Born in England in 1940, Michael A. Arbib grew up in Australia and obtained a BS (honors) from Sydney University, and in 1963 he received his PhD in mathematics from MIT. Arbib became chairman of the Department of Computer and Information Science at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1970 and remained there until the fall of 1986, at which time he joined the University of Southern California. Arbib currently acts as the director of the USC Brain Project, which is engaged in developing new tools and methodologies for neuroinformatics and exploring the evolution of the human language-ready brain.
The thrust of his work is expressed in the title of his first book, Brains, Machines and Mathematics (1964), based on lectures previously given at the University of New South Wales. He believes that the brain is not a computer in the current technological sense, but something else. His career is based on the argument that we can learn much about machines from studying brains, and much about brains from studying machines.
His research has focused on the mechanisms that underlie the coordination of perception and action. He approaches this from two levels: via schema theory, which is applicable both in top-down analyses of brain function and human cognition; and through the detailed analysis of neural networks, working closely with the experimental findings of neuroscientists.
An overview of his work as of 1988 is given in The Metaphorical Brain 2: Neural Networks and Beyond (1989). In 1983, he and Mary Hesse delivered the Gifford Lectures in natural theology at the University of Edinburgh, since published as The Construction of Reality (1986), extending schema theory to provide a coherent epistemology for both individual and social knowledge.
Arbib has most recently engaged in research on the evolution of brain mechanisms for human language, pursuing the Mirror System Hypothesis that links language parity (the fact that what the speaker intends is roughly what the hearer understands) to the properties of the mirror system for grasping—neurons active for both the execution and observation of actions—to explain (amongst many other things) why human brains can acquire sign language as readily as speech.
The author or editor of almost forty books, Arbib has most recently contributed to Who Needs Emotions? The Brain Meets the Robot (2005) and From Action to Language via the Mirror System (2006).