New Faculty 2009-10
Thomas Serre Assistant Professor of Cognitive and Linguistic Sciences and Psychology

Thomas Serre
Assistant Professor of Cognitive and Linguistic Sciences and Psychology

By Mark Hollmer  |  September 9, 2009  |  Email to a friend

Thomas Serre visualizes a future with computers that can mimic the primate brain. Put another way, those computers will “see” just as well as humans do.

Serre, 32, is among scientists who have made great strides recently toward getting to that point — but the final goal is still a long way off.

“Computer vision has made a lot of progress in the last 10 to 20 years,” he said. “But we are still very far from having computer algorithms that can compete with the primate’s visual system.”

The ultimate goal, Serre said, may be another 20 years away; advancements in science take time. Serre plans to continue his research on developing computational models of vision when he joins the Brown University faculty Jan. 1, 2010, as assistant professor of cognitive and linguistic sciences and psychology.

For years, Serre has been pursuing the idea of reverse-engineering the visual system to try to build better computer vision systems, most recently as a postdoctoral associate at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At MIT, he also earned his Ph.D. in computational neuroscience; his thesis focused on developing early concepts leading toward the creation of viable computer vision.

His research focuses on both theory and experiments. He develops detailed computational models of the visual cortex and pursues lab experiments in areas including psychophysics — the study of the relationship between stimulus and sensation — and brain imaging.

So far, Serre, a native of France, has worked with colleagues to create a computational model that mimics the first 150 milliseconds of the visual process in the brain, when an image flashes in front of the eyes, subsequently activating a number of visual areas in rapid succession. This in turn allows an individual to decide what he or she is seeing, based on those images.

The computer model performed on par with humans in emulating the task, Serre said.

Such a technology, once perfected, would have many uses. Computer vision could be used to search for images more accurately on the Web, Serre said, rather than the text recognition system used now. It could also help automate the phenotyping of new strains of mice to gauge their behavior in light of certain genetic changes. The process is usually done by hand, and could shorten a process that can take years to a period of days.

As he moves ahead with his research, Serre said he is looking forward to coming to Brown.

For one thing, he already has relationships here, and is collaborating with Brown faculty including David Sheinberg, associate professor of neuroscience, who studies how neurons work together to select, process and recognize objects.

Of course, Serre has plenty of interests outside of the lab.

He and his wife have a 10-month old daughter. In the past, he’s also been an avid surfer and snowboarder. Serre enjoys films, particularly works from the French New Wave of cinema.

He will move to Providence from Massachusetts later this fall.