Rolf Mueller, associate professor of mechanical engineering in the College of Engineering at Virginia Tech, has received an IBM Faculty Award to develop computing techniques modeled on the mammalian brain.

The award will fund research on bioinspired computing for real-world audio signals. Ultimately, small portable devices could mimic a human’s ability to extract information from complex sound environments, such as conference calls and noisy rooms.

Even the best cognitive-computing systems can’t match the brain’s ability to efficiently process huge volumes of information. Looking to the brain for inspiration could enable a smartphone to process information that today requires rooms of servers.

“Our contribution will be to deal with sound and use timing in a smart way,” Mueller said.

One important difference between signaling in the brain and what goes in conventional computer chips in that brain signals are not controlled by a strict central clock. As a result, the relative timing between neural signals can contain a wealth of information.

Delays in the neural representation of auditory signals convey important information about the location of a sound source. For example, when a sound reaches one ear earlier than another, that lag helps the brain determine where the sound is coming from.

Mueller’s expertise in mammalian hearing comes from his work with bats, whose sophisticated sonar systems extract detailed information from a jumble of auditory signals.

The IBM Faculty Awards are designed to foster collaboration between university researchers and scientists at IBM.

Mueller is the director of Virgnia Tech's Center for Bioinspired Science and Technology. The center, which seeks to integrate biology and engineering, is supported in part by the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science.

He received his bachelor's degree, master's degree and doctoral degree from the University of Tübingen (Germany).

Dedicated to its motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), Virginia Tech takes a hands-on, engaging approach to education, preparing scholars to be leaders in their fields and communities. As the commonwealth’s most comprehensive university and its leading research institution, Virginia Tech offers 240 undergraduate and graduate degree programs to more than 31,000 students and manages a research portfolio of $513 million. The university fulfills its land-grant mission of transforming knowledge to practice through technological leadership and by fueling economic growth and job creation locally, regionally, and across Virginia.

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