I am thankful of being in the wonderful position to enjoy my job: being a scientist (well, about half of the day, the other is clinical issues). I came to think about the present topic because the other day I enjoyed one of the associtated pleasures: telling a bright student, interested in a thesis with me, about the issues I try to tackle (and succeeding in that case). Other pleasures in science for me include: hitting on a major discovery (ok, that’s more than rare for me), getting intricate methodological stuff to work, sending in a paper (which means a round of sparkling wine for the lab), finally convincing the reviewers (usually, they are right) leading to a second round of bubbly for that paper, being inspired by ideas buzzing around at a good conference, and more. 

This reminds me of the experience as “opponent” I recently had in Scandinavia (and that’s where the accompanying picture was taken when we were feasting after the formal events). The end of a PhD thesis in Germany does not invoke grand academic brouhaha, it’s usually a secluded exam plus one semi-public presentation. I know that it’s more involved in the US and Canada, and in Scandinavia it takes (more than) a day. In my latest experience with that I was “opponent”. In this role you’re supposed (and you get this in writing) to grill the candidate for 1+ hours. On top of this (and you also get this in writing: the “guide for the opponent”) you’re supposed to give a speach near the beginning of cermonies with puts the thesis topic into wider context, and, to boot, it’s supposed to be interesting/entertaining to academicians not from the field! I read these details on the flight there and felt between hysterics and grief. Briefly before the ceremonies I put some thoughts together, I don’t really have a recollection what I actually said ;-) [You don’t need to read this, suffice it to say: candidate passed.]:  

“Opponents overview of the research area”

Humankind thought itself center of the universe – now we know we live on a small planet, orbiting a small sun, in the rim of the milky why which is just one of the galaxies of the local group, and from then one the sheer immensity surpasses the capacity of our intellect. Yet our intellect itself has also been put in its place: In the last few centuries we had the skirmish between dualistic view (mind and matter are of different stuff) and monistic views. The latter come in two main flavours: all is mind, or all is matter. While we can briefly dismiss the first, especially its solipsistic version, the latter permeates current natural science, especially the “emergentist materialism” which I also adopt as my working hypothesis. 

Yet it so much clashes with our introspection, where we feel free will, enjoy and suffer our emotions, and can feel enlightenment. Indeed, I have the feeling that the gap is widening in the population: on one hand we have what in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” Pirsig calls the romantic view. There we have astrology, and more, and homeopathy makes undeserved inroads into our health system. Ah, health, you must have been wondering when I would approach the topic at hand. 

But let me round up my approach to the present thesis with a few more thoughts on intellect, which are relevant here: Roughly in the 60s the field of Artificial Intelligence emerged. It had lofty goals: language understanding with automatic translation, problem solving and more. It bore fruit in various form of expert systems and artificial neural networks. Both can optimize in ill-defined domain where traditional linear optimization is out of its depth, but they suffer from the “regular’s table problem”. You know, the regulars in a pub, who have answers to everything, they do not perceive the limits of their knowledge. There are well documented cases where  AI approaches failed miserably for the same reason. The one thing that seems successful is computerized chess. But that’s not done with “understanding”, but with a brute force approach. Still, it beats me – easily. 

This brings me to XX’s thesis: For a number of eye diseases, visual electrophysiology is an excellent tool for diagnosis and monitoring. I understand that my introduction should also reach experts from other fields, so let me briefly mention the ERG, which is short for Electroretinogram. As such it means something electrical, and it has to do with the retina in the eye. To patient I always explain: We are measuring the ECG of the eye; the picture this evokes is in the right ballpark. The progress in our field is documented in longer acronyms, we now have in addition to the ERG the mfERG. He will also be covering the VEP, short for visual evoked potentials, a signal related to vision in the electroencephalogram. All these signals are small, I mean really small, very very small, and thus any successful approach to better identify them (using AI, specifically advanced signal analysis) is most welcome and will be an advance for basic science, and also be used in everyday patient recordings and thus further human well being. Etc etc.