It has been almost a month since we came back from Sardinia, Italy, where the CapoCaccia Cognitive Neuromorphic Engineering Workshop took place. I felt somewhere in between nostalgic and sad that it was over, and it took me some days to get used to the old routine without the sea, the sun and the approximately 130 amazing workshop participants.
How it all started
The conference runs every year since 2007, but this year was the first time that I had the opportunity to attend.
With a biomedical background I must confess the name of the conference was equally imposing, as it is for you -reader without any background- in “Neuromorphic Engineering”-. FYI neuromorphic engineering aims at developing new computing principles and technologies based on neurobiological architectures. Examples are silicon retinas, cochleas and neurons that mimic the ones that you have in your nervous system.
I started hearing about this workshop when I was an MSc student and it was hard to picture the conference and the place. Just from listening to what people said I felt like there was a clear analogy between the TV series LOST and Capo Caccia. The title of the TV series perfectly described my initial feelings! Moreover, both TV show and meeting take place in a hidden island where scientists are working on “mysterious” topics not unlike the Dharma Initiative in the show. I had also heard that both are isolated and far from civilization. My first suspicions were confirmed, as indeed the hotel was nowhere near the city center.
The conference started and I seriously did not know what to expect but it was definitely not conventional from the beginning. What first caught my attention was the setup of the conference room; the chairs were all close to one another in a half moon shape bringing everyone in close proximity. After the introduction the first speaker started drawing on a flip-chart, yes… on paper, no power point presentations, they were completely prohibited. As the presenters need to draw, they have to go step by step with their explanations right from the beginning and even if you are not working on the same field you can more easily follow. The dynamics of the presentation allowed breaking the wall between the presenter and the rest of the participants where discussions and questions were a constant. It was definitely not a one-man show. If you have attended any other, more conventional scientific meetings you know exactly what I am talking about.
Also the workshop offered a smooth transition within the two weeks from biology to neuromorphic engineering going through different topics and different high- quality presenters with different points of view. This is the only way to follow a story from different angles. Some of the topics discussed were cortex, learning, winner-take-all networks, neuromorphic devices, chips, robots, SpiNNaker, NEF, etc.
Another non-conventional aspect of the meeting is that although it has a time structure, there is flexibility in the sense of the topics to be addressed. Depending on the clear interests that are being shown during the first days, the subjects, discussions and meetings change.
The conference had also a cool disco not really for dancing, well occasionally… but for setting up all the different robots and computers. Most of the demos took place here:
Not everything is about learning from someone else’s presentation but instead we could choose from a list of projects where mostly PhD students were leading the group. You could choose any group you liked and the point was to keep you busy during the afternoons with the purpose of learning something new in a similar or completely different topic as your own. You can read more about the projects here: https://capocaccia.ethz.ch/capo/wiki/2013/Workgroups
Definitely for me the coolest was that you could have breakfast with a neuroscientist, coffee with an engineer and dinner with a theoretician and multiple combinations of the above along the day. In a scientific environment this could not be better. This is actually possible because all participants were staying at the same place, the hotel is not huge and the fact that it is not so simple to
out of the hotel account for a very natural interaction that would otherwise be
impossible in other conditions.
Why would you like to go there?
Science and technology advance at huge steps nowadays and it is not longer possible to make progress by just considering our own field. The only way to advance is by combining different subjects. So if you are a biological neuroscientist you can go there to learn what people are doing in engineering with the information you and people in your field have been providing and if you are an engineering you should go to see in which topics you can apply your technologies.
In conclusion Capo Caccia is a two-week workshop where theoretical and experimental neuroscientists (and physicists, engineers, mathematicians, psychologists, etc.) from around the world meet to discuss, learn and work on different topics related to neuromorphic engineering.
If you want to read more about the conference go to: http://capocaccia.ethz.ch/
Here a couple of pictures so you can get an idea:
And yes, we had a very nice time.