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Cognitive Consciousness

UMD Commencement speaker Erin Cecil standing by lake
May 3, 2021

Artificial intelligence researcher named one of UMD's Commencement speakers.

What if science could capture all the knowledge in a human brain and transfer that knowledge to a machine? Not every college student considers this a possibility, but Erin Cecil does. Her exploration into Artificial Intelligence (AI) has taken her past Amazon’s Alexa and Tesla’s electric cars, to the implications of what true AI could mean.  

Cecil came to UMD from Rogers, Minnesota, knowing she wanted to study the human brain. Four years later, she has been named one of the two commencement speakers at UMD’s 2021 graduation ceremony. 

In the spring of 2020, she added the newly-formed cognitive science major to her already heavy schedule, which included a teaching assistant position, two independent studies, and an undergraduate research project. Cecil is graduating with a bachelor's degree in cognitive science and another in applied science in psychology. She also will receive a minor in philosophy.

The Brain and Language

In collaboration with Dr. Robert Lloyd, Cecil undertook a research project, a study on cerebral laterality and language proficiency, during her junior year.

“Your left hemisphere [of the brain] is where your language and speech production occurs. We theorized that the right hemisphere would show a difference in those who are bilingual compared to those who are not,” she says.

To conduct the experiment, Cecil put EEG caps on participants. She then measured their brain activity while they listened to recordings of English and a Spanish-English mix.

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic cut the project's time short before any conclusive results could be found.

Following Her Inner Direction

Cecil took on the challenge of two independent studies with Robert Schroer, an associate professor, her advisor, and the faculty member she worked with as a teaching assistant. “I have a lot of respect for him,” she says. “He is very smart, and being able to discuss topics one-on-one with him was a great opportunity.” 

The first independent study was on sleep and dreams. Cecil and fellow psychology students also conducted research on sleep, phone usage, and mental health. They presented a poster on their findings at the Twin Ports Undergraduate Psychology Research Conference.

It was the second project, which focused on artificial intelligence, that changed Cecil's entire focus. “I found the idea of uploading and redownloading [a human] mind as if it were a computer program very fascinating. We talked a lot about philosophy and the mind-body dualism argument.” 

When Cecil and Schroer introduced AI into their discussion, Cecil was fascinated. “One can view the mind as YOU and the body you occupy as a sort of meat suit.” The concept surprised her. The thought of downloading all the consciousness of a human mind into other bodies or even robots was mind-boggling. 

The Full Experience

All of her projects link together. “I had Dr. Schroer in the philosophy department and Dr. Lloyd in the psychology department, so I could branch out in both areas to create connections. Where one subject lacks the other picks up.”

Cecil was active at UMD. She was active in the UMD Psychology Club and she worked part-time at St. Luke’s Hospital as a nursing assistant. Those activities lead directly to her life after graduation where she will head to a Health Partners neuroscience internship. That’s where she will perform cognitive assessments on individuals who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

Delivering the Commencement address is a huge honor for Cecil. It adds to all of the UMD experiences that are propelling her to more research in the field of artificial intelligence and eventually, earning a Ph.D.

About the UMD Psychology B.A.S. degree

About the UMD Cognitive Science B.A. degree

This story was written by UMD student Jack Harrington, who is majoring in writing studies and minoring in sociology and LGBT studies. Jack works with Cheryl Reitan in University Marketing and Public Relations.