Until the present day...

The history of the institute

The origins of the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics go back to the “Cybernetics Research Group” created by Werner Reichardt at the Max Planck Institute for Biology. This group was formed in 1958 under the presidency of Otto Hahn and as a result of the initiatives of Wolfhard Weidel, Georg Melchers, and Alfred Kühn.

In 1965, Adolf Butenandt, then President of the Max Planck Society, inaugurated the first tract of the current building. It hosted the Reichardt department, the fourth department of the MPI for Biology at that time.

The institute in its current, independent form was created in 1968, with Werner Reichardt, Karl Georg Götz, Kuno Kirschfeld, and Valentin Braitenberg as the founding directors. From the beginning, the institute's research interests have been centered on the acquisition and processing of visual information in the nervous system, originally through the behavioral analysis of the visual system of insects. It was clear to all four founding directors that a detailed and quantitative study of behavior would provide excellent indirect insights into the information processing mechanisms of the brain and lay the foundation for subsequent functional and structural studies carried out with invasive neuroscientific methods.

With the advances made in perception research and innovations in the area of experimental tools, the thematic focus of the institute has shifted towards the elucidation of cognitive processes. The Neuroanatomy Department directed by Valentino Braitenberg and the Comparative Neurobiology Department expanded their research to vertebrate nervous systems. The Department Braitenberg focused mainly on structure and function of the cerebral cortex and cerebellum, the Department Kirschfeld continued to focus on the visual system including now vertebrates up to humans. The research of Karl Götz focused on information processing in the nervous system of the fruit fly Drosophila. He investigated the neural basis of spatial visual orientation, mutations-related disruptions in walking and flight control, as well as search strategies and learning behavior.

Development of the next generation

Heinrich Bülthoff came back to the Institute where he had done his graduate studies, and established a substantial programme, originally in visual processing, but ultimately in sensorimotor integration and control (his department, formed in 1993, was called ‘Human Perception, Cognition and Action’). The Institute ultimately built a new building, the Cyberneum, to accommodate two large robot platforms, allowing simulations of various sorts of visual, motor and vestibular challenges. Heinrich Bülthoff was an early pioneer of human factors associated with what are now the notably popular multi-rotor drones and helicopters.

The next pillar of the second generation was Nikos Logothetis, who came to the Institute in 1997, forming a department on the ‘Physiology of Cognitive Processes’. Along with substantial studies of visual processing and visual awareness, largely in macaques, Nikos Logothetis established a transformational research programme doing combined functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and neurophysiology, first in primates, and rather later in rodents.

In 2002, Bernhard Schölkopf was recruited to build a third department, on ‘Empirical Inference’. However, in 2010 he moved to become the founding director of a new institute in Intelligent Systems, which succeeded the MPI for Metal Research in Stuttgart. The half of the MPI for Intelligent Systems on our campus spearheaded the development of machine learning research within Tübingen, and also on a much wider national, European and international stage.This includes the University of Tübingen’s excellence cluster on Machine Learning in the Sciences, of which neuroscience is a key part. Given the close thematic links between artificial intelligence, machine learning and biological cybernetics, there are many opportunities for close interaction and collaboration between the Institutes and these other related initiatives.

The final, originally slightly less stable, pillar of the second generation was the department of ‘High-Magnetic Resonance’, formed in 2003 by Kamil Ugurbil. This led to the construction of a substantial new building, housing 9.4T and 3T human scanners, and ultimately also an ultra high-field, small-bore scanner. Kamil Ugurbil returned to the US after a relatively short period, and in 2011, Klaus Scheffler, a professor at the University of Tübingen, was recruited as a Max Planck Fellow, to rebuild and develop this department.

During this second generation, the Institute also benefited from a large number of superb non-tenured research groups who filled out its research mission most of the leaders of these groups went on to storied positions of their own.

Third generation

With the impending retirement of Heinrich Bülthoff at the end of 2018, Nikos Logothetis by the end of 2022, and the end of the first term of the Max Planck Fellowship of Klaus Scheffler in 2021, the Institute was in a position to make another substantive change. This led to the recruitment of Peter Dayan, as founding Director, and Li Zhaoping, as a Max Planck Fellow (with an appointment at the University of Tübingen) to build a third generation of the Institute. In terms of research focus, this third generation marks something of a return to Reichardt’s original mission for the Institute; organizationally, it involves a much more substantial change.

The scientific focus of the Institute is squarely on the computational and mechanistic understanding of information processing in the brain. This requires core competence across theoretical and experimental psychology and neuroscience. It also requires us to remain abreast of the ever-burgeoning new techniques and model systems that allow old questions to be asked with unprecedented precision and answered in new and highly revealing ways.

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