"Foreign universities are overtaking our research"

Prof. Yael Hanein of Tel Aviv University is making great strides in developing direct control of computers by the brain, but says research in Israel is clogged by bureaucracy.

The question of the interface between human beings and computers is one of the great dilemmas of the producers of entertainment technology. In recent years, touch screens have changed the field. The near future is likely to see the advent of non-touch screens: you think of a word, and it appears by itself on the screen in front of you via a wireless connection between the nerve cells in the brain and the computer. Sounds futuristic? It is, but it's closer than you might imagine.

In the laboratory of Prof. Yael Hanein (40) of the Department of Physical Electronics in Tel Aviv University's School of Electrical Engineering, scientists are currently working on a miniature electronic component that can read what happens in nerve cells and transmit it to a computer.

By combining other research and technologies from various researchers in medicine, chemistry, biology, electrical engineering, and even zoology, Hanein hopes to achieve a situation in which a computer will recognize different brain patterns that characterize words, body movements, and other human brain functions. So when some thinks "hands up", a robot will come and raise his hands for him, even if he is paralyzed. In the same way, a person will be able to move a cursor on a virtual keyboard in order to communicate via the computer.

"Several paralyzed people already use this technology to communicate with the world," Hanein told "Globes", ahead of this week's Nano Israel 2010 conference in Tel Aviv. "They move the cursor very slowly, and there are still mistakes, but now the road doesn't seem so long."

On the basis of similar ideas, Hanein's laboratory is developing components that could, in the future, become part of an artificial eye. "Here, the component has to perform the opposite task, one that is perhaps even more complicated: to read the situation in the outside world, and to transmit this to the nerve cells in a form they can understand," says Hanein.

She is currently collaborating with Israeli company Nano Retina of the Rainbow Medical group, which develops technologies from entrepreneur Yossi Gross. The company is working on an artificial retina that can replace retinas damaged by one of the common diseases that cause optic nerve atrophy.

What is your experience of being an academic cooperating with industry?

"The connection in important, and it contributes to research work. From the other side, there is a great deal of knowledge in the academy that is lacking in industry. The university has facilities that companies don't have. At Tel Aviv, we have unique and costly nano infrastructures, with manpower that we have trained to work with the companies they have access to everything. Projects can be conducted here at almost zero cost, compared with the cost of working without us, and for us, it opens our minds to a special and important perspective. Until you are involved in developing a product, there are many technological matters you don't take into account."

What is it like to work with technology transfer companies?

"I would prefer not to answer that. All over the world, there are built-in problems with it, it's a complicated subject."

Hanein was one of the first young scientists recruited by the Tel Aviv University Center for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology. She is a physicist, and completed a doctorate in that discipline at the Weizmann Institute, after which she began her current research at the University of Washington, Seattle. She returned to Israel seven years ago, to Tel Aviv University.

How would you compare life at a university in Israel with a university in the US?

"The people in Israel are excellent. Over the past few years, my students have been outstanding, and that's a huge asset. I don't know how this fits with the state of the education system, but our students gain acceptance at the best laboratories in the world. This is the famous brain drain.

"Research facilities in nanoscience are also excellent, and large resources have been invested in them in the last five years at all the universities. The problem is that the universities struggle to cope with day-to-day activity within their budgets, and that has an effect. The University of Washington is also a public university, and not the most generously financed one, but there was never a crazy crisis there every year like there is in Israel, a situation that has led to the development of a system of rules and procedures that make life unreasonably difficult.

"Every researcher that I know in Israel spends a considerable amount of time in quarrels with the system. All the time, you have to fight to do simple, everyday things for example, ordering equipment, which is subject to the new Tenders Law, and demands virtuosity in filling in forms in abnormal quantities."

So in bureaucracy we have beaten the Americans?

"American bureaucracy is difficult when you try to do something unusual. But here, it's hard to do even something usual. What's more, at the psychological level, the system is in a constant atmosphere of crisis, strikes, and upsets. That has an effect on students, who all the time feel that the sky is about to fall. Whoever looks at the bottom line can see that we do good work, but it comes at an unnecessary price in effort and psychological resources.

"Sometimes, because of budget problems and bureaucracy, breakthrough research we are doing is stopped, and other universities overtake us and rake in all the credit."

For all that, you did not stay in the US.

"I never had any intention of staying in the US, but for some people, that decision doesn't depend on them. Jobs are lacking in Israel; overseas, there are more posts, and there's a choice. Our universities have not grown in the proportions to which they should have grown, and are even shrinking. Therefore, there is a shortage, which can be remedied, and is already being worked on. One of the problems that is mentioned is salaries, but in my opinion, that's not critical in science. I didn't look for the post with the most money."

How did you get into electrical engineering?

"It's not a family thing, they are actually farmers. However, even as a child I loved physics and engineering, because they combined mathematics and the world, and gave a sense of order. I liked it that things behaved predictably. I wanted to understand how things work both laws of nature and human artifacts and I also aspired to develop things that did not exist. I had no clear idea of what it was like to be a researcher, but I had a vague feeling that it was interesting. It took me many years to understand what it means to do real research."

Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on November 10, 2010

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2010

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