Why It’s Smart to Have Diverse Thinking When It Comes to Brain Technology

IEEE initiative chair says more than engineers should be involved

1 February 2017

In a recent post on Reddit’s MachineLearning Ask Me Anything thread, in which experts respond to readers’ questions in real time, Jeff Dean, head of Google Brain, discussed his concern about the lack of diversity among disciplines in the artificial intelligence research community and in computer science more generally. To overcome that, participants in the Google Brain Residency Program include physicists, biologists, neuroscientists, and electrical engineers, as well as computer scientists.

“In my experience,” Dean said, “whenever you bring people together with different kinds of expertise and different perspectives, you end up achieving things that none of you could do individually, because no one person has the entire skills and perspective necessary.”

The Institute asked IEEE Fellow Paul Sajda, chair of the IEEE Brain Initiative, about Dean’s comments. Sajda says he agrees with Dean, and explains the IEEE initiative is not looking at the brain from just an engineering perspective but also from neuroscience, psychiatric, and social perspectives.

“All our brains are so different that the ultimate goal of those researching the brain is not solely about figuring out the brain,” he says, “but what makes us unique, special and, in some sense, different.

“We realize the importance of diversity, and we’re addressing it by interfacing with those from across nonengineering organizations including groups dealing with basic biology, psychology, and psychiatry, as well as those involved with the ethics of probing and manipulating the brain.”

To that end, IEEE Brain has held meetings and functions located with or cosponsored by other scientific societies. For example, in November, as part of the Society for Neuroscience’s annual meeting, in San Diego, the initiative held one of its major events, the Workshop on Advanced NeuroTechnologies for Brain Initiatives. Sajda says the initiative will continue this practice in the coming years.

IEEE Brain also will consult with groups concerned about the legal and ethical aspects of brain research, he adds, such as privacy and safety issues, and what manipulating the brain means to society in general.

“The goals of the IEEE Brain Initiative are so broad and worldwide that we are not going to be able to tackle everything about the brain on our own,” he acknowledges. “The unique perspective we bring is our engineering expertise. We are going to try to do what we are good at. We are not going to be a jack of all trades and master of none.”

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