Paul Sajda: New IEEE Brain Initiative A No-Brainer

Paul Sajda
Dr. Paul Sajda, Professor of BME, EE, and Radiology at Columbia University, and now also Chair, Future Directions IEEE Brain Initiative

As massive global efforts across government, academia, and industry deepen their focus on developing neurotechnology, and as these technologies become mature enough to be considered for commercialization and standardization, IEEE’s new Brain Initiative has arrived at a crucial time to complement a vast number of endeavors. Stemming from the IEEE Future Directions Committee, the initiative will facilitate interaction among the IEEE and beyond, enhancing the rapidly expanding dialogue centered around neurotechnology.

Dr. Paul Sajda, Professor of BME, EE, and Radiology at Columbia University, and now also Chair, Future Directions IEEE Brain Initiative, is no stranger to the IEEE or the industry. An IEEE Fellow who has served as Editor-in-Chief of IEEE Transactions on Neural Systems and Rehabilitation, with experience in industry, start-ups, and academia, Sajda’s research interests include multimodal neuroimaging of human decision making, brain machine interfaces (BMI), and computational psychiatry. Sajda’s tenure with IEEE began as a student member: “I immediately saw IEEE as my professional community,” he says.

Sajda weaves that sense of community through his commentary on the IEEE Brain Initiative. He speaks of the initiative’s first focus: BMI (a “natural fit for the IEEE,” he says, enthusiastically). “In terms of what we want to try to accomplish, obviously there is the bringing the constituencies together. But we want to do it in a way that we recognize that there’s already a lot of activity within IEEE that’s happening in this area, and the key to this is that we believe that the sum is greater than the individual parts.” He continues, “We can use this initiative as a way to integrate and tie together activities across the IEEE.” Sponsoring workshops co-sponsored by multiple Societies, or establishing seed grants that foster collaboration between individuals from multiple Societies, are two possible activities that the initiative intends to pursue.

When asked about the early days of the IEEE Brain Initiative, Sajda also sites this communal effort as a catalyst. “It was a combination of both a bottom-up and top-down realization that the different worldwide initiatives are all focusing on either neurotech, computation, or a combination of both, and that IEEE could really play a central role based on the constituencies we have that are already involved in brain-related research, as well as other expertise within the IEEE that are particularly suited for developing technologies such as wearable high-bandwidth sensing systems that are very much at the heart of what the global brain initiatives are trying to build.” When Sajda mentions these initiatives: Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) in the USA; Human Brain Project: Computing and Information Technology in the EU; and, Brain/MINDS: Brain Mapping by Integrated Neurotechnologies for Disease Studies in Japan, he speculates that IEEE drew initial inspiration from them, and realized that the organization could help bridge these more segmented initiatives. “The IEEE Future Directions Committee (FDC) saw this at the top-down level as an activity that IEEE should start investing in. Then, bottom-up, within several societies there were individuals who were very much invested in and working in neurotech, who had activities that were very brain-initiative like.” He emphasizes: “It just became kind of a no-brainer — no pun intended — where we wanted to organize a little better and create critical mass so that we could bring in constituencies not just within the IEEE but also maybe play a greater role in facilitating interaction and also developing new opportunities between industry, government, and academia.”

“IEEE as a professional organization can really play a central role, much like it has played a big role when we think about next-generation digital technology, hi-def TV, all of these standards that came out. We almost take for granted that IEEE was at the center of all of that.” Sajda’s goals for the initiative extend even past those directly involving IEEE’s vast infrastructure: “In order for the IEEE initiative to be successful, we have to really show that this effort is able to develop and integrate within and outside IEEE. We have to do so in a way that’s more than just generating PR content and material, but actionable pieces of research and activities that we can point to and say, ‘Without this initiative, these types of interactions wouldn’t happen’.”

Sajda is insistent that IEEE members and programs can help continue to benefit humanity because of the way they can expand upon opportunities that are not just integrating across IEEE’s many expertises, but building new activities altogether.  “IEEE is an organization that’s engineering-focused. We build stuff. We make stuff. We understand commercialization. We interact naturally between industry, government, and academia.” In this creativity lies the very crux of the IEEE Brain Initiative’s mission.

“The hope is that people with ideas, ways in which they think that they might synergize between either other Societies or Councils or outside the IEEE will get involved in this because it is truly a multi-disciplinary venture where we’re not just spanning within IEEE but we’re looking at life sciences, brain, things like that. It’s a challenge, but it’s super exciting because of the possibility of the interfaces.” Sajda cracks. “And there’s another pun there. I must really be on a roll today.”

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