Wednesday, February 3, 2016


I spent the past two days at the Proposer's Day meeting for the DARPA Neural Engineering System Design (NESD) program. It was ... interesting. The program manager wants teams to create technology that can record from 1 million neurons, stimulate 100,000 neurons, and do full duplex (read and write simultaneously) from 1,000 neurons. And he wants it done in four years. And he wants this done in the context of addressing a real neuroprosthetics application such as prosthetic vision or audition. And he wants it done wirelessly. And don't forget to do your FDA IDE application, or to come up with a non-nonsensical financial model for bringing this to market. Oh, it can't be larger than 1cm^3, either. Never mind that the science of cortical stimulation for prosthetic sensory input is basically in its infancy. Or that no one can seem to work out to to keep neural electrodes viable in the brain for more than a couple of years reliably.


On the plus side, DARPA is willing to throw up to $60M on the problem. So there's that.

My sense was that very few of the people in the room actually thought it was technically viable to do all these things in the allotted time (even though it'd still be a major accomplishment if only a subset of the desired outcomes are achieved). This sets up an interesting Catch 22: in order to be a successful proposer, you have to propose a project which you claim will meet the program's goals, even if you don't actually believe that your own goals are realistic. That only seems like a logical conundrum until you remind yourself that $60M is an insane amount of money.

To be fair, its _up to_ $60M, and that's divided out among all winning teams. And each winning team will likely have a large number of teammates in order to have a prayer of addressing all the program's requirements. So the money will have to divide down a lot. But, hey, you can divide $60M a lot of times and still have real money left.

DARPA is an interesting part of the funding ecosystem. Its pretty great that someone is willing to throw big money at over-the-horizon technology. Not all technology develop should necessarily be practical if we (the US? the world?) are to make real progress. And that's actually what bugged me most about this program. The emphasis on 'addressing a real problem', jumping through the various FDA hoops, and/or trying to figure out how any of this could be turned into an end product pretty much misses the point. This research is worth doing just because its worth doing. If there was a business case to be made for any of this stuff, some company would already be on it.

Final thought: there was a lecture on ethics this morning. The speaker brought up some interesting points: most notably about the need to deal head-on with the tin-foil-hat crowd. But the bigger point seemed lost: the time to have an ethical debate is before you start a sustained, decades-long, multi-agency research portfolio on brain interfaces. The best we can do now is to make sure we design systems that are therapeutic, safe, and secure. Discussing the bigger questions of "should we engage in this research" is largely moot at this point.

Anyways, the full DARAPA call for proposals (or Broad Agency Announcement - BAA in the DARPA parlance) can be found here.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Remembering Marvin Minsky

MIT Professor Marvin Minsky has died. This is very sad news - Prof. Minsky was perhaps the single most seminal pioneer of Artificial Intelligence research. I was fortunate enough to take his graduate course "Society of Mind" in the spring of 1998. It was pretty mind blowing. I'm not sure how much I understood, but it was fairly self-evident that we were in the presence of genius. If I remember correctly, much of what we discussed in the class was a series of logic exercises designed to help us reverse-engineer the brain. I loved the idea of studying the brain by conceptualizing it as a complex interconnection of simple components - using engineering to forward neuroscience?! Like I said: mind blowing. A unique, quirky, and brilliant individual.

The Washington Post obit:

The New York Times obit:

His textbook was pretty excellent, too. I recommend it highly!

Compressive Sensing

So I've kinda hand my mind blown over the past couple days by the discovery of a signal processing technique called compressive sensing. Compressive sensing allows you to skirt the Nyquist sampling theorem in certain cases, which means effectively sampling a signal at rates lower than twice the maximum signal frequency. Whaaaaaat?

The idea seems to be based on a couple important assumptions and certainly isn't applicable to most signal sampling cases. The most important assumption is that the signal being sampled must be sufficiently sparse, meaning that most of the samples are zero.

I may update this post in the coming days with more details, but right now, the best resource I've found so far to explain things is here: Other decent resources appear to be here, here, and here.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

High Performance Computing Cluster

This past summer and fall, my research partners built our own personal high performance computing cluster. Temple has its own cluster (Owls Nest) but it's always in heavy use by others around the university and so we're always scrapping for resources. So we built our own cluster. First we built a testbed cluster by lashing together a handful of surplus PCs and then we used that to spec out a formal HPC cluster that we paid about $27k for out of a grant.

The cluster is pretty awesome. Our student, Devin Trejo, put together a very comprehensive blog post on how the cluster was designed and built. You can read all about it here.

Friday, October 30, 2015

New Publications!

Its been a pretty great week for the Neural Instrumentation Lab in terms of publications. My former graduate student, Alessandro Napoli, and I have recently published two papers together about multielectrode array dynamics with rat and human neurons. We're pretty proud of these, if we do say so ourselves...

Article 1
Investigating brain functional evolution and plasticity using micro electrode array technology
Brain Research Bulletin

Article 2
Comparative Analysis of Human and Rodent Brain Primary Neuronal Culture Spontaneous Activity Using Micro-Electrode Array Technology
Journal of Cellular Biochemistry

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Football Stadium

Depending where you live, you might be aware that Temple's football team is having a pretty good year, and the powers that be are capitalizing on the momentum to put together a deal to build a stadium on campus. Currently, Temple's football games are played at Lincoln Financial Field, which is where the Eagles play, on the other side of Philadelphia.

I don't really see the wisdom in building a stadium on campus. For starters, there's no great place to put it. More pressingly, there's zero (literally) space for parking. And finally, there's no great way for 35,000 fans to get to Temple's campus all at once. It's a logistical mystery.

More importantly are the financial question marks. The administrators claim that tuition dollars won't be used to fund any of the operation, but its hard to see how any future losses would otherwise be absorbed.

Happily, someone did the research into how these things usually turn out. This article is fantastic. I think everyone at Temple should read it: