LASER Talk: Neurotech + AI + Art

After gathering Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM) data all day at work, I drove over to University of California, Irvine (UCI) Applied Innovation (The Cove) for a talk. I stumbled upon this event while reading through my emails; it was advertised as a combination of ART and SCIENCE and ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE (AI) and TECH and INTELLIGENCE. I had to attend! I even invited a few friends!

Leila Entezam discusses empathy & tech.

I grabbed some cookies, a cup of water, entered the room, grabbed a seat with a friend, and as I sat proceeded to spill the cup of water on me. The room was cold, and I knew this talk was either going to be the beginning of a frigid 2-hour nightmare, or the best decision of 2019.

Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneu started off the talk discussion their work as Professors at the University of Art and Design in Linz, Austria, where they also head the Department for Interface Culture at the Institute for Media. I immediately knew I wanted to be their best friend when they starting showing their work:

Interactive PLANTS that grow when you touch them?!? (or, at least the projection grows) They literally connected electrodes to plants, transforming the plants into sensors. SO FREAKING COOL.

They also had made this interactive exhibit where this screen that looked like it had flies buzzing all around. When you stood in front, the flies would take on your image.

Their work is truly inspiring and thought provoking to me. I’m typing frantically late at night to get my thoughts out, so I may not be eloquent in my descriptions, but perhaps my word-vomit may convey my initial reaction.

At first I felt like I had seen these types of interactive exhibits before, and I was less enthused, but then I realized if I ever saw a fly after having seen my image in the above exhibit, the fly would remind me of my own image.

I also realized that the exhibit with the plants displays a natural reaction humans have to plants, but humans have forgotten in modern-times: curiously touching plants. I remember sitting in my drive-way in Houston, Texas as a 5, 6, 7 year-old, and touching the plants that grew up through the cracks in the pavement. They were the types of plants that would close their leaves, like a book closing, when touched. I would be frustrated that the plant wouldn’t open back up immediately; I had to wait for it to open again before I could close it.

I don’t touch plants too often anymore, although I do literally stop and smell roses whenever I can. It’s my ongoing goal to be more present and mindful, so smelling flowers is a little way I reach that goal daily.

Anyway, Christa and Laurent’s talk really threw me back to when I created my own interactive sound-designed spaces in a sound design course I took in college at California State University, Long Beach. I loved the idea of making a space respond to those in it in a way that was spontaneous and educational or thought-provoking. Their work is fascinating; I must learn more!

The next talk was delivered by Leila Entezam (pictured above), who has a background in psychology and counseling, but focuses on teaching and mentoring in emotional intelligence. She also focuses on emotional intelligence as it relates to AI and other tech. She discussed the importance of brands triggering all of people’s senses to make their product memorable, relatable, and on people’s minds when they FEEL, SEE, HEAR, TOUCH, SMELL, TASTE something. She also discussed how you should know your audience intimately so that you understand how certain imaging or messaging will affect them. For instance, a picture of fire may be viewed as more negative by a Californian affected by a wildfire.

The way Leila delivered her message REALLY demonstrated how she puts her knowledge to practice. She was an excellent public speaker, and engaged the audience throughout her presentation. I felt like her eyes were peering into my soul when she called on me to answer a question. Her bio states that she coaches people to use emotions to increase engagement, and she certainly does. I was a little caught off guard! But that’s ok. I like being pushed out of my comfort zone. So, thank you, Leila.

Jeffery Krichmar and his robots (oh, how he loves his robots!)

Jeffery Krichmar spoke next. He’s a professor at UCI in the Department of Cognitive Sciences and the Department of Computer Science, and specializes in designing adaptive algorithms. He creates neurobiologically plausible network simulations, and constructs brain-based robots whose behavior is guided by neurobiologically inspired models. PRETTY COOL, right?

Jeff, I figure I can call him Jeff since we spoke after and I made him chuckle, so Jeff asked the audience “can you put empathy in an artificial system?” He discussed how he created robots that have anxiety and OCD by manipulating algorithms that act as a substitute for different chemicals in our system (dopamine, serotonin, adrenaline…). (I just realized it’d be cool if my name was Sarah, and I could go by Sarah-tonin as a nick-name.) So, when the robots had “low dopamine”, they would be scared and cower in the corner, but when the robots had “high dopamine” they were brave and moved all around their habitat FEARLESSLY.

It’s really interesting to see people like Jeff creating tech inspired by discoveries like biology and psychology. Of course, today these technologies are in their infancies (as are our understanding of the biological and psychological processes they mimic)! He commented that there is a new field emerging: neuromorphic engineering. GOOGLE IT. He also discussed morphological computation: certain processes in the body free up space for brain processing (like smart designs of the robot body).

He concluded with “biology is the way to go to make truly cognitive systems.” Our current computers made of transistors and silicon ain’t going to be able to mimic how neural networks work. I did some research during my brief period in a PhD program on memristor technology. (I was going to embed a video on memristors, but from a 2 second search they were all BORING. Memristors are FREAKING AWESOME.). In my doctoral research I was developing the tools to investigate memristor materials on the nanoscale with a Kelvin Probe Force Microscope (KPFM)! Turns out, fun fact, memristor materials are also used as materials in batteries.


I spoke with him after the talk to see if he knew about any advancements in memristor (and neural network computing) technology (materials), and the short answer was NO. I’m disappointed but not surprised because this research is new and difficult and only researchers at national labs really work on it. We don’t understand the physics of related phenomena. It’s crazy. If you know where I can actually find more information (like publications on this topic), please send them to me! THANK YOU.

This is Scott and his data from his artificial empathy system stuff.

Scott Sandland (woah that last name is amazing) spoke last, but not least at all! He’s CEO of, the company that will doom your next car-buying negotiation. His company uses neurolinguistic (woah that word) insights with machine learning to create artificial empathy systems. ARTIFICIAL EMPATHY SYSTEMS. WUT THE WUT. So, basically, his tech listens to you talk/write/breath and then KNOWS your feelings from what you say/write. So, if you go in to buy a car, his tech is able to tell whether you’re wanting to negotiate and buy the car, or just being polite and trying to leave. His tech measures 80 dimensions to the mental and emotional processes. (That’s 80! (factorial, but also excitement) possibilities).

Right now he is working on analyzing depositions (one I saw in his presentations had to do with a Catholic priest molestation trial). Wow, this took a dark turn.

Q&A Discussion moderated by David Familian

The Q&A session was great! I’m tired of typing now, so I’ll wrap this up with bullet points:

  • prejudices come through with generative systems – it happened with parole.
  • Poorly written AI costs people’s jobs and LIVES. Bad AI for university admissions is a PROBLEM.
  • tech is affecting how people interact with each other (poor soft skills)

Afterward I stayed and talked to Jeff and Christa. Christa was excited about my enthusiasm, and gave me her business card and told me to come to this conference:


When I thanked David Familian for hosting the event, he mentioned that I looked familiar and if I had been to previous talks they’ve been hosting. I realized when writing his name just now that he may have been seeing if I knew his name because I could have TOTALLY made a pun about how I must seem familiar because his name is Familian – but I’m too tired to think of that pun. It would have been glorious, and he would have DEFINITELY heard it before. David told me I had just missed the creator of Jitter who came to talk at the previous event (*me sobbing because regret of missed opportunity*).

I was one of the last 3 people to leave the room. That’s how excited I was about this. It’s my New Years resolution to be more social, and I am KILLING IT.

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