Octavio Romo on Brain Computer Interfaces

According to The Economist, Brain-computer interfaces could offer a way for humans to co-exist with artificial intelligence. But, the idea that we can control machines with our thoughts polarizes people; there a worries that AI could hijack BCI’s and enable machines to control us.

At Netek we don’t believe this to be true. BCI’s are already helping people with disabilities achieve better outcomes in their day to day lives. Who better to explain our perspective on BCI’s than our own Chief Scientist; Octavio Romo.

Octavio Romo-Fewell graduated from San Diego State University with a bachelor of science in Biochemistry with emphasis in Cell and Molecular Biology, and graduated at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill of a Biomedical Post-Baccalaureate Research Education Program with research emphasis in Behavioral Pharmacology and Brain Electrophysiology. Octavio has more than 10 years conducting basic and applied scientific research in multiple areas and fields, he also has 4 years of work experience in professional industry settings. Currently, Octavio is coordinating the research and investigation team and the quality and control team at NETEK, a technology company dedicated to the identification and classifications of human emotion and behavior.

Below is a short interview:

1. Tell me about yourself

I was born and raised in Tijuana Mexico. Then I completed my high school studies in Chula Vista, California. After that, I completed my higher educational general studies courses in Southwestern College where my focus of study was nuclear chemical engineering. Then I transfer to a 4 year University at San Diego State University, here I started to conduct scientific research in the area of laser spectroscopy in order to measure (with a method known as four wave mixing), in a non-destructive form, the identification (quantitative) and amount (quantitative) of explosive compounds; we successfully completed phase one of these goal, by identifying the compound form a distance of one meter (the goal was 10 meters).

Then during the course of these 4 years, I conducted scientific research in different areas, including: synthetic chemistry, protein chemistry and engineering, immunology and hematopoietic chemistry, natural products chemistry and pharmacognosy. In many of these projects our findings were published and I was included in the publication. Then I successfully graduated, with honors and multiple scholarships, with a Bachelor’s of Science (BS) majoring in Chemistry with emphasis in Biochemistry, and a minor in Biology with emphasis in Cell and Molecular Biology.

Then I applied to PhD programs in Pharmacology and Pharmaceutical Sciences, and got accepted to 7 Phd programs in different states in the US, and accepted the offer of the PhD program in Pharmaceutical Sciences in the school of pharmacy at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill. After a year of classes and conducting research in drug absorption and metabolism, but after realizing the high focus of the program to teach the pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics properties of the drugs of study, and the lack to apply clinical pharmacology principles in order to study the underlying mechanism of disease and how to cure them, I decided to change programs.

I transfer from the school of pharmacy to the school of medicine (at UNC) to a Biomedical Post-baccalaureate Research Education Program in the field of Neuroscience with emphasis in behavioral pharmacology and brain electrophysiology. After graduating from this program I decided to come back to Tijuana, in order to apply the knowledge learn and apply it in the beneficence of my community.

I started a business with a friend called MEDEVISE, where we offer consultation and development of clinical trials in order to measure the safety and efficacy of medical devices (time period that I worked here: 1 year). Then, I got a job offer to become the coordinator of research and development at a company called Interpacific SA de CV, dedicated to elaborate and mass production of food supplements and medical devices, where later I also became the director of quality control at the company (time period that I worked here: 2.5 years).

Since a year ago, I left the company (Interpacific SA de CV) and started to work in a technology startup company called Neuroaplicaciones y Technologias SAPI de CV, dedicated to the research and development of applications in the field of emotion recognition and identification using a variety of technologies (electroencephalograms and digital cameras) and technics (psychometrics) in order to measure emotions in humans. Here I am in charge of research of new services and products and quality of the biometrics and psychometrics collected, analyzed and presented to the end customer or user (time period that I worked here: 1 year).

2. How did you come to be interested in brain/computer interfaces?

During my tenure as PhD student in the program of pharmaceutical sciences at UNC, I learned the process of studying the safety and efficacy properties of a candidate drug before it can become a therapeutic agent and get license to be commercialized in the US. Once the candidate drug goes to clinical trials phase 1, 2 and 3, it need to pass, in each phase, the safety and efficacy trials against the best pharmaceutical agent, for the condition treated, in the market or against a placebo agent (inert compound).

80 to 90% of the times the new compound do not pass the clinical trials because the placebo agent has the same efficacy or better than the new candidate drug. We do not understand well the mechanisms of the placebo effect, but we know that the mind has a high involvement in order to the effect take place. When I learned about this fact, I become fascinated to learn more about the brain and the mind; this is one the reasons I of the reasons I drop out of the PhD in pharmaceutical sciences and completed a program focus in neuroscience.

I believe that if we study and understand all the mechanisms of function of the brain and the mind (connectomics), and we combined with physiological (DNA transcription, protein translation, macromolecular metabolism, etc; and interactomics) process we would be able to find the panacea. We may be decades or centuries away to find it; but by studying the mechanism of brain, for example finding patterns of electrophysiological activity of the brain in order associated with specific emotions or specific brain activity in order to manipulate a computer interface, we are putting our grain of sand.

3. What are some controversial things you believe about them?

From the perspective of collecting EEG samples of subjects/participants in order to develop or improve a brain/computer interface. An EEG sample should be treated very carefully by the company/institution collecting the data. The company/institution is responsible to protect the data collected, inform clearly to the subject/participant what is the goal of the study and what are they going to do with the data, and the subject/participant should sign an informed consent form before participating. The EEG sample can be like taking a smac 21 blood sample test. You can extract certain features from the sample in order to measure, for example, the presence of an emotional state (like measuring glucose or protein content in a blood sample sample), but also you can extract features from the eeg sample in order to identify if the person is under the influence of a drug or if the person has a mental disorder (same as if you search for antibodies or metabolites in a blood sample not related to the parameters of the smac 21).

4. What are the biggest myths and mistakes you see?

Each brain is different, in size, form, development and neuroplasticity (besides all the psychological factors). It is very difficult to create a program/algorithm with high efficacy that applies to all persons.

5. If I wanted to learn, how would I start?

I would start with an internet search, to get familiarized, and then I would read free scientific peer review journals found in a scientific search engine like Pubmed.

6. What should large corporations know about brain/computer interfaces?

That brain/computer interfaces is a field that is growing, and that we are founding other applications outside the realm of medicine. These technologies are: becoming more practical (wireless EEG with dry electrodes), more accessible to the public (companies like Emotiv, MUSE and NETEK are bringing these technologies in affordable prices) and they are becoming more sensitive (Moore’s law).

7. What are the biggest issues we’re seeing today?

That people are not educated or familiarized with the real concept of brain/computers interfaces, the real limitations, capabilities, approaches and difficulties to use these technologies.

8. What are the influencing factors?

Health, medicine, entertainment, to control things with our mind in order to save energy (to make life more practical) and to understand and accept each other in a deeper level.

9. What’s happening in society that might affect the trajectory of brain/computer interfaces?

Some sectors of society are skeptical about brain computer interface, because they do not know and understand the technology, because mostly it has been managed by the health industry and you have to have a high degree of understanding in the field in order to understand the base of how this signals are produced in the neurons.

Now thanks to moore,s law and advances in neuroscience and other fields, there exist commercial EEGs that are being produced so people without a background in the field can use it, because of these advances people around the world is losing skepticism and instead of understanding the principles of mechanisms they are concentrating in the practical functions of it. Therefore society as they become more educated and see the practical functions of BCIs they would be using more these technologies in fields we have not even consider.

10. What are the great technological advances being made?

The applications we are finding in robotics, prosthetics, and psychological, psychiatric and pathological markers that are improving the quality of life of people in a positive manner.

11. How might this affect/be affected by the economy? Politics?

There is a field called neuropolitics, that combines fields of different scientific backgrounds like neuroscience, political science, psychology, sociology, ethology and marketing (depending who you ask you may get a different answer because there is not yet a consensus in the scientific community), and it has the potential of affecting economy and politics in huge manner. We can observed this impact based on the disclosure of information of current presidents of US and Mexico, where they both used neuropolitics in their electoral campaigns.

12. Who are the biggest names in the game?

Neurable, MindMaze, NeuroLutions, Kernel Co., BrainRobotics, NeuroPace, BrainCo, Cerêve, Rhythm and InteraXon.

13. The most unorthodox?

Not sure if they exist, but those that are measuring brain signals from a distance, without electrodes touching the scalp, but by changes in the electromagnetic field on someone head or by a sensitive lasers that can detect subtle changes of the electric field, produced by the brain, in the scalp of a person.

14. What are the biggest impediments to widespread adaption?

Education.

 

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