Q&A with Dr. Jacob Robinson, Co-chair, IEEE Brain

Dr. Jacob Robinson, Co-Chair, IEEE Brain

Jacob T. Robinson is an Assistant Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Bio Engineering at Rice University and an Adjunct Assistant Professor in Neuroscience at Baylor College of Medicine. He is also a co-chair of IEEE Brain, an initiative working to facilitate cross-disciplinary collaboration and coordination to advance research, standardization and development of technologies for neuroscience, to help improve the human condition.

Why is now the right time for this kind of engagement by IEEE, in terms of encouraging interaction across and beyond IEEE and complementary endeavors in neuroscience?

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) historically had funded research that was hypothesis driven. So an example grant application would look something like, “We have a hypothesis about the pathogensis of this disease, and, to test this hypothesis, we are going to perform the following sets of experiments, etc.” What became clear in the early 2000s, however, is that it is very difficult to perform strong, hypothesis-driven brain research when we lack the fundamental understanding of the relationship between brain activity and behavior.

So, the idea was, to develop this understanding, maybe we should focus on developing tools, regardless of how they would fit into a hypothesis-driven research program. These tools would hopefully lead to better understanding, and, from this better understanding, we could better understand pathogenesis—which would then lead to better hypothesis-driven research and, ultimately, positive impact on human health.

That was a little bit of a paradigm shift, and NIH, as a major funder of research, began focusing on technology. This shift helped to catalyze the BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative, which was announced in 2013, and it led to some investment from the federal government to support neurotechnology.

The next question, then, became, “Where will these neurotechnologies come from? Are they going to come from neuroscientists, engineers, physicists or elsewhere? Around that same time there was a group of people coming from the physical sciences and from electrical engineering who wanted to study the brain and work on these technologies. Plus, there was a growth in neurotechnology industries. There were biomedical-device companies who began expressing interest in devices that would be used to interface with the brain, either non-invasively or invasively. We also began to see some serious Silicon Valley interest in neurotechnologies.

This is how neurotechnology became an area where it makes sense for IEEE to be involved. Part of the strength of IEEE is the diversity of engineering disciplines that are represented across the organization. A lot of times, people who would not identify themselves as neural engineers have the technical expertise to solve important challenges that people face in neuroscience and neurotechnology. This is the crucial role of IEEE Brain—to help in identifying people who have competence and innovative ideas for solving technical challenges that would have an impact in neuroscience and neurotechnology.

How will you know IEEE Brain is successful in playing this role in neuroscience?

Jacob T. Robinson: One of the things I am personally looking for is a well-defined community of engineers who consider themselves neuro-engineers, at least to some extent.

But there are also more specific, measurable outcomes. Regular meetings are already happening. I consider that an important part of IEEE Brain’s success—that those are growing. The other thing I would like to see would be more industrial affiliates. When you go to a meeting in a more well-established discipline, you tend to see a lot of corporate sponsors. That support gives you a strong sense of the health of that particular field—that there is not only academic research but also commercial applications, to the extent that commercial partners are willing to invest money to support your meetings. I think that is a valuable metric and an indicator of the success of our initiative.

You have spoken about coming to realize the complexity at multiple different dimensions of studying how the brain works. Could you please elaborate on your observations in this area?

Jacob T. Robinson: We have certainly always known that the brain is difficult to understand. It is not that the problem is more difficult than anyone anticipated, but, as we begin to study the brain more carefully, we are finding that the problem is just different than we maybe anticipated it would be.

For example, we have come to understand that the parts of the brain that we once thought might not be involved in things like visual perception are, indeed, involved in visual perception. In fact, if we want to understand how the process of vision works, it might not be sufficient to look only in visual cortex; we need to understand that there is probably activity distributed throughout the brain.

Findings like this are beginning to come to light because we have tools that allow us to study the brain at a level of detail that is greater than was possible previously—and, importantly, at scales that are greater than what was possible previously. Where we once might have been able to look at only a few cells or a dozen cells at a time, new technologies are beginning to allow us to look at hundreds or thousands or even hundreds of thousands of cells at a time. We are beginning to see that the problems are not quite as well defined as we might have hoped. This is not necessarily a bad thing; in fact, I would argue that it is very exciting—it tells us that we are using our whole brains, which is good, and it tells us that there are some mysteries to be solved.

What are some of the potential areas of development that most excite you personally?

Jacob T. Robinson: I come from the background of technology development. One of the things that excites me the most about my work is thinking about how we might go beyond simply treating diseases, to discovering how we might be able to actually improve or augment our cognitive abilities by using devices that interface with the brain. That we might be able to actually manipulate the activity of the brain to improve performance or allow us to have capabilities that we would not have naturally, such as better memory or faster processing … through an augmented reality experience enhanced by sensors that might be worn or implanted … I mean, I think this is an exciting time for us as we think about what might be possible.

It is kind of like science fiction, but I think that, deep in our heart of hearts, many of us get into this field because we want to be a part of creating the science fiction that we might have read about or seen in the movies. I think it’s fun to us for us to imagine what the future would look like if we had the ability to communicate with the brain in a high-fidelity way and if we had a more developed understanding of neural information processing.

I can completely understand that there is some hesitance among many people when you start talking about devices that interact directly with the brain. I think there are important ethical issues that we have to address, and I think that we shouldn’t shy away from that and instead address them early. It’s important for people to understand that we’re not going out in a cavalier way and saying, “Hey, let’s make cyborgs!” But I think it is also important to be excited about the real possibility that in the future we will have the technology that will allow us to interact directly with the brain and the world of truly amazing possibilities that might open by proceeding ethically in that direction.