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Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News


“Cells that fire together wire together” and Stanford Media X

That is the goal of Stanford University Media X: to foster deep collaborations between industry and academia, as highlighted in Business Week’s recent article The Virtual Meeting Room. The 5th Annual Media X Conference on Research, Collaboration, Innovation and Productivity served its purpose well for the last couple of days: very fun and insightful presentations by Stanford researchers (and a few external experts) and a great list of participants to get to know.

No doubt, a great source of mental stimulation for all of us. Charles House, Media X’s Executive Director, framed the dialogue as an effort to generate the right questions and then engage the best minds in answering them.

Some of (my) main take-aways

  • “The world does not come to us as neat disciplinary problems, but as complex interdisciplinary challenges” (great quote by Dean John Hennessy)
  • Personal Robotics is poised to explode soon-and software will be key (predicted by Paul Saffo)
  • An inconvenient truth: Al Gore had to be convinced to bring his presentation into a movie, since he was very attached to each and every of his X hundred slides. We are happy it happened!
  • Neuroscientists know what patterns in the brain indicate certain intentions-and are starting to use technologies to help immobilized patients communicate with external devices based merely on their thoughts
  • We need to learn to embrace change- a lot of it is coming!

Now, some key points from several presentations (there were more than these, but I couldn’t attend all). I encourage you to visit the website of each presenter if you are interested in learning more about that topic.

a. Paul Saffo on Innovation

  • It usually takes 20 years since basic science until applications reach inflection point and take the world by storm
  • Next big thing: personal robotics. Indicators: DARPA sponsored first attempts in mid-80s, and now we have applications such as the Roomba vacuum-cleaner, and Stanford racing car team (see below). The key is the software managing the hardware.
  • Pay attention to how you feel about change. Embrace change. Learn that change means opportunity

b. Scott Z. Burns, co-producer of An Inconvenient Truth

  • Gore was reluctant, but he was convinced to accelerate learning given the increasing threat of global warming.
  • The power of analogies: in order to find the right format for the movie, they were inspired by Scorcese’s The Last Waltz
  • Goal of the movie: Al Gore saw an analogy between the movie and a bio-feedback device that her daughter used to treat her migraines. In biofeedback, one learns how to manage vital body variables (such as Heart Rate Variability) in order to reach a goal (preventing migraines, managing stress…). Similarly, Gore wanted each viewer to find his or her own “levers” or “muscles” and ways to act -not just be told what to do. This is why the movie focuses more on describing the situation than on proposing solutions.
  • The only acting advice to Gore was “think of this presentation as your last presentation”.
  • The movie’s budget was $1.5m. It was risky movie, in terms of the subject and the format, that has paid off very well.

c. Prof. Laura L. Carstensen, on the Stanford Center on Longevity

  • Technology & Science has been improving Biology for the last 150 years, and now we need to focus on how to help people remain physically fit and mentally sharp as we age
  • We need to redefine “aging”. Nowadays, there are many role models in their 70s and 80s that show how age is not an obstacle for being active contributors in society

d. Prof. Krishna Shenoy on Brain Computer Interfaces

  • Problem: many people can’t move/ communicate
  • Solution: translate brain signals into control signals, by implanting electrodes in brain that measure signals (action potentials) and help predict behaviors based on response pattern recognition
  • There are already applications today that help monkeys and humans move cursors based on their thoughts

e. Dr. LeRoy Heinrichs on Virtual Simulations for medical education

  • Simulations work very well to train surgeons and other medical professionals learn how to perform their jobs.
  • Virtual simulations (in a simulated virtual environment) can work as well as physical ones (which typically are more expensive and less scalable)

f. Prof. Robert Sutton on running Organizations (see his blog)

  • Treat your organization as an unfinished prototype: as a leader, you need to act on your best knowledge right now, while doubting what you know
  • Data-based decision-making is key: Yahoo Strategic Data Services conducts over 20 controlled experiments per day
  • Yet, even if you are learning all the time, you need to act with total conviction, or people won’t follow.

g. Prof. Gilbert M. Masters on Green Building and Green Cars

  • He recommends reading “It’s the Architecture, Stupid!” to understand how buildings account for 35-45% carbon emissions in the US, more than transportation and industry (each)
  • Ranking of main sources of pollution in the “building” category: residential space heating, commercial lighting, residential water heating
  • Interesting initiatives: Stanford Green Dorm Project and Tesla Motors

h. Prof. Kenneth Salisbury on Personal Robotics

  • There are robots today with great motor dexterity-i.e., they can unload a dishwasher
  • The sector needs to create and build on an open-source platform, to avoid multiple fragmentary efforts that prevent faster progress for the field as a whole

i. Prof. Sebastian Thrun, on the DARPA Urban Challenge

  • The Stanford Racing Team won the 2005 DARPA Challenge and is getting ready for The Urban Challenge (November 3rd, 2007), where their fully autonomous car will need to drive in a fully urban environment
  • This requires more sophisticated software, moving from perception to Understanding (object detection, prediction, interaction)
  • Predicted timeline for fully autonomous driving: military vehicles in 2015, civil cars by 2030

j. Prof. B.J. Fogg on how email “cheapens our lives”

  • Maintaining close relationships is critical for happiness
  • Email is a very bad tool to manage close relationships
  • Tips: draw a map of your key relationships; share emotions often; know other people’s details; just hang out; give gifts with shared meaning; remember to use ALL media, not just emails
  • YackPack: “walkie-talkie” widget for websites to help people communicate via voice

k. Prof. Roy D. Pea on Innovations in Learning

  • There is an increasing need for DIY videos in protocol sharing among scientists, so they can better replicate experiments
  • Lab is creating new ways to enable people create conversations ABOUT video to enhance diversity of views and connections

l. Stuart Gannes on the Digital Vision Fellowship Program

  • Brij Kothari: large initiative in India to foster literacy by introducing same language subtitles in TV programs.
  • Adam Tolnay: designing games in cell phone to improve teenage financial literacy, to help prevent mistakes with credit cards that may cost as much as 200 points in credit scoring.

m. Prof. Brigid Barron on successful group dynamics

  • The key factor seems to be how to manage Attention
  • Both successful and unsuccessul groups generate a similar amount and quality of proposals
  • But only successful ones respond positively to good proposals and maintain continuous shared attention until the problem is solved
  • (Which means maybe brainstorming is overrated by now?)

n. Prof. Dan Schwartz on new methods for learning outside the classroom

  • Games help merge formal & informal learning
  • Teachable agents are computer programs created by students to make their knowledge explicit, and can be used as part of games to motivate students do their homework

o. Prof. Jeremy Bailenson on Virtual Worlds

  • Our digital identities (avatars, profiles…) don’t just reflect us: they shape us. Our choices have consequences

p. Prof. Paul Brown on 3D Scientific Imaging

  • There are new imaging and software packages that allow doctors navigate virtually into the bodies of patients, in a non-invasive way
  • The images are simply spectacular.
  • They used these technologies to see in detail the interiors of an Egyptian mummy

Which of these topics are more interesting to you? Just let us know and we will do a follow-up article. Enjoy!

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9 Responses

  1. Dr. Pam says:

    Thank you!! Great site, productive links, nice range of different topics. Like I said, Thank you!!

  2. Alvaro says:

    Thank you for your visit!

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