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The NeuroGeneration: In her IRI Achievement Award address, Tan Le talks about how evolutions in EEG technology may drive revolutionary changes in how we work and live.

Human capabilities have never been static. Throughout our history, we have sought to augment ourselves with all sorts of technologies, ranging from levers that allow us to move more weight than our muscles alone can manage to the creation of systems of education, philosophy, psychology, and pharmacology that allow us to do more with our brains. The potential for the augmentation of the human brain, opened up by technological advances that are available today, goes far beyond anything that we have been able to see before. The integration of the brain with physical and digital environments will forge new neuroevolutionary pathways and offer alternative routes to increased productivity and efficiency, along with improved health and well-being.

I have spent the last decade working to pioneer a new area of technology that aims to transform lives and the world we live in, and to build a company that is fit to lead the way. My company, EMOTIV, is still very much a work in progress; we are only scratching the surface of what will one day be possible. But we have already made great strides towards our goal of creating democratically accessible technologies that augment and empower the human brain, overcoming limits that we previously took for granted.

At the core of what we do is the ability to measure and translate brain activity as it is transmitted through the surface of the scalp. This technology, electroencephalography--or EEG--is not new; it has been used in laboratory research for decades. In the past, these systems cost tens of thousands of dollars, required a specialized technician an hour or so to fit, and left the wearer strapped to a recording system and largely immobile. EMOTIV has developed versions that can be fitted within minutes, that are wireless and light, and that cost just several hundred dollars. The ability to read brain activity can now be carried into the home or workplace as easily as we would carry a smartphone. These advances allow us to take high-end neuroscientific research out of the walled garden of the laboratory and into the real world.

The ability to collect longitudinal data on an individual's brain provides an immensely valuable resource for unlocking its true potential. The brain is a dynamic system that has the ability to continually rewire and reprogram itself according to how it is used. Activities that are frequently repeated will be reinforced by the formation of additional neural pathways to support that activity.

This neuroplasticity can have both positive and negative effects. Negative thought patterns and emotions will be reinforced by the formation of additional neural pathways if they are frequently repeated, but the flip side is that you can train your brain to support positive activities by identifying valuable thought patterns and consciously seeking to repeat them. Neurotechnology allows us to do this in a precise and empirically grounded manner. We can now study and edit our thought processes by taking models of excellence and training ourselves to replicate them.

For instance, by monitoring and comparing brain activity in professional athletes, we have been able to see how the best competitors process information and react to different stimuli under stress. We've looked at how professional athletes, people who are very experienced at getting into the zone, work. When Formula 1 champion driver Nico Rosberg drives a car, we've found, his brain becomes incredibly quiet. He's able to immediately switch into that zone where his driving appears effortless. Studying people like Nico can give us much better insight into what the brain's networks look like when it is in a flow state and allows us to provide better feedback mechanisms to help people cultivate flow. Once we can visualize a desired state, we can get there much more effectively.

For athletes, real-time brain data provides insights into better ways of thinking, allowing players to up their game by consciously and deliberately adopting the same thought patterns used by the best. In a workplace context, we can apply the same principles to study how successful problem solvers think and then attempt to replicate these thought patterns throughout the workforce. Or we can examine how individuals in high-pressure jobs can best cope with stress and improve not just their work practices but also their quality of life. Or we can learn how to increase levels of empathy and improve the performance of customer-facing workers in service industries. The possibilities for making us better at what we do are almost endless.

With scalable neuroinformatics, it's possible to take neuroscientific studies to an entirely new level by eliminating the barrier between the lab and real life. We can also aggregate and study vast amounts of brain data in order to gain unprecedented insight into how our brain functions. We can gather data from thousands of remotely networked brains, and we can gain a much more dynamic understanding of them by tracking brain activity in the field. By aggregating data from vast numbers of individuals as they go about their daily business, we can start to see how our brains interact with each other and with the external environment. And the more we know about how our brains interact with the external environment, the more we will understand how our brains fit into the wider ecology of human life and society. That knowledge will allow us to create better systems within which our brains can exist.

One of the most exciting features of this technology is the ability to translate thought into action and to allow those who were once isolated by physical or mental dysfunction to communicate, as we have seen in some children with autism and in some children with autism. The spectrum of abilities and behaviors in children with autism is very broad, but we generally associate autism spectrum disorders with learning difficulties. Researchers at Macquarie University have done a relatively large trial looking at language comprehension. They've found that if a subject is given two words that are related, say cat and dog, the brain has a very distinct response, a signature associated with that relationship. But if the subject is given two words that aren't obviously related, say cat and boat for example, there's a dissonance, and there is a distinct signature associated with that dissonance. Those patterns allow us to tell whether children who are completely nonverbal can actually understand language. With that knowledge, we can target therapies that are suitable to assist that child. We had one incredible example of an eight-year-old we worked with. Once we identified that she was able to understand language, the family focused on different ways to allow her to express herself. Now she composes elaborate essays about her experience with autism. Reading some of her work is just so incredible, because it gives such insight into how locked-in she felt and how frustrated and why she started acting out.

As our world becomes increasingly connected, and as the Internet of Things develops, more of our immediate environment will be open to this sort of hands-free manipulation. We can harness the impulses in our brains to control any digitally connected object. Today, we can use this technology to answer the phone, move a cursor on a computer screen, or even drive a car, but these examples are simply the result of bolting the new technology onto preexisting environments. Efficiency gains will really begin to scale in a dramatic way when we start to design our environments with these technologies in mind.

Both the control and feedback functions of this technology provide us with exciting new ways to improve human capabilities, but the true potential for reaching peak human performance will involve combining the feedback and control features into a single, seamless loop. We can study how lighting levels, temperature, and background noise affect efficiency and use those results to optimize our environment. We can examine the effect that color schemes, different types of music, or the frequency of coffee breaks have on attention levels. We can even study how humans respond to different social stimuli in order to understand which stimuli create greater motivational effects. There is really no environmental or interactive factor that we can't engage with and learn from.

If we take a longer-term view, these possibilities move us into another world of capability. Fully developed smart, adaptive environments will allow us to manipulate the world without even being conscious of it. By directly linking brain activity to preset commands, we can build environments that will automatically adapt themselves to changes in the brain, creating dynamically optimized workplaces that are instantly responsive to individual needs. A lapse in concentration could be countered by adjusting the temperature or lighting to a level more suitable for sustaining attention, or your music playlist could automatically adapt to declining attention by replacing that gentle violin concerto with your favorite rock tune. Or, if your brainwear detects that you are fatigued, it could send a command to the coffee pot to start brewing, or a message to your phone reminding you to take a short walk and stretch your legs. In effect, you become integrated with your environment and your environment becomes an extension of your brain.

This sort of integration is the first step toward what the late Marvin Minsky called humanistic intelligence. As the portable processing power of neurotechnologies increases, and as more sophisticated machine learning algorithms are developed, the feedback between mind and machines will become smoother and more sympathetic. Eventually, we will reach a point at which an intelligent machine will be able to learn from its wearer and automatically feed data back to the brain to assist it in its activities. The system could respond to your decision to make a complex journey with a map and an optimized route, or a desire to know more about a certain topic could prompt your companion AI to retrieve all the relevant data from the web, analyze it, and present it in a condensed and easily digestible form. The processing power of your wearable computer essentially becomes integrated with your own thoughts.

Such capabilities might sound like science fiction, but the fundamental technologies are already in place. It's only a matter of time before portable processing power, machine learning, and neurotechnology are sufficiently developed to make it a reality. Once that happens the question of automation takes on an entirely different light. Automation and AI appear not as competitors to humans but as integrated and seamless parts of an extended, augmented human organism.

As an inventor and an entrepreneur in this fast-changing field, I understand that while our creations offer great promise, they also hold some risk. The one at the top of many people's minds right now, I think, is the highly personal nature of the data that technology like this will collect and, potentially, share. At EMOTIV, our approach is to think about how we future-proof the technology to require the greatest level of informed consent from the customer. Obviously, you own your data; we need to give you the tools to understand and consent in an informed way to the various ways we might want to share it. Let's say, for example, you have a family member who has autism or Alzheimer's, or you have a history of mental illness in your family, and you care about contributing data to help scientific research. That option should be available to you, but we have to be able to safeguard and protect the data that you share with us. As we look toward the future, the conversation around data is going to be more and more important as consumers become more aware of the value of data to corporations and more able to identify what rights they want to retain and what rights they want to cede.

Another concern at EMOTIV is making sure this technology is available to everyone. How do we ensure that these advances are available to all and avoid promoting the emergence of a neuro-elite--a small group of people who have the resources to monopolize the benefits while leaving the majority on the margins?

One way to safeguard against this is to build inclusivity into our business models from the start. EMOTIV works with organizations and governments to seed neuroscience research labs around the world. By creating affordable neurolab kits, built on easy-to-use hardware and software, and by making these available to researchers in all countries, we are laying the foundations for a truly global research culture that will enable us to understand the brain in all its myriad forms.

We are now on a new frontier in human endeavor, and I believe that harnessing these advances in an inclusive way will empower us to break through boundaries and overcome limits that we previously took for granted.

Tan Le is the founder and CEO of EMOTIV, a neuroinformatics company advancing understanding of the human brain using electroencephalography (EEG). She is a technology innovator, entrepreneur, business executive, and sought-after speaker. She is the recipient of numerous awards, including the 2018 IRI Achievement Award, recognizing her work as a leader in the development of mobile EEG systems and in advancing understanding of the human brain. She was named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer in 2013, and she has been featured in the Who's Who in Australia list since 1999, Fast Company's Most Influential Women in Technology in 2010, and Forbes 50 Names You Need to Know in 2011. She was selected by the World Economic Forum as a Young Global Leader in 2009.

DOI: 10.1080/08956308.2018.1516608
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Author:Le, Tan
Publication:Research-Technology Management
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Nov 1, 2018
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