Noah Cowan: Control Theory as a Framework for Biology: The “Plant” is the Animal
Control systems engineering commonly relies on the “separation principle” which allows designers to independently design state observers and controllers. Biological sensorimotor control systems, however, routinely violate the requirements for separability. 1) Sensory modulation: animals often rely on a strategy known as “active sensing” in they use their own movements to alter spatiotemporal patterns of sensory information to improve task-level performance. 2) Motor modulation: In addition, animals routinely coordinate their motor systems to simplify task-level control—i.e. they actuate their effectors in such a way that simplifies the task-level “plant”. Here, we integrate “top-down” and “bottom-up” modeling and analysis of sensorimotor control and active sensing in an ideally suited organism, the weakly electric glass knifefish, and provide new clues into how the brain and body work together to control movement.
For nearly 20 years my research has been devoted to understanding navigation and control in machines and animals. My students and postdocs conduct original experiments and computational analyses on both biological and robotic systems, with focus on applying concepts from dynamical systems and control theory to garner new insights into the principles that underly neural computation. This research program has been recognized by several awards, including a Presidential Early Career Award in Science and Engineering (PECASE) and a James S. McDonnel Complex Systems Scholar award.