The brain as a code machine
Ricardo Chavarriaga is a ZHAW researcher working on the interface between the brain and machines. As Head of the CLAIRE Office Switzerland, he also wants to promote connections between the European AI research community and people in politics and industry.
To develop a technology that connects the human brain with a machine requires the work of many people. Computer scientists, engineers, neuroscientists, health professionals and others combine neuroscience, artificial intelligence and robotics to measure and stimulate the brain. Ricardo Chavarriaga wants to bring these people together to promote innovations that benefit people. Since January 2020, he has been a researcher at the Institute of Applied Information Technology (InIT) at the ZHAW School of Engineering.
Before coming to the ZHAW, he was a senior researcher at the Center for Neuroprosthetics at EPFL. “I was doing research on neural technologies and brain-machine interfaces. In recent years I’ve also become interested in how to encourage these and other innovations and establish the contact to stakeholders in industry and politics.”
“In brain-machine interaction, the human brains and machines should interact in the same way that we use a computer mouse or a joystick,” Chavarriaga explains. By connecting the brain with a technical device, for example with a prosthesis, the user can control the device with the information from the nervous system. For people with disabilities, this technology offers many opportunities. “Prosthetic devices will take the brain’s information about the intention to move in a certain direction, decode that intention, and then perform the actions.”
Besides his work in Computational Neuroscience at ZHAW, Chavarriaga wants to expand his research network. “The collaboration with different people, from clinical, technological and social backgrounds, is key to making things that have an impact.”
He finds fulfilment of this interest as Head of the Swiss office of CLAIRE, the Confederation of Laboratories for Artificial Intelligence Research in Europe. Launched in 2018, the organisation has the goal to promote Europe’s strength in AI research and innovation. Headquartered in The Hague, CLAIRE has offices in many European countries. In 2019, ZHAW took the lead in establishing an office in Switzerland. “At the time I was looking for an environment where I could focus on the promotion of efficient and responsible technology transfer in emerging technologies, for example in AI.” ZHAW therefore was a good match to Chavarriaga’s intention to participate and lead this process with Swiss and European partners.
With ZHAW’s strong profile, Chavarriaga saw the prospect of reaching the right people. “I wanted to be in an institution that was focused on applied research and more experienced in industrial partnerships, which is a key factor in this technology transfer.” He teaches courses at ZHAW and is an active researcher. “I am fully convinced that it is important to keep one foot on research to know what is going on.” That way, he can understand the struggles when developing a technology as well as the fears and concerns of people about the development of new technologies.
Coming from Lausanne, the leap across the “Röstigraben” was a bonus opportunity to reach more stakeholders. “The possibility of reaching out to a new set of institutions and knowing the different environments is very interesting. I believe that we need more exchanges across different sectors and across linguistic regions in Switzerland.”