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From the Editor's Desk

Apple, Google, and Facebook are luring animal kingdom neuroscience experts with seven-figure salaries

In decades past, neuroscientist Mackenzie Mathis’s insights would have served only to advance what we know about mice and brain function. Today, however, she's one of a growing number of specialized animal researchers assisting in the development of artificial intelligence software and brain-computer interfaces. She wants to discover how mice learn, in part because it could inform how we teach computers to learn. Watching mice react to unexpected situations in video games, for instance, could someday let her pass on similar skills to robots.

Other neuroscientists are studying zebra finches' songcraft. Some are becoming expert in the electrical conductivity of sheep skulls. Still more are opting for the classics of high school biology: fruit flies, whose neural setup is relatively simple to behold, or worms, who wring considerable juice from their few neurons. Over the past few years, technology companies have been raiding universities to hire away such people. Apple, Facebook, Google, and Twitter all hired doctoral candidates from one of Mathis's recent fellowship programs, she says.

Animals have long played important roles in advancing corporate science, of course, particularly for medical treatments. But the leap required to translate insights from the zebra finch's sound-processing anatomy into Siri's voice-recognition software - or mouse gaming into a future when Amazon.com Inc. runs all-android warehouses - is of an entirely different order. With whole new industries at stake, the race to unlock the secrets of the animal mind is getting weird.

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