Interview: On Brain Research, AI, and Faith

Saskia de Vries, Ph.D is an Assistant Investigator at the Allen Institute for Brain Science where her research centers on how the brain transforms sensory information into perception and behavior. Saskia received her Ph.D. from Harvard.

Q:  Brain science!  Your bio on the Allen Institute website shows a remarkable course of study from molecular biophysics and biochemistry to neurobiology to systems neuroscience.  What interests and influences took you down this path?

I’ve always been interested in how the outside world turns into our perceptions – how does our mind or our brain receive sensory input and create our sense of the world around us? In college I learned about the phototransduction cascade – how the absorption of a photon by opsins in photoreceptors in the eye changes one bond in one molecule, reconfiguring the molecule, and triggering a cascade of molecular changes that close ion channels in the cell membrane. This creates an electrical signal that then gets transmitted to the next neuron, and then the next and the next. One single molecule, one single bond, and ultimately it creates vision. This drew me into neuroscience, where I’ve spent my career studying visual physiology. I’ve spent my career trying to understand how the cells downstream of those photoreceptors use and transform those electrical signals to create our perception and to guide our behavior.


Q:  Your research is centered now on how the brain transforms sensory information into perceptions and appropriate behaviors. Does this relate in gross terms to how we humans form thoughts? How close is brain research to understanding thought formation?

I don’t think we’re particularly close to understanding this – and personally, over time I’ve actually veered away from questions about thoughts and the internal mind, and focused more on questions about actions. During my postdoctoral fellowship, I worked with Drosophila – little fruit flies – studying how they use visual information to guide their navigation behaviors. With flies, we never talked about what the fly thinks or what it perceives. Not even colloquially – “the fly sees a bar and decides to turn to the right.” There’s no assumption of consciousness for flies. But when we work with mammals, we do talk this way – intentionally or not. There’s a bit of an underlying assumption that information comes into the brain, we think about it, and then act based off of our thoughts. I don’t think that’s accurate. Rather, I think information is used to select and shape behaviors in parallel with creating our perceptions and thoughts, and often our actions shape our thoughts more than the other way around. So personally, I’m more interested in how we, and other animals, behave – whether or not we’re consciously aware of those behaviors.


Q:  In what ways, if any, does your work relate to the underpinnings of artificial intelligence?

I study how visual information is represented and transformed by the brain, and a lot of the early ideas about artificial neural nets derive from early feedforward models of the visual cortex. So one thing that some of my colleagues and I work on is comparing the mammalian cortex with neural networks, how does the activity that we record at different stages of the cortex compare to the different stages or levels of neural networks.

Not related to the underpinnings of AI, but another aspect of my work is that we generate a LOT of data. Analyzing large datasets is a place where artificial intelligence excels – particularly things like machine learning. So we use many of these analytical techniques in our work, either parsing video footage from our experiments, or classifying patterns of neural activity.


Q:  How does your faith interact with your scientific research?  Does one inform the other?  Is it a two way street? 

I don’t know that my faith informs my research so much as it informs how I do research. A large part of why I joined the Allen Institute is because of its principles of Team Science and Open Science. We work collaboratively to create data resources made freely available to the community. This vision for how to do science is important to me, in large part because of my faith traditions. There are also ways in which I consider my research to be an act of worship. The times when I’m recording from neurons, listening to the secret activity of neurons in the brain – it’s like a glimpse into the hidden inner workings of the universe that fills me with awe and wonder.

The flip side, how my research informs my faith – I think I’ve come to approach my faith, to approach scripture and traditions, through new lenses because of my training, with perhaps a healthy dose of skepticism mixed in. Learning about our brain, and our mind, has provided a different lens for thinking about how we communicate and build traditions, and I think this lens has really enhanced my understanding of my faith.


Q:  You, Philosophy Professor Rebekah Rice and Pastor Dani Forbess all worship at Northminster Presbyterian and were engaged together in an existing discussion at the time you joined AI and Faith as Founding Members.  What have you been talking about? 

Have you heard the joke about the scientist, the pastor, and the philosopher who walk into a bar? No not that one – the one about the lady scientist, the lady pastor, and the lady philosopher who walk into a bar. Okay, the joke doesn’t exist – but it is really pretty unique to be able to talk and think about these things with other people, other women particularly, with different expertises and perspectives, where we find a lot of common ground in the questions we’re excited about. What does it mean to be a person? How does the brain create the mind? What are the implications of AI on our understanding of ourselves? And how does AI impact our lives, our community, our society? How do we live in community, valuing the personhood of all people?


Q:  What ethical issues around the creation and application of AI most interest you?

I’m interested in how we can make sure we use AI to benefit humankind – all of humankind. AI is a tool, and as such it can be used for good and for bad. It will have impacts on our society, on our jobs, on how we communicate, on our transportation and how our communities are structured. I think it is imperative that we engage with this technology to find ways to use it to benefit our communities. I think there is a lot of potential for AI to be used in healthcare, for mental health, and in our communities to really make important strides to help people. But we need to do this well, and we need to protect people. We need to make sure that biases are reduced and ultimately removed. We need to make sure that the data that is the foundation of a lot of AI applications is well collected, respecting people’s privacy. And we need to use these tools to benefit everyone, not just some.