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Malcolm A.  MacIverProfessor of Mechanical EngineeringProfessor of Neurobiology (by Courtesy)Professor of Biomedical Engineering

About Malcolm MacIver

Malcolm MacIver dropped out of school at age 9, never expecting to return. He grew up off the grid in far northern Canada, where he was free to roam wherever his curiosity took him, coming close to freezing to death only once in the process. As a teenager he earned pocket money by planting 2,000 trees a day and working in log home construction. His parents wanted him to become an artist, so he disappointed them by getting more excited by philosophy and math. Using his extensive tree planting credentials, he managed to obtain entry into a community college, and then the University of Toronto where he pursued philosophy and computer science. After meandering through cognitive science, artificial intelligence, neuroscience, and robotics over the course of one masters, two doctorate programs, and a postdoctoral fellowship, he found his passion in trying to understand animal behavior from ethological, evolutionary, neuronal, robotic, and computational angles, continuing to roam where his curiosity takes him. The wishes of his parents have returned to haunt him in the form of a desire to make interactive art installations, which have exhibited in Holland, China, and the US.

Curriculum vitae     

Google Scholar Citations

Print-resolution photograph

Brief academic bio useful for talk introductions

Malcolm A. MacIver is a director of the Neuroscience and Robotics Laboratory at Northwestern University, where he is Professor with joint appointments between Mechanical Engineering and Biomedical Engineering, and an additional appointment in the Department of Neurobiology (courtesy). His work focuses on extracting key mechanistic principles underlying complex animal behavior, focusing on interactions between biomechanics, neuronal processing, and sensory system properties while animals are actively acquiring information during natural behaviors. He then incorporates these mechanisms into advanced biorobotic systems, or large scale simulations on computing clusters, for synergy between technological and scientific advances. For this work he received the 2009 Presidential Early Career Award for Science and Engineering from President Obama at the White House. MacIver has also developed interactive science-inspired art installations that have exhibited internationally, and frequently consults for science fiction film and TV series makers.

Online media for a general audience

Interview on Sean Caroll's Podcast Mindscape, on Sensing, Consciousness, and the Imagination

The shift to life on land selected for planning (bioRxiv preprint), March 22 2019.

Terrestrial sensory ecology provides a selective benefit to planning. March 5 2019 Talk at the COSYNE Workshop 'Beyond trial-based choice: decision-making in naturalistic and temporally extended environments' in Cascais, Portugal. 

Research highlight in Nature on work in Current Biology on hindbrain circuits mediating escape responses to looming stimuli

Coverage of research on why our fish ancestors headed for terra firma 350 million years ago: in The Atlantic by Ed Yong, in Quanta by Jennifer Ouellette.

How Brain Scientists Forgot That Brains Have Owners - The Atlantic covers our paper "Neuroscience Needs Behavior" with Krakauer et al. 

Video on discovery of a new form of convergent evolution (2 min) (New York Times Science Take). Written synopsis here; Publication here.

Talk for AAAS on Electric Fish Robotics (25 min)Shorter (3 min) overview of one of the robots. Review publication PDF. 

Interview on neuroprosthetics, electric fish robotics, the evolution of consciousness, and science advising for Hollywood for the show "Virtually Speaking Science," September 2013.

TEDx Talk: Can We Expand Our Consciousness with Neuroprosthetics? 16 minute talk at the 2013 Caltech TEDx on The Brain, Pasadena, California USA


Why land animals evolved planning, and aquatic animals haven't (35:00). BioRxiv 2019 Preprint

Scale is an interspecies art project: an audience-interactive work that involves nocturnal electric fish from the Amazon, from localStyle.

A new theory on the control of sensory organs, & application to an underwater robot (27:00) (2019, under Review).

Why our fish ancestors made the leap on to land (3:47). PNAS, 2017 study.

2001 Ph.D. Neuroscience, University of Illinois and the Beckman Institute of Advanced
Science and Technology, Urbana IL

1994 (through to 1996) Course work only of dual Ph.D. in Cognitive Science and
Philosophy, Indiana University, Bloomington IN

1992 M.A. Philosophy, University of Toronto

1991 B.Sc. Double major, Philosophy and Computer Science, University of Toronto

Neural engineering laboratory class: Neuromechatronics. Connecting machines to simple nervous systems. Class code: BME 464. 

Course Description: A core competency for neural engineering is the construction of closed loop systems that combine a biological/neural component with control of a mechatronic system. This laboratory course will do this with several simple biological systems in interaction with simple mechanical systems. Students will engage in preparation of a biological specimen for recording, data acquisition, design of simple mechatronic systems that will interact with the specimen, and the coupling of the acquired data to the mechatronic system. Early in the course, signals will be acquired with either minimal or no dissection, while later in the course dissections will be performed to obtain neural signals from animals to drive a mechatronic device.

Some of the topics to be covered: Basic biological & neural signal acquisition and processing, relevant neurobiology, and mechatronics, including the use of xPC (a real time control system that interfaces with MATLAB), EMG electrodes and force transducers for doing closed-loop activation of muscle.

Neural engineering lecture course: Computational Neuromechanics & Neuroethology. Class code: BME 461. 

Course Description: The mechanical interaction of the body with its environment is a key player in nervous system function. In this course, we will take a systems-level view of animals and explore relationships between behavior, biomechanics, and the nervous system through examples from the literature and through MATLAB projects with a classic vertebrate model system from neuroethology.

Topics Include: Basic principles of evolution and development, and how this has affected sensory and motor system interactions; Whole-animal behavior modeling techniques, capture and simulation of behavior; Sensory signals, basic physics and simulation; Optimality theory in understanding animal behavior; The energetic cost of information and how this affects behavior and morphology. 

Other courses taught include BME 271, Introduction to Biomechanics, and ME 224, Experimental Engineering.

Mugan, U., and M. A. MacIver, "Arbitrating between planning and habit in naturalistic environments", Conference on Cognitive Computational Neuroscience, 09/2019. Google Scholar

Mugan, U., and M. A. MacIver, "The shift from life in water to life on land advantaged planning in visually-guided behavior", bioRxiv, pp. 585760, 03/2019. Google Scholar 

Mamakoukas, G., M. A. MacIver, and T. D. Murphey, "Feedback Synthesis For Underactuated Systems Using Sequential Second-Order Needle Variations", The International Journal of Robotics Research, 2018. Google Scholar 

Mugan, U., and M. A. MacIver, "How sensory ecology affects the utility of planning", Conference on Cognitive Computational Neuroscience, 2018. Google Scholar 

Mamakoukas, G., M. A. MacIver, and T. D. Murphey, "Superlinear Convergence Using Controls Based on Second-Order Needle Variations",Conference on Decision and Control, 2018. Google Scholar 

Mamakoukas, G., M. A. MacIver, and T. D. Murphey, "Feedback Synthesis for Controllable Underactuated Systems using Sequential Second Order Actions", Robotics: Science and Systems, 2017. Google Scholar 

Sprinkle, B., R. Bale, A. Pal Singh Bhalla, M. A. MacIver, and N. A. Patankar, "Hydrodynamic optimality of balistiform and gymnotiform locomotion", European Journal of Computational Mechanics, vol. 2642, issue 1-2, pp. 31 - 43, Apr-03-2017. Google Scholar 

MacIver, M. A., L. Schmitz, U. Mugan, T. D. Murphey, and C. Mobley, "Massive increase in visual range preceded the origin of terrestrial vertebrates", Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 114, pp. E2375-E2384, 03/2017. Google Scholar 

Krakauer, J. W., A. A. Ghazanfar, A. Gomez-Marin, M. A. MacIver, and D. Poeppel, "Neuroscience needs behavior: correcting a reductionist bias", Neuron, vol. 93, pp. 480--490, 02/2017. Google Scholar 

Bhattacharyya, K. D., D. L. McLean, and M. A. MacIver, "Visual threat assessment and reticulospinal encoding of calibrated responses in larval zebrafish", Current Biology, 09/2017. Google Scholar 

Bai, Y., I. D. Neveln, M. Peshkin, and M. A. MacIver, "Enhanced detection performance in electrosense through capacitive sensing", Bioinspiration & Biomimetics, vol. 11, pp. 055001, 2016. Google Scholar 

Miller, L. M., Y. Silverman, M. A. MacIver, and T. D. Murphey, "Ergodic Exploration of Distributed Information", Transactions on Robotics, vol. 32, issue 1, pp. 36-52, 2016. Google Scholar

Fang, S., M. A. Peshkin, and M. A. MacIver, "Human-in-the-loop active electrosense", Bioinspiration & Biomimetics, vol. 12, issue 1, pp. 014001, 12/2016. Google Scholar 

Mamakoukas, G., M. A. MacIver, and T. D. Murphey, "Sequential Action Control for Models of Underactuated Underwater Vehicles in a Planar Ideal Fluid", American Control Conference (ACC), Boston, MA, pp. 4500-4506, 07/2016. Google Scholar 

Bale, R., I. D. Neveln, A. Pal Singh Bhalla, M. A. MacIver, and N. A. Patankar, "Convergent evolution of mechanically optimal locomotion in aquatic invertebrates and vertebrates", PLOS Biology, vol. 13, issue 4, 04/2015. Google Scholar 

Bai, Y., J. B. Snyder, M. A. Peshkin, and M. A. MacIver, "Finding and identifying simple objects underwater with active electrosense", The International Journal of Robotics Research, 2015. Google Scholar 

Neveln, I. D., L. M. Miller, M. A. MacIver, and T. D. Murphey, "Improving Object Tracking through Distributed Exploration of an Information Map", IEEE Int. Conf. on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS), 2014, 2014. Google Scholar

Bale, R., A. A. Shirgaonkar, I. D. Neveln, A. Pal Singh Bhalla, M. A. MacIver, and N. A. Patankar, "Separability of drag and thrust in undulatory animals and machines", Sci. Rep., vol. 4, 12, 2014. Google Scholar 

Neveln, I. D., R. Bale, A. Pal Singh Bhalla, O. M. Curet, N. A. Patankar, and M. A. MacIver, "Undulating fins produce off-axis thrust and flow structures", Journal of Experimental Biology, vol. 217, pp. 201–213, 2014. Google Scholar 

Neveln, I. D., Y. Bai, J. B. Snyder, J. R. Solberg, O. M. Curet, K. M. Lynch, and M. A. MacIver, "Biomimetic and bio-inspired robotics in electric fish research", Journal of Experimental Biology, issue 216, pp. 2501-2514, 06/2013. Google Scholar 

MacIver, M. A., "Engineering Health and Sustainability through Consciousness-Enhancing Technologies [Invited Opinion]", McCormick Magazine Spring 2013, Northwestern University, pp. 18-19, 2013. 

Ruiz-Torres, R., O. M. Curet, G. V. Lauder, and M. A. MacIver, "Kinematics of the ribbon fin in hovering and swimming of the electric ghost knifefish", The Journal of Experimental Biology, vol. 216, pp. 823-834, 2013. Google Scholar 

Sefati, S., I. D. Neveln, E. Roth, T. Mitchell, J. B. Snyder, M. A. MacIver, E. S. Fortune, and N. J. Cowan, "Mutually opposing forces during locomotion can eliminate the tradeoff between maneuverability and stability", Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2013. Google Scholar 

Silverman, Y., L. M. Miller, M. A. MacIver, and T. D. Murphey, "Optimal Planning for Information Acquisition", IROS 2013, 2013. Google Scholar 

Patterson, B.W., A. O. Abraham, M. A. MacIver, and D. L. McLean, "Visually guided gradation of prey capture movements in larval zebrafish", The Journal of Experimental Biology, vol. 16, issue 216, pp. 3071-3083, 04/2013. Google Scholar 

Sefati, S., I. D. Neveln, M. A. MacIver, E. S. Fortune, and N. J. Cowan, "Counter-propagating waves enhance maneuverability and stability: a bio-inspired strategy for robotic ribbon-fin propulsion", Biomedical Robotics and Biomechatronics (BioRob), 2012 4th IEEE RAS & EMBS International Conference on: IEEE, pp. 1620–1625, 2012. Google Scholar 

Silverman, Y., Y. Bai, J. B. Snyder, and M. A. MacIver, "Location and Orientation Estimation with an Electrosensing Robot", IEEE Int. Conf. on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS), 2012, 10/2012. 

Bale, R., A. Pal Singh Bhalla, M. A. MacIver, and N. A. Patankar, "Optimal number of waves for ribbon fin propulsion", Bulletin of the American Physical Society, vol. 57: APS, 2012. Google Scholar 

Bai, Y., J. B. Snyder, Y. Silverman, M. A. Peshkin, and M. A. MacIver, "Sensing Capacitance of Underwater Objects in Bio-inspired Electrosense", IROS 2012, 10/2012. Google Scholar 

Snyder, J. B., Y. Silverman, Y. Bai, and M. A. MacIver, "Underwater object tracking using electrical impedance tomography", 2012 IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS 2012), Vilamoura-Algarve, Portugal, IEEE, 2012. Google Scholar 

Art and Science

scale, 2010

Malcolm MacIver, Marlena Novak, and Jay Alan Yim

Sponsored and funded by the National Science Foundation, the Northwestern University's Center for Interdisciplinary Research in the Arts, and the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, Office of the Dean. Exhibited at Eindhoven Holland, Nov 18-28 2010, at the STRP Festival. scale was subsequently presented at the TransLife Triennial at the National Art Museum of China in Beijing, 27 July-17 August 2011 (New York Times Review). 

Read the News Story

scale [documentation, STRP Festival 2010] from localStyle on Vimeo.

Exhibit Statement

scale is an interspecies collaborative audio installation that celebrates a type of fish from the Amazon River Basin. These fish continually discharge a weak electric field of constant frequency that is audible when amplified through a speaker. Similar to sonar used by bats and dolphins, the fish use this field to detect their surroundings and prey while hunting at night; they have contributed greatly to our understanding of the nervous system.

Their electromagnetic discharges fall within a range of 30-1200 Hz that approximate the lowest B-natural on a piano to the D-sharp six octaves higher, depending on the species. We assemble a "choir" of individuals, comprising a minimum of 12 fish (from 12 species). Fish are housed individually in comfortable tanks outfitted with electric field sensors. The tanks are configured into a sculptural installation, arranged in a shallow arc. Colored LED displays mounted under each tank respond in real time to the audio output from each fish, providing user-activated visual feedback. To facilitate and encourage audience interaction, we build upon commonly recognized musical metaphors as access points for participants to experience the sonification of the electrical signals made by these fish. A modified Nintendo Wii wireless controller serves as a conductor's baton. Participants can cue an individual fish to start it "singing" and a second cue to the same fish will signal it to stop. A programmable touchscreen is configured to provide control over their relative volumes.

Visitors hear the fish "sing" together, producing rich and unusual harmonies unlike any human choir. Participants leave the installation with the unique experience of having conducted a live performance with an ensemble of remarkable fish. 

Body Electric, 2003

Malcolm MacIver and Simon Penny

Sponsored and funded by Caltech and the National Science Foundation. Exhibited at the Williamson Art Gallery in the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena CA, April 15-June 29 2003. 

BodyElectric from NxR Lab on Vimeo.

Visit the web site on the exhibit

  • Artweek 
  • Los Angeles Weekly
  • Los Angeles Times preview
  • Los Angeles Weekly Pick of the Week

Computers, projectors, speakers, infrared lights, cameras, custom software

Exhibit Statement

Until recently, the prevailing orthodoxy concerning perception was rooted in an enlightenment-objectivist model which proposed that sensory systems take in the world passively, with information funneling into our brain to form rich internal representations of the world for guiding our behavior. David Marr began his influential book on vision by saying "vision is the process of discovering from images what is present in the world, and where it is." Andrew Blake called this approach "a prescription for the seeing couch potato."

The passive view of perception is embedded in scientific culture and as a result, structures the hardware and software of our technologies, with its characteristic lack of sensory intelligence and dynamic engagement with the world. A more recent view of perception is that behavior is tightly coupled to the way we sense the world, that perception is a temporally extended process of active, embodied engagement with the world. Rather than develop rich internal models, animals, including people, maintain close sensorimotor contact with the world, allowing the world to be its own best model. Diverse embodied human cultural practices, including various art forms, are also incompatible with the objectivist view. In sensory neuroscience, the role of behavior in perception is especially clear for certain sensory champions, studied to address questions about how all animal sensing occurs. One of these is the weakly electric fish. These fish hunt at night, in muddy rivers where vision is useless. They utilize a weak self-generated field to sense their surroundings. Thousands of sensors covering the body surface become stimulated by nearby objects, and their nervous system decodes this to analyze the type and position of the object. Body Electric combines active sensing in interactive cultural experience with the study of such systems in neuroscience. In Body Electric, we simulate the electrosensory system of these fish through a custom multimodal real-time sensing and display system. The 'spectactor' engages in a complex sensorimotoric exploration of a novel environment.

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