Neurotechnology: Connecting our brains to overcome global challenges

30/07/2021, por Angel

Neurotechnology: Connecting our brains to overcome global challenges

Ananya Chadha

Neurotech researcher, Machine Learning & AI developer talks with Ananya Chadha, a 19 year old Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence developer at IBM and Neurotech intern researcher at Neuralink. Based in Toronto she is currently studying her Bachelor’s Degree in Neurotechnology and Electrical Engineering at Stanford University. Ananya was always curious about almost everything. Her whole career has been focused on learning more about what she was into, starting with gene editing. That was his first encounter with coding, although it was DNA coding. She then worked on gene editing research, at the Cohn Lab, in Toronto. There, she built a platform, called G-nome, where people can upload their own genetic data to help researchers cure different diseases. After that, she worked at Babel Ventures, a biotech investment fund, and got really excited about Artificial Intelligence. So she ended up working in AI at IBM and neurotech with Microsoft. Ananya has always focused on whatever field has room for impact to do good and whatever that gets fun for her to do.

Talking about one of your projects, you are doing research on brain control. Although it is really impressive, it does sound like science fiction. How was the idea born and what impact do you foresee for this technology in the future?

I don’t know if you ever read the book or watched the movie ‘Matilda’. It is about a little girl who can control things with her mind. I remember when I was a little girl, I watched this movie and read the book, and I was like “she is so cool”. And then, as I got older, I always had that in the back of my mind, and then I stumbled upon brain computer interfaces and neurotech, which is the field in which researchers are trying to connect your brain to external machines or computers.



“I was able to control a little car with my brain signals. This is actually really promising research”



There are a lot of different methods. One of the ways is taping electros or EEG (Electroencephalograms). You can place them on the surface of your head to collect your brain signals. There’s lots of different technologies you can use, you can use MEG or EMG for muscles… but you take whatever sensors, invasive or non-invasive, and you record your brain signals. Then you analize your brain signals, there is a lot of different software to do this. From that insight you can do something. I was able to control a little car with my brain signals. This is actually really promising research. One really amazing area is, people who are paralyzed, it used to be a really tough medical mystery to know if they had control of their legs and arms.


There’s a lot of different neurological diseases that cause people to lose access to controlling their body. So a lot of really fascinating work in neurotechnology allows people to think and then we collect their brain signals, they are thinking “let me move my hand”. Then we send and process the information. And then researchers are able to re-stimulate it, perhaps you once moved your leg and now we can restimulate it, then move your leg, bypassing the spinal cord injury or the injury that occured. There’s really cool research, where researchers were able to get paralyzed monkeys to walk again by using this technology.



“Researchers were able to get paralyzed monkeys to walk again by using neurotechnology”



As a young person it is really important for young people to see people like you. As an advocate and a builder of Artificial Intelligence, what actions do you lead to support these actions for young people?

Yes, it is so important. When I got started I looked up to other young people who were doing amazing things, and I was like ‘Wow, if they can do it, I can do it’. And now that I am here, I hope to serve the same example for other young people interested in doing whatever they want to do. I genuinely think that it is really important for a lot of people, from different backgrounds, to get involved in the fields of Neurotechnology, Artificial Intelligence, Virtual Reality… to give you an example, with genetics you can find out, in the future, if you are going to have oldtimers or not. Some people would love to have that knowledge and some people won’t, because there is nothing you can do about it. It is the same with AI. There are so many polarized issues where one group thinks “this is the best thing ever” and another group draws ethical implications, just like with neurotech.



“You should be having a group of people that represents everyone, developing technology for everyone”



The good thing is that if you can get people from different environments, backgrounds and thought processes involved, then you can have opinions that can make a really good future for humanity. Whereas, if there is only one centralized group that is making all the decisions, perhaps we are not getting the best outcome for everyone. Because you should be having a group of people that represents everyone, developing technology for everyone.

So I think, what we ought to do is share just how cool this technology is and give access to the information to more people. If I were to explain about neurotechnology, I would not go into the technical details. I would just explain enough so that people know that this field even exists in the first place. Because most people don’t know neurotechnology exists, at all. So, there are written studies where they are trying to create brain implants, to let people communicate with each other in a brain-to-brain communication, almost like telepathy. There’s a really fun study in the University of Washington, where researchers were able to communicate using only their brainwaves and together were able to play a game of Tetris. This information is public, but people still don’t know about it. Which means that they are missing a link there. And that link, which is like getting the information to a wider group of people, I think is an important gap that should be filled.



“Researchers were able to communicate, using only their brainwaves, and together were able to play a game of Tetris”



As an expert, how do you think AI can help overcome the challenges our societies are striving with right now? Could you share some projects you are working on currently and some of the results?

There are a lot of problems that we face as a species that are really hard and as we have developed over time, our problems become increasingly more complex. They have layers of ambiguity, of complexity…, it is very hard for our human brains to understand the best solutions to them. For example, different diseases: sometimes it is hard to know where to get started in terms of finding a cure. It is like Climate Change: it is really hard to know and find what actions to take to find a “cure”. If we were looking for a new material that could make cars twice as efficient…, sometimes it is hard to know what that is.



“With the combination of AI, ML, Quantum computing and a other tech, we are going to be able to improve our abilities to make decisions and find answers”


So I think that with the combination of Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, Quantum computing and a few other technologies, we are going to be able to help improve our abilities to make decisions and find the answers to problems that are important to us. To give you an example, right now I am working with the Canadian military doing coronavirus projections. And something important is you need to know what coronavirus might look like in different areas. One way to predict and project that out is using machine learning techniques that helps you become super accurate so you can have good legislation in place so that the least amount of people die.

And, additionally, when you are doing neurotechnology for example, I mentioned paralyzed people previously, when you do that signal processing, a lot of signal processing can be made better with applications using AI. So if you are trying to get someone to control a prosthetic arm with their mind, you need their signals but you need to process it using Machine Learning to then be able to control the prosthetic.



“There are a lot of really amazing researchers looking at how AI can tell us how we can make better batteries, which will help our planet a lot”


But there are so many examples. For example batteries. In order to reduce carbon emissions we can look at the biggest industries, and one of the biggest industries is energy. In creating electricity we generate a lot of carbon emissions. So the question becomes why can’t we switch to renewable energies, like solar and wind energies? And currently the problem is solar and wind are not on all the time, so you need electricity that runs all the time, so whole cities can turn on their lights and you can still have enough energy. But if you were able to have better batteries, that can hold huge amounts of charge for, let’s say, five days, you could easily, and super cheaply, convert the entire grid to renewable energy. So, the question becomes why don’t we have better batteries? And there are a lot of really amazing researchers looking at how AI can tell us how we can make better batteries, which will help our planet a lot.

Thinking about this, what do you have to say to people who do not believe in Machine Learning or in Artificial Intelligence and say these technologies are taking people’s jobs? How would you give them a clue on the importance of these disruptive technologies for the future of the world?

It is really hard and I completely understand, because right now jobs are so important for how you make your livelihood, so it would be absolutely catastrophic if something came in and wiped out everyone’s quality of life. I think the good thing now is that a lot of people are thinking about this. Currently, AI is not at the stage to wipe out most jobs, because of the way that we create these networks, AI is only good at one specific task, it is not good at everyday human things yet. I think it would be a lot of time before we change the way we do neural networks and machine learning.



“Right now we are most definitely not at the stage where Artificial Intelligence is taking swathes of people’s jobs”


We will have to totally change our approach, completely go from the ground up, to start actually creating Artificial General Intelligence, which, I think, could then take jobs. But I think that, because there are so many people talking about it, which is amazing, in a potential future, in a far, far future, jobs might become a thing of the past, perhaps. Now we live in a totally different world, where you still have your livelihood, sustenance and you can do things that bring you purpose and enjoyment without that necessarily being a job. I am not entirely certain, but right now we are most definitely not at the stage where AI is taking swathes of people’s jobs, but we are definitely going to see people losing their jobs.



“We definitely need a better system for people to become retrained, reeducated and constantly learning so that they can fill the gaps that come up”

I am a little worried about it. For example, truck drivers. Humanity is developing autonomous or self-driving trucks, and a lot of people are employed as truck drivers. So we definitely need a better system for people to become retrained, reeducated and constantly learning so that they can fill the gaps that come up. I’m not sure if we have that system in place yet. It is also very important that people don’t slip through the cracks so you also need a strong social safety network to catch people if their jobs go away.

I think Universal Basic Income is very interesting. I think that, for example, if robots are commissioned to do a lot of these tasks, maybe their output could pay for people to gain a basic level of income, I think that makes a lot of sense as well.  



“It makes sense that if robots are commissioned to do a lot of these tasks their output could pay for people to gain a Universal Basic Income”



You have the support of companies like Microsoft. What is next for you? What is in your mind? What do you want to achieve right now?

There’s a lot of things going on right now. I am going to the university in September. I am going to Stanford, which is a great place for startups. I have been working on a bunch of startup ideas that I think have the potential to do a lot of good for a lot of people. My longer term goal is to, hopefully, impact a billion people for the better and when I think about how to do that, it mostly comes down to technology, that’s what I enjoy and find so fun and exciting. I can share with you some of the ideas my team and I have been working on.



“My longer term goal is to, hopefully, impact a billion people for the better and when I think about how to do that, it mostly comes down to technology”


For coronavirus, in Canada, we have to do mandatory temperature checks, so you have to check someone’s temperature, once or twice a day, so that if someone’s temperature goes above a certain threshold they can be quarantined or you can get tested for coronavirus to avoid the spread early. So, one of the things that we developed is a bracelet that automatically tracks your temperature and the data can be sent to a dashboard. Senior homes are protected really badly in Canada and they are also the most vulnerable population for coronavirus. So we are currently discussing how might it be able to measure temperature to see it immediately and prevent it from spreading in senior homes.

Another project we are involved in is a weather balloon. We are launching a weather balloon, which has solar panels around, to see the economics of putting solar panels in the sky, perhaps beyond the clouds so they do not face any disruptions and they can be more efficient. And we have a bunch of neurotech projects. I think that neurotech is going to be amazing. 

Are you currently looking for funding to develop those prototypes?   

Well, right now in the neurotech project, some funding would be good. One thing that is hard in the startup world is the model of funding, where you essentially give a quarter of your company and then get a million dollars or however much money. But you have to give a lot of equity at the start, which can cause a lot of troubles down the road. So I have been looking at grants and there are a lot of other really interesting systems that exist, to try and keep as much ownership as possible while still being able to get the idea off the ground.

I think you are a leading voice on ethical technology and how technology needs to be open and resilient, because it has an impact on society. Do you think our society is ready for the digital transformation we are experiencing right now?

I don’t think we are as prepared as we could be. I think technology moves really fast, actually, it’s crazy: ten or fifteen years ago, nobody had cell phones, now everybody has cell phones. And, for example, airplanes: the first one was invented in 1903, the one made by the Wright brothers. So it has been a hundred and twenty years since the Wright brothers flew their flimsy, little, clogger plain, and now we have crazy commercial Boeing jets, and we went to space in a reusable rocket…, In just a hundred years!. If we went from a tinky little glider to amazing rocket ships and transatlantic flights every second, what is it going to be in the next hundred years? And in the following hundred? If we continue at the same rate…, well, we shouldn’t be actually doing that because technology develops exponentially. Previous discoveries compound on additional discoveries. It will be crazy. We can’t even conceive where we will be in a hundred years, the same as people a hundred years ago could not imagine today.

How can we prepare ourselves for a future that we can’t conceive of? Ben Johnson, head of a neurotech company, said: “Let’s say you have a car like a little mars rover. And the mars rover has to go from point A to point B, and there is a hill, there is sand…, you can’t just tell the mars rover to simply go from A to B, fixate at this heading and this speed, because there is wind and the sand will move, so it might get stuck on a ditch getting to point B. What you should actually tell this little car is telling it how to navigate, so if there’s wind or sand, you have to know a way of getting out of it, and this little car should know that if it can’t see it then it has to shake it off. And it should know, roughly, how it is getting closer and, based on that, decide what speed to go at and what direction to go in”. So if you take that story out, you need to tell people how to adapt and how to learn about new technologies, skills and have “good conversations’, rather than telling exactly what to do. So you have to teach them how to fish rather than fishing for them. I think the same thing applies here. The future is going to change so much that we do not even know how to program from point A to point B, but if we can prepare ourselves to think about the future, to understand what tools exist, to understand how we can retrain societies, and become more adaptable, I think that is the approach we have to take.

Do you think education is important as a key for everything?

Yes, I think education is important. But when people think of education, they normally think of schools. I think school is one way people get educated, but I think people also develop and get educated from a variety of other sources. You learn so much from your parents, family and communities, you learn so much from the things that you read and listen to… Like people listening to a podcast or a vídeo are being educated in some manner, different from school. So I think the question becomes, how can you create education systems and teach people values and principles and how to discuss and how to take action? It doesn’t have to come just from school, because school is really hard to change.

You’ve raised the issue of Covid-19 several times during the interview. What is your opinion on how everything is going and how will it be after the pandemic? Do you think disruptive technologies like blockchain, machine learning or AI will be able to generate sustainable solutions to overcome crises like this?

I won’t speak about how Covid-19 is going, because I am not an expert, but I do have a lot of thoughts. The first thing I noticed is that because of coronavirus, everyone has been in quarantine, in their homes, and for a lot of people, I know, it has prompted a lot of self reflection, because people have been thinking about the meaning of life and existential questions, because it is such an existential time… in times like this, when people are like “the world is crazy, what is going on?” Because of it, I have seen a lot of really amazing startups being founded, ideas being created, people reflecting and becoming better people, because they had so much time to spend questioning things. I have actually seen so many amazing ideas getting off the ground for social good and ethical startups that are doing really fascinating things. Since I am in the technology world, a lot of them have been technology focused, but they definitely don’t have to be.



“I think this year has been a really good year for people learning how to overcome obstacles, because it has been really hard”


This coronavirus pandemic won’t be the last pandemic we face, it won’t be the last crazy world crisis that we face, there will most definitely be ones coming down in the future. I think that what we have learnt from this one, in terms of how we respond to this type of disasters, how vaccines are developed… you can see the vaccine development in space, skyrocket like crazy, there’s so many new startups that are looking into vaccine development. We saw so many people who worked in offices that are going to be able to transition online. People are growing and learning how to overcome hardships. And so I think this year has been a really good year, for people learning how to overcome obstacles, because it has been really hard. I think because it has been hard, people have become more adaptable and stronger. And I think, hopefully, that would be good.

We would love to finish with a piece of advice that you could give to a younger girl who wants to become a scientist… How would you tell her to pursue her dreams?  

It is crazy what a human being can do, in my opinion. We have seen so many amazing people throughout History, Mother Theresa, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, who do really crazy things. And I genuinely believe that a lot of people, if not everyone, can do what they do. But there’s a few things, I think, that hold people back from achieving their full potential. So there is a few things that I think about. First, you can achieve anything that you can conceive of. So first you have got to know what you want. For example, if you didn’t know that neurotech existed, you wouldn’t want to do something in the field of neurotech; if you didn’t know that space exploration was a thing, it would be hard for you to think that you want to get involved in space… or a bunch of different areas. So first, you need to learn about things and then decide what you want and where you want to go. Step two is, if you genuinely believe you can get there. You also have to want it really badly. If you do those three things, I genuinely believe everybody will achieve their goals. You don’t have to have a plan. Plans change, things come up, but as soon as you have thought about it, that one thing might push you in that direction. And it will continue to compound. So as long as you really want something, and you think you can get it, I genuinely think you can.

I have another thought on this which is: in life, I think people think that they have to do certain things. They are like: “I have to do this and I have to do that”. But the reality is you don’t actually have to do most of these things. For example, you don’t really have to talk to this person, you don’t really have to learn this thing, you don’t really have to be stuck in this job… we are lucky enough that we live in free countries that allow us to do anything. So it is never too early or too late to change what you want to do, at all. If you don’t like what you are doing, if you don’t find joy and fun in it, then you can totally leave it and start something else. I think it is really easy for us to get trapped in society and get trapped in bubbles about what we can or can’t do, but in reality we can actually do anything. So just feel free to keep changing, you don’t have to be stuck in something forever.


Full video interview

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