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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?


Khan Academy contest offers MASSIVE Scholarship for Student Videos “Explaining Challenging Concepts”

The Khan Academy “2020 Breakthrough Junior Challenge” comes at a time when student engagement in STEM is more critical than ever. If you are a remote student or are a professional (or maybe parent!) educator attempting to transition rapidly into remote/home teaching strategies, this could be an excellent opportunity to turn an at-home-assignment into a tremendous opportunity for your students!

Khan Academy’s 2020 Breakthrough Junior Challenge

This challenge encourages students to investigate a complex idea and then create a video that explains it in an interesting, accessible, and eloquent way!

Here is a description direct from Khan Academy:

“We’re proud to partner with the Breakthrough Junior Challenge video contest again this year. Students ages 13 through 18 are invited to create a short (under three minutes) video explaining a challenging concept in physics, mathematics, or the life sciences in an engaging, illuminating, and creative way. This year, there is an additional COVID-19 category, and students are encouraged to help educate the world about this global health crisis by sharing the science or math behind the causes, impacts and potential solutions. If you win, you’ll receive the college scholarship, your teacher will receive a $50,000 prize, and your school will get a new $100,000 science lab!”

You read that last sentence right: The winning student will receive a $250,000 scholarship, their teacher will win $50,000 worth of funding, and the school will receive $100,000 worth of funding for the renovation or development of a new science lab!

Making Complex Ideas Simple

Pre-Teen Hacker explaining her neuroscience-inspired Hackathon Project to a Judge

he mission to take the complexity out of science education is the heart of our work at Backyard Brains. Working with students from first grade through graduate school, Science Communication (or #SciComm) is at the forefront of our minds and work.

If it tickles your fancy, we encourage you to create a submission for the Khan Academy contest featuring an explanation related to Neuroscience (Perhaps even with hands-on demonstrations using our kits)!

If you are a student or a teacher who is seriously interested in using our resources to help create a powerful submission video, do feel free to email us at hello@backyardbrains.com and we will do what we can to coach and support you!

The TED Talk Approach

When we work with student research fellows, public presentations of their research are a part of the gig. In fact, “teaching” a subject you are attempting to master is a necessary learning tool! Attempting to explain a concept to someone else makes you realize your own knowledge-gaps (There isn’t an educator alive who hasn’t been stopped dead in their tracks by a seemingly simple question).

Here are 3 tips to a successful “science explanation” that will keep things fun, fascinating, and snappy:

  • Focus on the phenomenon
  • Use simple language
  • Emphasize the Importance and Urgency of your topic

Can you see how Dr. Gage used those three tips in action in the video above? It works!

Additional Example Resources

For some inspiration, ideas, and to learn from example, check out some of our video resources below, with a few different kinds of examples!


NGSS Aligned Neuroscience

It can’t be avoided: the standards must be met! While we encourage educators everywhere to break free from the shackles of bureaucratic granularity in education… we also admit that education standards perform a necessary function. There are educational and developmental milestones that all students should achieve, and it is the goal of the standards to ensure our nation’s youth reach them! TL;DR? Read to the bottom to see the NGSS alignment chart!

For educators on the outset, the standards help you develop your scope and sequence. The NGSS, in particular, are great as they focus on “three-dimensional learning” and hands-on inquiry, offering students the opportunity to be scientists. This can help any teacher develop a curriculum that will encourage skepticism and problem-solving.

But for the teachers who want to develop radical new lesson plans, experiences, and who may even want their students to “Fail”
(in the best way!) over and over again as they tackle an incredibly tough problem, there may be hours of content in the course that don’t meet a specific standard, despite the fact that students are learning valuable lessons about what it means to be a scientist, to perform their own research, to fail, fail fail, and finally achieve something unique and new. But, in order to help your students earn this experience, while still ticking every box on your standards, it requires you to be very economical with their class time.

Our kits and experiments at Backyard Brains offer a great opportunity for you to meet tricky standards in a meaningful way (like MS LS1-8). The same kits are also powerful tools for teachers looking to buck the trend and throw their students into uncharted territories, like encouraging your middle school and high school students to perform and present their own independent research projects!

Check out this map which cross-aligns many of our kits and experiments with NGSS standards and the “Neuroscience Core Concepts,” a set of guiding principals set forth by the “Society for Neuroscience” which offer teachers a roadmap for critical knowledge and skills that can help a K12 student on their way to a career in Neuroscience. Don’t let your “Scope and Sequence” limit you and your students’ potential; rather, leverage these standards and tools like ours to inspire a culture of problem-based learning where your students will still learn the unchanging, fundamental skills and ideas, but then apply that knowledge to new and novel questions.

The Standards

While not completely comprehensive, check out this infographic and following list is to guide you to the kits and experiments which may best fit holes in your current scope and sequence!

Heart and Brain SpikerBox

DIY EEG Recordings from the Human Brain

  • 4-PS4-2
  • 4-LS1-2
  • MS-LS1-1
  • MS-LS1-2
  • MS-LS1-3
  • MS-LS1-4
  • MS-LS1-5
  • MS-LS1-8

Record from the Autonomic Nervous System

  • HS-LS1-2

The P300 Surprise Signal

  • HS-ETS1-1
  • HS-ETS1-2
  • HS-ETS1-3
  • HS-ETS1-4

Muscle SpikerBox Pro

Record Electricity from your Muscles

  • 4-PS4-1
  • 4-PS4-3
  • 4-LS1-2

EMGs During Muscle Fatigue

  • HS-LS1-7

Modeling Rates of Fatigue / Muscle Recruitment While Chewing / Acoustic Brain Response

  • MS-PS3-1
  • MS-PS3-5
  • MS-ETS1-1
  • MS-ETS1-2
  • MS-ETS1-3
  • MS-ETS1-4
  • HS-ETS1-1
  • HS-ETS1-2
  • HS-ETS1-3
  • HS-ETS1-4

How Fast can your Brain React? – Recording the Patellar Reflex

  • HS-ETS1-1
  • HS-ETS1-2
  • HS-ETS1-3
  • HS-ETS1-4
  • 4-PS4-1
  • 4-PS4-3
  • 4-LS1-2

Neuron SpikerBox Pro

Record and Manipulate Live Neurons

  • 4-PS4-1
  • P-PS4-3
  • MS-LS1-1
  • MS-LS1-2
  • MS-LS1-8
  • HS-ETS1-1
  • HS-ETS1-2
  • HS-ETS1-3
  • HS-ETS1-4
  • HS-PS4-5

Record from Agonist and Antagonist Pairs

  • MS-LS1-3

Measuring the Conduction Velocity of a Nerve

  • MS-PS3-1
  • MS-PS3-5
  • MS-ETS1-1
  • MS-ETS1-2
  • MS-ETS1-3
  • MS-ETS1-4
  • HS-ETS1-1
  • HS-ETS1-2
  • HS-ETS1-3
  • HS-ETS1-4

Plant SpikerBox

Venus Flytrap Electrophysiology

  • 4-LS1-1
  • 4-LS1-2
  • 5-LS1-1
  • 5-LS2-1
  • MS-LS1-5

Venus Flytrap ElectrophysiologySensitive Mimosa ElectrophysiologyPlant-Plant Communicator

  • HS-L21-2
  • HS-L21-3
  • HS-L21-5
  • HS-ETS1-1
  • HS-ETS1-2
  • HS-ETS1-3
  • HS-ETS1-4

Human-Human Interface

Advanced NeuroProsthetics: Take Someone’s Free Will

  • MS-LS1-1
  • MS-LS1-2
  • MS-LS1-3
  • MS-LS1-8

Muscle SpikerShield Bundle

All Arduino SpikerShield Labs

  • MS-ETS1-1
  • MS-ETS1-2
  • MS-ETS1-3
  • MS-ETS1-4
  • HS-ETS1-1
  • HS-ETS1-2
  • HS-ETS1-3
  • HS-ETS1-4