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Neuroscience Pushes Autonomous Cars Forward – Backyard Brains CEO Discussion With TED & Lexus

The future of AV

Can you imagine riding on an autonomous car that knows your emotions and thoughts better than you do?

Neither can we, but our co-founder and CEO Dr. Greg Gage can, and he isn’t freaked out by the prospect. On the contrary, he’s quite optimistic about it. How come?

Human-centered technology is the keyword here. As Senior TED Fellows, Greg and artist Sarah Sandman were invited by Lexus to give their two cents on the future of AV (autonomous vehicles) operated by AI rather than humans. They both think that there is a possibility of a car that is not driven by humans yet remains human-driven – or rather, in Greg’s vision, emotion-driven!

Can a Car Feel You?

Emotions are, Greg says in his latest TED video, one of the major evolutionary inventions that we’ve developed in order to better interact with one another. A human-centered autonomous vehicle should therefore be equipped to detect not only obstacles on the road and other external signals, but also the passenger’s state of mind. Are you tired? The seat’s already lowering down into a bed and tucking you in with some chill-out music. There are sensors picking up your bodily signs such as blood pressure or EKG, so the car can give you exactly what you need before you even know you’re needing it.

This is not science fiction but merely smooth teamwork between the car’s brain and your own. It’s no secret, though, that this car – any car – will be a lot smarter than you are. But no reason to feel bad about it! If you allow it insight into your emotions, it will go one step further from technology for its own sake to technology for human sake.

The future of AV
“Does it know what it thinks it knows?” (Source: TED video)

Devices can’t read our minds just yet. But Greg doesn’t think it’ll be all doom and gloom once they learn how to do it. We reached out to him to tell us a wee bit more about the broader impact of AV that detects and interprets human emotion. “I think that advanced technology will be forced to interpret our emotional state to better communicate and make better predictions of our needs. It could even help us communicate better with other humans by modeling healthy behaviour within its interaction,” Greg told us while tinkering with the DIY beehive in his backyard. “In an autonomous car, the occupants would not be in direct control. So any detected emotional states of passengers (aggressive or otherwise) would be shielded from the control systems. I feel there could be some feedback in extreme situations, for example, if someone is in an emergency and needs to get to a doctor. But overall, this technology is mostly inward focused on the passenger’s experience.”

So the goal is to improve human-to-human interaction by way of an advanced car-to-human interplay. Plug us in!

Another thoughtleader and TED Senior Fellow, Sarah Sandman envisions a car that we’ll happily leave our homes for – one that would fulfill our social as well as physical and emotional needs. As you’re dropping your kid to school, you could be spending some quality time with them instead of keeping your eyes locked on the road. And how about having a cozy cup of coffee with other passengers instead of silently sitting next to each other on a train, everyone glued to their smartphone? Commuting could finally become communal!

If we create a human-centered artificial intelligence, we won’t have to worry about evil robots chasing us around the scorched earth as they whip us into submission. How about (re)claiming our own future instead of envisioning dystopian havoc?


Apply Now for Brain Awareness Week Outreach Grants – Cerebrate the Brain!

brain awareness week grants

Are you a member of an organization or institution committed to celebrating the wonders of the brain and bringing them from academic heights down to your local community?

If yes, now is the time to apply for Brain Awareness Week (BAW) Outreach Grants for US and Canada! Grantees will be awarded up to $1,500 that they can use to organize events and spread the love for Citizen Neuroscience to kids, adults, budding scientists, and just about any curious soul.

Brain Awareness Week Grants
Last year’s outreach event accross the Northwest: NW Noggin, an organization of brain enthusiasts, amazed kids with our very own Human-Human Interface.

Who’s Eligible for These Grants?

Any or all partners of the Dana Foundation are eligible to apply for these funds. Partnership is free but you will need to cover the cost of organizing the event. All the more reason to try and get the award to cut down on your costs!

Take a look at the list below and see if you fit any of these types of organizations:

  • K12 schools
  • Hospitals
  • Colleges and universities
  • Neuroscience & medical research organizations and facilities
  • Outreach organizations
  • Government agencies
  • Commercial organizations

But even if you don’t get a grant, Dana Foundation offers lots of FREE perks you can avail yourself of as a partner: event planning ideas and tips, promotion materials, outreach tools and calendars, handouts. The worthiest of all benefits is that you get to network or team up with other partners. (Speaking from our personal experience!)

As part of this application, you will to provide a full program of the activities you plan to organize during Brain Awareness Week, with as many details as possible. Lots of things to do, so hurry – the deadline is November 6!

What Is Brain Awareness Week?

Since its inception back in 1996, BAW has grown into a huge campaign that has so far reached 117 countries across all continents. But even though it’s a global initiative, its core impact is where it matters the most – locally. What better way to promote citizen science than to appeal to the citizens themselves?

Especially because promoting neuroscience to diverse audiences from all walks of life has never been easier and more affordable, what with all the inexpensive yet powerful electrophysiology kits such as BYB’s very own inventions! (Which have already toured the nation as part of Brain Awareness Week, by the way!)

This provides a unique opportunity to become part of the elaborate network of institutions that are all aligned with the same goal: to show the world that neuroscience IS for everyone!

As always, the campaign is scheduled for late March – or more precisely, March 15-21, 2021. But as this year taught us, not all Marches were made equal. Due to a probability of a prolonged COVID crisis, participants will be able to host their 2021 BAW events online or in-person – or both!

Celebrate or cerebrate? Why not do both at the same time!


Harvard Study Reveals Our Hands-On Remote Labs Really Work

byb remote labs

Fully remote, fully in-person, or somewhere in a sweet spot between the two. Those are the main safety concerns that are being laid right now in front of the decision makers, on behalf of students, parents, teachers and everyone around them, right at the kickoff of the new academic year. But whichever model prevails, it might turn out to be a temporary fix to a permanent problem. Furthermore, it doesn’t provide an answer to the key educational concern. How to empower the remote so that it can fully substitute the in-person if need be?

This issue is especially relevant to teaching STEM. How will an educator facilitate hands-on, project based learning without projects that students can actually get their hands on? In other words, is the “learning” part of the “distance learning” equation going to be reluctantly surrendered to a lesser evil scenario?

Even as COVID-19 begins to stretch out from a single season into an era, it’s becoming clear that distance learning might be here to stay. But it’s not a reason to despair if you’re a teacher or a parent, or both. Quite the contrary – there are ways to leverage all the good aspects of learning from the comfort of one’s couch and still provide hands-on (or should we say: gloves-on?) engagement.

A groundbreaking study by researchers from Purdue and Harvard Universities (DeBoer et al., 2017) has shown it, using our very own Neuron SpikerBox kit. Online learning, the study has found, yields remarkable results when complemented with at-home lab kits.  Students who enrolled in a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) and used our bioamplifiers got better grades than their peers who weren’t equipped with the lab kits. More importantly, their self-efficacy was three times higher than that of their counterparts. Both groups followed the same syllabus; both watched videos, took quizzes and virtual simulated labs. The only difference was the chance to do-it-yourself, which yet again turned out to be a source and key to confidence. 

This study has confirmed that remote labs have potential to not only act as a playground in which to tinker and breathe life into theoretical concepts, but also to boost students’ self-confidence and motivation. The labs helped these students realize that they do have a say in science, as well as the means to say it, regardless of their background, experience and expertise. Not to brag, but that’s what we’ve been saying all along!

byb remote labs

These humble lab kits can fit in a box, be sanitized, run on batteries, and travel in backpacks. Available at a fraction of the cost of other physiological recording devices, they still offer all the functionality of big scientific labs with $40,000 worth of equipment. Their design is simple enough not to intimidate school kids. Still, they are powerful enough to find a place even in postdoc research labs, basements, bedrooms or backyards. Science doesn’t discriminate, and neither should its tools.

In fact, these lab kits are the ones that added so much weight to our trophy cabinet. The largest neuroscience society in the world, Society for Neuroscience, has recognized our “outstanding contributions to public outreach and science education”, giving us their Next Generation Award a full decade ago. For our work in promoting citizen science, we got the United States “Champions of Change” award at the White House back in 2013. Together with HarvardX, we developed the largest neuroscience MOOC in the world, “Fundamentals of Neuroscience”, with over 350,000 students enrolled to date. The most recent accolade is the prestigious Tibbetts Award by U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), for “beacons of promise and models of excellence in high technology”. Our work has been featured on TED, Netflix, and CNN, to name just a few.

Our electrophysiology kits have already made it to hundreds of educational institutions across the USA. Manuel Diaz-Rios, Professor of Neuroscience and Biology at Bowdoin College, plans to use them as part of his online teaching strategy. He believes that the greatest challenges of remote teaching are equity, engagement, and accessibility. “Equity comes in the form of, for example, providing equal access to educational equipment/tools and comparable internet service to all students in your class. Engagement involves creating a remote learning experience that is not exhausting, one-dimensional and thus not boring to students. And when talking about accessibility, I mean that you as their instructor must be as accessible to your students as possible taking into consideration special needs among them and different time zones,” Manuel tells us. BYB tools will help him tackle at least two of these problems. They are distributed to all of his students along with internet connectivity tools, and will stimulate student engagement.

Elementary and high school students will also benefit from Remote Labs. Bernadette Barragan, a 12th-grade science teacher at George H.W. Bush New Tech Odessa (TX), believes that devising engaging activities is one of the greatest challenges for remote educators. Students are already overwhelmed with tech chores that lull them into passivity, so engagement and hands-on experience will be essential in their science classes. That’s exactly where at-home lab kits jump in. “My students are spending a good portion of the day staring at a screen, and having to attend 8 different virtual meetings a day; microphone on mute, mainly watching and listening. Thankfully, they will be able to take home lab equipment that allows them to actively participate and have a valuable hands-on learning experience. As a result, students will make stronger and authentic connections with the lesson,” Bernadette says.

Location of US schools where educators are already using BYB tools.