Final Report Summary - VOTECOM (Vocal template computations in the songbird brain)
Young songbirds learn their songs from a tutor: they first memorize a template of tutor song and then they modify their own songs until they achieve a good match with tutor song. Elusive about this process is the neural representation of the template, as well as the manner in which juveniles use the template to evaluate their immature songs. We inspected the involvement of a higher auditory brain area in template memorization and recall. We found no role for memorization and recall in juveniles, but strong support for recall in adults, uncovering an interesting dichotomy between neural mechanisms in young and old brains. In terms of behavior, we found that juvenile zebra finches matched each of their song syllable to the most acoustically similar syllable in the template, regardless of its temporal position. Thereby, zebra finches prioritize efficient learning of syllable vocabulary at the cost of inefficient syntax learning. Computationally, zebra finches reduce the complex song-learning problem to a more tractable linear assignment problem. When this linear assignment strategy is applied to the problem of identifying related texts in a large corpus of documents, it achieves state-of-art classification performance. Overall, our work suggests that by studying song learning in birds, it is possible to improve natural language processing systems.