Lauri is the perfect man for the job, with his blend of musicality, common sense, and a sense of humour.

‘To err is human,’ it has been said. Watching an artist perform on stage can sometimes make us forget that deep down these are human beings like us, and that occasionally things can go wrong. ‘Do things ever go wrong?’ I ask Carmine Lauri. He’s at a loss from where to begin.

‘A fairly recent one was actually my fault. During a performance of Stravinsky’s Petrushka with the LSO and Valery Ghiergiev, I happened to be sitting as co-leader on the front desk and during the concert I accidentally turned two pages at once for my colleague who was leading, and we both came in crashing playing loudly for a few bars while the rest of the orchestra were playing simple pizzicato notes!’

There was also the time he was playing Dvorak’s Symphony No. 6 with the LSO, under Sir Colin Davis’ direction, and he was playing on a Stradivari violin he had just borrowed for a few years. Carmine Lauri got somewhat over-enthusiastic, and the E-string snapped halfway through the performance. Of course, it wasn’t the first time he had changed a violin string mid-performance, but in his haste the peg flew out of the violin neck and landed somewhere in the flowers in front of him. Between frantically searching for the peg, and holding on to the Stradivarius like his life depended on it, he missed the entire first section of the symphony.

 

Sometimes keeping your playing fresh is extremely difficult. Just think of the poor folks at the Vienna Philharmonic who every year have to play The Blue Danube and the Radetzky March for the New Year’s Day concert. I get nauseated just by watching 10 seconds of it, let alone having to play it every single year. ‘I would not have lasted long in my career if every time I played a Brahms symphony I always played the same fingerings and bowings year after year,’ says Lauri.

So how does he approach a work like Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, ostensibly one of the most performed works in the classical canon? Carmine Lauri will be performing it in Malta on the 27th of March, and I’m curious how he prepares for such a concert. ‘So many interpretations have been presented to the worldwide public, some rather eccentric and I try to find a fair balance whenever I perform them.’ says Lauri. ‘I am not one to experiment to such an extent that I end up destroying what was originally written, and am not too much in favour of such interpretations.’ For Lauri, it’s about finding the right balance between respecting the original and giving it a new lease of life.

With a composer like Vivaldi, that is no easy task. Vivaldi’s music makes great use of repeated patterns and sequential passages, and can very easily sound dull in the wrong hands. Several critics and musicians have had a go at Vivaldi, including Stravinsky who considered him a ‘a dull fellow who could compose the same form so many times over’. Lauri begs to differ. He believes that Vivaldi has a lot to offer, and I would tend to agree with him.

However, composers like Vivaldi, or even specific works like The Four Seasons, tend to eclipse a vast and sadly neglected repertoire. How many of us have heard Cesar Franck’s Symphony in D minor? Or even Ibert’s Escales? Carmine Lauri also singles out Suk’s Asrael Symphony, a work which Lauri considers ‘one of the most difficult’ he has ever performed.

Classical music is going through an interesting transformation. The digital age has made the dissemination of classical music easier to manage, and has put it on an equal footing with other musical genres in terms of distribution. All the ‘unknown’ works Lauri has mentioned are easily available on YouTube, therefore all you need to do is just log on and click away. There is also a broader definition of classical music, and composers and musicians alike have embraced this diversity. ‘Classical music will always have a future,’ asserts Lauri confidently. ‘It’s rich, it’s a treasure, it’s probably the most understood languages without words.’

True, the rapid developments in music recording technology has revolutionised the way we experience music, and although Carmine Lauri is confident that recordings can never replace live performances, he does have a little music tech confession to make. ‘I have a very strange passion that started since before I could even walk and that’s for reel to reel tape recorders’ confesses Lauri. ‘I have a fascination for them and have collected quite a few of them, some very professional ones and some very vintage and am surrounded by all sorts of different brands of tape at home, probably have around 500 reels of tape and around 11 tape machines.’Poster 4 seasons Carmine Lauri

His interest is not a simple fascination with old machines, but a very active involvement in his hobby. Carmine Lauri often does all the repairs himself, which is both admirable given that classical musicians are not usually associated with music technology, and also rather ironic given that he was then defeated by an 18th century Stradivarius peg mid-performance.

Carmine Lauri is strong advocate of keeping an active healthy mind, and is suspicious of
our dependence on social media. For him, whether he is at work or relaxing at home, keeping mentally active is extremely important. Lauri is therefore honoured and proud to be performing as part of the University of Malta’s  Brain Awareness Campaign. His upcoming Malta engagement is in fact organised by the Research, Innovation and Development Trust (RIDT) within the University, and it is a fundraising concert to help with research funding in mental health issues.

Carmine Lauri plays ‘The Four Seasons’ will be held on Sunday 27th March at 19:30 at St Publius Parish Church Floriana. This concert is supported by APS Bank, ADRC Trust and Studio 7, and all proceeds will go towards brain research, within the UoM. Tickets and further info can be obtained from St James Cavalier, Spazju Kreattiv on 21223200 or click here to purchase online.