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28 January, 2020 - 11:19 By Tony Quested

University of Essex spearheads $16.5m ‘brain gain’ projects

The co-founder and co-director of a world-class University of Essex lab is pioneering Brain-Computer Interfaces for the UK and US governments in two large projects worth $16.5 million. 

The projects spearheaded by Professor Riccardo Poli are co-funded by the US Department of Defense and have far-reaching potential in several key areas.

Prof. Poli tells Business Weekly that applications of the technologies could range from improved medical diagnosis to better crisis management – for example by increasing the situation awareness of teams – to superior financial decision making, the evaluation of threats “and any form of decision making where there is no simple answer.”

Prof. Poli has been highly successful at developing BCIs to improve decision making and has received major funding from the Ministry of Defence since 2013.

He says: “The work we are doing on assisting group decision making with or without the assistance of AIs – something we call cognitive augmentation – are essentially clever ways of making meaningful decisions when a situation is too complex for any single person or machine to be able to evaluate it fully. 

“It is the good old ‘wisdom of crowds’ made better. Essentially, it is better because we don’t just make use of the votes/decisions of each individual decision maker but also we tap into an extra source of information – their confidence (which is finer grain than the decision itself) and it is the mechanism invented by nature with which we evaluate the quality of our behaviours. A key step to integrate AIs in this form of decision making was to derive an equivalent ‘confidence’ for the AIs.”

The Brain-Computer Interfaces and Neural Engineering (BCI-NE) laboratory has moved to a new, bigger home in the School of Computer Science and Electronic Engineering. It is acknowledged as the largest and best equipped of its type in the country and one of the largest in Europe.

Professor Riccardo Poli
Professor Riccardo Poli (centre) with two of his team at the Brain-Computer Interfaces and Neural Engineering (BCI-NE) laboratory

The new lab has state-of-the-art equipment and a wide range of facilities including three soundproofed Faraday cages (which reduce electromagnetic and ambient noise during experimentation), top-of-the-range brain activity recording devices including electroencephalography (EEG) and functional near-infrared spectroscopy, brain stimulation devices, a sophisticated robotic positioning system and virtual reality systems.

The facilities provide a valuable new resource for UoE academics who are working in this growing area of research in neural engineering technologies for both disabled and able-bodied people. 

Today there are not only a wide range of neuro technologies being trialled that improve communication, decision-making, motor control, memory, attention, learning and problem solving but also large-scale initiatives seeking practical exploitation of such technologies.

The lab will also act as a hub for the new BEng Neural Engineering with Psychology, which will have its first intake of students this October.

Prof. Poli said: “We are extremely grateful for the support the School and the University have given the BCI-NE group over the years since its inception 15 years ago. The group has been able to grow and attract talent very successfully over this period.”

Professor Reinhold Scherer, fellow co-director of the laboratory, is world leader in BCI research with extensive experience in developing applications to improve the quality of life for individuals with cognitive and motor disabilities, including those affected by stroke, cerebral palsy and other neurological disorders. 

He added: “With the new lab up and running we can now start a new era in BCI-NE research at Essex.

“We are fortunate to have many talented lab members, committed and inquiring students, and an engaging interdisciplinary university environment. This enables us to think ‘outside the box’ and ask the right research questions. Coupled with the ability to provide researchers access to state-of-the-art facilities, we aim to take on a leading position in the research community.”

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