David Danks Named L.L. Thurstone Professor of Philosophy and Psychology-Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences - Carnegie Mellon University

Monday, September 12, 2016

David Danks Named L.L. Thurstone Professor of Philosophy and Psychology

Carnegie Mellon University’s David Danks has been named the Louis Leon (L.L.) Thurstone Professor of Philosophy and Psychology. Danks, head of the Department of Philosophy, uses computational cognitive science to develop computational models to describe, predict and, most importantly, explain human behavior.

“David embodies Carnegie Mellon’s interdisciplinary culture,” said Richard Scheines, dean of the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences. “He does rigorous, first-rate work on the philosophical foundations of psychology, theoretical work directly in psychology, practical work in machine learning, and applied work in cyberwarfare. He is also a great CMU citizen – he has led the Institutional Review Board, been heavily involved in Faculty Senate and is now the head of a department. The breadth of his scholarship and the number of ways in which he contributes to CMU are simply amazing.”

Danks has been on the CMU faculty since 2003. In 2008, he received a prestigious James S. McDonnell Foundation Scholar Award to pursue research on cognitive architectures that can integrate casual cognition, concepts and decision-making. He aims to understand these types of cognition not just in isolation, but also as key parts of human intelligence. The findings were published in the book, “Unifying the Mind: Cognitive Representations as Graphical Models.”

In “Unifying the Mind,” Danks outlined a new cognitive architecture that explains two aspects of the human thought process: the ability to pay attention to only things that matter and to use many different types of cognition to learn and reason about our world. Danks argued that both of these cognitive features can be naturally explained by our cognitive representations being structured like graphical models (a framework originally developed in machine learning).

Danks was the first to use graphical models to analyze multiple areas of cognition, and he demonstrated how the approach is useful by reinterpreting a variety of cognitive theories. He showed how much of cognition — particularly causal learning, cognition involving concepts and decision making — can be understood through the lens of graphical models.

Another area of Danks' research centers on learning causal structure from time series data, such as the data gathered in neuroimaging research. Two years ago, he received a three-year NSF grant to expand the study with Dr. Sergey Plis from the Mind Research Network at the University of New Mexico.

An additional focus for Danks is the emerging field of the ethics of cyberwarfare. He is approaching it from an interdisciplinary perspective, drawing on philosophy, psychology and technology with the goal of better understanding the relationships between humans and new, rapidly changing technologies.

CMU’s Department of Philosophy is unlike any program of its kind in the U.S. because of its emphasis on research that directly impacts the real world in areas such as computer science, math, statistics, psychology, bioethics and human rights. As department head, Danks is working to further establish its unique focus and strengthen its international reputation.

Danks also serves on the executive committee of BrainHub, the CMU initiative that focuses on how the structure and activity of the brain give rise to complex behaviors.

Danks is the first to hold the L.L. Thurstone Professorship at CMU. Thurstone was a pioneer in the fields of psychometrics and psychophysics and an early faculty member in CMU’s Division of Applied Psychology, the predecessor to the current Psychology Department.

“L.L. Thurstone was one of the greatest mathematical psychologists of the 20th century, and it is an incredible honor to receive a professorship named in his honor,” Danks said. “I feel exceedingly lucky to be part of a university and department that so strongly supports interdisciplinary research and education. There is truly no other institution where I would rather be.”

CMU will hold a celebration on Feb. 9, 2017 to honor Danks.

By Shilo Rea