Lana Awad is engineering the neuro-tech that will transform humanity

Soon there will be no wires, just brains married to machines.
Soon there will be no wires, just brains married to machines.
Image: Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon
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Perfect vision is great. But like any advantage it comes with limitations. Those with ease don’t develop the same unique senses and strengths as someone who must overcome obstacles, people like Lana Awad, a neurotech engineer at CTRL-labs in New York, who diagnosed her own degenerative eye disease with a high school science textbook as a teen in Syria and went on to teach at Harvard University.

Though they see themselves as clear leaders, visionaries with all the obvious advantages—like Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg, for example—can be blind in their way, lacking the context needed to guide if they don’t recognize their counterintuitive limitations. This is problematic for humanity because we’re all relying on them to create the tools that increasingly rule every aspect of our lives. The internet is just the start.

Tools that will meld mind and machine are already a reality. Neurotech is a huge business with applications being developed for gaming, the military, medicine, social media, and much more to come. Neurotech Report projected in 2016 that the $7.6 billion market could reach $12 billion by 2020. Wired magazine called 2017, “a coming-out year for the brain machine interface (BMI).”

Technologists are already working on projects that sound like stuff 20th century novelists JG Ballard and Philip K. Dick imagined in fictions, with dramatic potential psychological and social impact. The Economist (paywall) on Jan. 4 predicted that BMIs may “change what it means to be human.”

Imagine your mind in constant direct contact with a machine, as if an iPhone lived with your brain and Siri bypassed sight and hearing, sound and screen, whispering sweet nothings and somethings straight into your psyche. It’s going to be an intense relationship with technology, very close and bizarre. As such, we need many human experiences informing the creation of these tools or our minds will be interfacing with machines made based on assumptions which you and I may not share or even be aware of.

Tomorrow’s sorrows

Silicon Valley tech types are having a crisis of conscience, and retreats to cultivate consciousness are a popular pastime among creators of the flawed programs we already use. The most beleaguered visionaries, like Zuckerberg, are wondering aloud why their tools of connection are dividing society and admitting mistakes were made, while the most audacious, like Musk, continue to pull stunts such as shooting a car into space.

Both Musk and Zuckerberg are also investing in the neurotech boom and plan to be in your brain soon. Zuckerberg explained in 2016 that direct contact with the mind was the ideal interaction for his social media platform. Now, Facebook neuroscientists are working out how mind-reading will fit into the system, among other nifty innovations. Job postings for this project seek “impatient” futurists.

But since young Zuckerberg’s impatience led to the creation of a platform that’s apparently easily manipulated by rogue agents who influenced national elections in the UK and US with fake news, he might be better off seeking patient futurists, who would take time to form a cohesive worldview before foisting it upon us. Or, if his new hires are going to be impatient, perhaps he should look for futurists who will feel urgency about debunking ill-conceived programs rather than just pushing them out for public use.

As for Musk, last year he made a bet on what he called the “merger of biological intelligence and machine intelligence,” starting Neuralink in San Francisco, a company developing “ultra high bandwidth” BMIs “to connect humans and computers.” According to the company’s remarkably spare website, it’s currently seeking “exceptional engineers and scientists.” The primary criteria is “talent and drive.”

These are unimpeachable qualities when considered superficially. Who doesn’t want talented and driven employees?

But Musk is famously prone to not knowing what he’s talking about, like when he opines on public transit systems, advising massive changes that experts say don’t serve people’s basic needs and actually hurt everyone. And Silicon Valley’s current crisis was at least in part prompted by the creation of supposedly “connective” tools that turned out to be divisive and dangerous. So it makes sense to ask questions in advance of too much progress and ensure we understand what’s behind the language of our visionaries. What do the words they all use really mean and where do they lead us? Are these the guys we want messing with our minds?

The unlikely scientist

Paradoxically, advantages can be a disadvantage when it comes to making products for all humans. And, conversely, alleged drawbacks—seeming weaknesses—can become great strengths, providing knowledge the supposedly strong can’t access.

No one in Awad’s childhood could have predicted she’d end up in a cutting edge New York neurotech lab. But she’s exactly the kind of person we want working on the future’s tools, because she had to be patient and resilient to get where she is. She’s a more perfect neuroscientist precisely because she has an unusual beginning and a genetic imperfection that gave her direction and made her an unpredictable visionary, with a unique angle on problems and uncommon solutions.

In Hams, the Syrian city where Awad grew up in what is now a war-torn country, girls don’t commonly dream of being great scientists, forget being futuristic engineers. But Awad uncovered something of critical importance to her own future, an ocular condition which would worsen with time and erode her vision—and this just by reading a book carefully—and so became completely enthralled with the possibilities that scientific study presented. Awad dreamt of contributing to the great pursuit of knowledge when she grew up.

While other girls were encouraged to imagine being excellent homemakers, her parents recognized her talent and drive and helped her persist despite teachers who told her it was absurd for a girl to dream big. Still, it wasn’t easy to both excel academically and quell the constant resistance. Awad had to cultivate her own strength and commitment to remain enthusiastic about school even as she was continually discouraged.

Now, she’s busy constructing the future and doesn’t have time to cry about the past. Today, working a cool job, she laughs about her early teachers’ ignorance and low expectations. CTRL-labs, where Awad works, is the most futuristic of forward-looking tech companies, at the forefront of the bold endeavor to marry machine and mind, forging the new human experience.

You can tell CTRL-labs knows it’s playing with strange ideas with global implications because the company says so right in its name—control, as in mind control—and its slogan, “All your interface are belong to us.” That’s a wink at deep internet and video game culture, referencing the 1992 cutscene in the European release of a 1989 Japanese arcade video game Zero Wing, which stated, in English, “all your base are belong to us.” The stilted translation became a popular internet meme, which CTRL adapted for its purposes.

If the slogan sounds creepy and a bit off, that’s because it’s occult work, mysterious and esoteric, unifying minds and machines, and whoever masters this will access people with unprecedented intimacy. Awad and her colleagues attempt to eliminate interference between us and our tools so that they interface smoothly with no other intermediary—no mouse, no voice, no fingers clicking on keys, just our thoughts talking to machines and receiving input from them.

Like Zuckerberg and Musk, Awad is crafting the future. But unlike them, her interaction with machines is at the deepest levels, not an abstraction, or a business proposition. It’s her everyday reality. Awad works in a lab, applying her science training to engineering a better mind tool with a team of technologists.

That’s good for the rest of us because we need better tools, and there is evidence that a major problem with current technologies is that they’re often created by people with insufficient context. We’re already dealing with the consequences of relying on tech made by teams who haven’t had contact with lots of people and don’t understand humanity though they want to give us great tools.

“The choices made by code reflect the choices of its creators,” Dave Gershgorn explained in Quartz, and algorithmic bias and false objectivity are now common. For example, the Google workforce is only 2% black, so an algorithm created by the company’s engineers didn’t recognize black people in a photo-reading program. A homogenous workforce led to a deeply flawed product. It’s not because the employees are racist, necessarily, but because even if they mean well, they clearly lack the context to understand what they see, or awareness of the fact that they don’t see, and therefore cannot alone make a truly smart machine.

Awad points out that in the trenches of BMI, the labs where brain machines are conceived and created, there is also still little diversity. As a woman, a stranger in a strange land that is now hers, and as a person with a degenerative disease she turned into a scientific career, she sees the dangers looming for a complex global society relying on tools informed by a false assumption that all agree on what is common sense. Awad warns that biases like those she has confronted are programmed into our machines and perpetuated. “It scares me to hear that innovative technologies become part of daily life with almost no women working on the core coding and product management level,” she says.

When you’re the odd one out, however, as Awad often is, it’s a little harder to be understood even if you do dare to speak and provide a fresh perspective. That’s why it’s important to have lots of oddballs talking, contributing to discussions about conceiving and making machines: outsiders can offer insiders useful insights they don’t access otherwise, she says.

Beyond shared words, we need common contexts to understand the meaning of language. Take the CTRL-labs slogan, for example, “all your interface are belong to us.” It sounds ridiculous and ignorant unless you get the full context. Then, you understand how very clever it is.

Apply this notion to technology. The more context, the more odd things we know, the more likely it is we’ll appreciate the deep messages hidden in the language and tools presented to us. Likewise, the more strange contexts inform a tool’s creation, the more likely it is to serve humanity well, to cover uncharted territory, and that’s why oddity is a precious commodity, now more than ever in the Information Age and ahead of the tech mind meld.

All the knowledge

Finding a language for speaking across contexts in a global society deluged by information and viewpoints is extremely difficult but not impossible. We can do it by operating counterintuitively. Writer, teacher, and futurist Richard Watson argues that instead of dismissing the odd and offbeat for its incomprehensibility, a thoughtful futurist seeks the unusual out to better understand the world.

Common knowledge is common. To handle the complexity of the age, the uncommon is more valuable, and access to a diversity of weird ideas is what Watson considers a treasure. He’s a tech company consultant and teaches London business students how to think about making great products. In an email on March 2, he explained that, in his view, since no one can know everything, the best approach to a comprehensive perspective is a kind of thoughtful randomness.

“Travel but take the path untrodden,” he writes. Watson means it literally and figuratively. His idea of a well-rounded person isn’t someone who read the articles everyone is already quoting, knows all the right things that everyone already knows, and goes to the hot joints, but the weirdos like Lana Awad, who feel their way through unknown territory, who are curious—so thirsty to understand how the world works they go alone and against the odds.

When we, societally, truly understand the greatness of strangeness, and integrate the perspectives of strong oddballs into machines, we may begin to make the technology that will make humanity whole, resilient, empathetic, and constructively rebellious when necessary. Going with the program and being great in all the common ways is awesome, yes, because it’s always difficult to excel in any system. But people who navigate systems set up against them and still end up at the cutting edge are something else—they’re truly exceptional and have a perspective that could be just what we need if we’re going to meld our minds with machines.