Mark Changizi – Author, Host and Co-inventor of O2 AMP

[quote style=”boxed”]One cool idea, once you learn about the market, ends up splitting apart into all these splinters of sub-ideas you never even noticed beforehand, and it will take a lot of effort to push the many splinters into their market holes.[/quote]

Mark Changizi is a theoretical neurobiologist aiming to grasp the ultimate foundations underlying why we think, feel and see as we do. His research focuses on “why” questions, and he has made important discoveries such as on why we see in color, why we see illusions, why we have forward-facing eyes, why the brain is structured as it is, why animals have as many limbs and fingers as they do, why the dictionary is organized as it is, why fingers get pruney when wet, and how we acquired writing, language and music.

He attended the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, and then went on to the University of Virginia for a degree in physics and mathematics, and to the University of Maryland for a PhD in math. In 2002 he won a prestigious Sloan-Swartz Fellowship in Theoretical Neurobiology at Caltech, and in 2007 he became an assistant professor in the Department of Cognitive Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. In 2010 he took the post of Director of Human Cognition at a new research institute called 2ai Labs.

He has more than three dozen scientific journal articles, some of which have been covered in news venues such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Newsweek and WIRED. He has written three books,The Brain from 25,000 Feet (Kluwer 2003), The Vision Revolution (Benbella 2009) and Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man (Benbella 2011). He is working on his fourth non-fiction book, this one on emotions and facial expressions, called Force of Emotions. He is simultaneously working on his first novel, called Human 3.0.

What are you working on right now?

For the last, gosh, three years I’ve been working on a “grand unified theory” of emotions. I’m trying to derive (and test) from first principles the structure and dynamics of emotions, for humans but as well as in many other animals. I’d like to say more, but it’s all too woozy in my own mind and 400 or so pages of notes at this point. Although I can’t say much about it yet, all these jibberish notes *do* help make a general point about the discovery process. See these photos of my notes, and the link to the piece I wrote about the notes and the limits of discovery.

Where did the idea for 02 Amp come from?

My research institute, 2ai, came out of a joint interest in researching the foundations of cognition and artificial intelligence with my co-director Tim Barber. But our motivations to start a research institute were somewhat different. For Tim, a PhD mathematician from Princeton, he had gone on to start e-commerce companies, and wanted to get back into research. For me, who had done the traditional academic route, I wanted to break from the lobotomizing grant pressures of academia, and the idea behind 2ai is to fund ourselves not via begging for money from the government or foundations, but from spinning off intellectual property and start-ups emanating from aspects of our research.

How do you make money?

Our first 2ai spin-off technology company is O2Amp, which involves new optical technology invented by Tim and I, which, in turn, comes out of my research on the origins of color vision. My color vision discovery was that our primate color vision shows the signature engineering features expected if it evolved for sensing the emotion and health color signals coming off the bare skin of others. In this light, Tim and I figured out how to build technology further exploiting our nature-engineered eye to enhance perception of these blood signals. We make money by selling eyewear and lighting technology that allows medical staff to see through the skin more easily, and or anyone to see emotions in others better (whether poker, dating, everyday, sunwear). We also have found a grass-roots colorblindness market. Our business model is *not* to be the primary seller of our technology, although we do sell it out of our O2Amp site. Instead, our model is to develop relationships with distributors, wholesalers, large brands (e.g., in sunwear), and licensors.

What does your typical day look like?

Remember, Tim and my main aim for 2ai was to do fundamental, quite-possibly-not-useful, research. For me, it was to continue doing what I had thus far been doing: moving from field to field and working on ideas where I can find them. So, continuing to do first-rate research is foremost on my mind — *that* was the point. But we do now have a business to run, currently O2Amp. And the trick is to get it moving without letting it eat up all one’s time. I was aware that going the entrepreneurial route could, if one is not careful, eat up all my time for a decade. So, I want to avoid that. Each day tries to have some portion of it devoted to working on research, stuff unrelated to the applied O2Amp side (or whatever the spin-off might be in the future). And each day also involves business development, PR, marketing, customer interaction, or some other business-related item. Thus far, the business demands have not overwhelmed my research. The limiting factor on research is really my aging brain, I’m sorry to say. Oh, and I do a lot of work in coffee shops, and a lot at my standing desk.

How do you bring ideas to life?

“Bringing ideas to life” is intended to point to the entrepreneurial side, but I do note that it has a meaning even on the academic side. Getting good ideas is probably the hardest part, but nearly as hard is devising ways to test it, and working out how to best explain it to real people. On the entrepreneurial side, we’ve brought one suite of ideas to life – O2Amp – so I don’t feel I have accumulated enough wisdom or cases to generalize into some sort of recipe. Much less a recipe worth relating to anyone! And, really, we’re not aiming to do this (spin-off companies) serially. We’re not intending to be a research institute devoted to bringing ideas to life in terms of companies and spin-offs. It may be better to say that we’re interested in bringing artificial intelligence to life (and, more generally, principles of cognitive science to life), and our entrepreneurial side hopes to bring value to the world and simultaneously fund our more intellectual pursuits.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

There seems to be a lot of great discoveries waiting in epigenetics, so I keep hoping to find the time to get into that a bit. It’s exciting to see the extent to which there might be evolved, “smart” mechanisms that “read” the state of the world, and tweak the next generation accordingly. But that world of biology is so acronym-strewn it will be tough going for me.

What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?

I once worked as a postdoc in a lab where the PI’s / lab’s theoretical framework was, in my opinion, worse than false – it was conceptually incoherent. Alice-in-Wonderland incoherent. You can imagine how difficult that might be, to do work acceptable to the lab, and yet try to hone your own *coherent* path. No matter how you do it, your theory isn’t the lab’s theory. That led me to more strongly aim to ensure my own intellectual freedom at every stage of my academic career. (Ultimately it led to these seven principles: )

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

Boring answer: nothing. Nothing major, at least. From high school I had decided that in order to one day do the sorts of things I do today, for undergrad and grad I needed to *not* to do that, but, instead, to do math and physics. These latter things are the key skills I knew I needed, whether I liked physics and math or not. I still am glad I did that.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

It’s that people should…not listen to my advice on being an entrepreneur. I’m an academic doing a strange experiment in an alternative academic path, one that involves also being an entrepreneur. Too little experience to advise, and my situation may be peculiar, and not generalize.

Nevertheless, one piece of advice might be to not try to patent and pursue all your ideas. One cool idea, once you learn about the market, ends up splitting apart into all these splinters of sub-ideas you never even noticed beforehand, and it will take a lot of effort to push the many splinters into their market holes.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

To point to a failure, it helps to have clear successes to contrast it to. At this point, we at O2Amp are moving in the right direction, but I would not describe us as having succeeded yet. And thus, at this point we’re all failure! It’s just that our level of failure is lessening over time, and that’s good.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

I have research on why our fingers get pruney when wet ( ). They’re not due to some accidental side effect of osmosis. Rather, they have all the expected morphological features of rain treads, for quickly removing water during grip. The business idea is to, on the basis of the principles I put forth, to build a next generation of shoe / boot rain treads, or even car treads, biologically inspired treads which do better than today’s treads. We chose not to follow up on this due to lack of time, money, energy – but we would love to see others move forward on it.

If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be and how would you go about it?

Free the North Koreans, raise the third world, etc. But staying within the bounds of academia and business, I’d like to see greater effort within the neuro and bio world working out the functional, adaptive characteristics of brain and biology. We can’t understand our biology if we don’t also know what it’s for, what it evolved to do. Biology is *filled* with purpose, something natural selection “puts into” animals, and to study it scientists have to approach biology differently than they usually do today. They must understand the animal in the context of its natural habitat, and hypothesize and test engineering principles. As I say, we must build “the teleome”:

Tell us something about you that very few people know?

I suppose few know that I cry whenever I hear Chausson’s Poem, . And Bach’s Chaconne

Also, I got a D in undergraduate cognitive psychology. In fact, my reasons for the D help illustrate my personality on discovery and intellectual freedom. I was a physics and math double major in undergrad, and felt personally wounded that the school would tell me which courses I have to take. Let me do what I knew I needed! That was my thinking. And let me mess it up, if need be. So, when forced to take courses to fill requirements I didn’t want to take, I tried hard to minimally pass them. What’s a D in cog psych when I had A’s in physics and math? A little dramatic, but I’ve always been about designing my career conditions to maximize my intellectual freedom.

What are your three favorite online tools or resources and what do you love about them?

Web of science used to be my main tool for fleshing out the citation world for each new field I entered. Now Google Scholar is cutting into that.

Amazon for allowing me to affordably and easily buy most books I want.

And Twitter for connecting me to scientists and writers worldwide.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

At the moment, Pinker’s “The Better Angels of our Nature” is a must read, but not for entrepreneurial reasons. I don’t read books with entrepreneurism in mind. And, more relevant for business, I just finished Matt Ridley’s “Rational Optimist”, which I recommend.

Three people we should follow on Twitter and why?


When was the last time you laughed out loud? What caused it?

Uh, today when my 10 year-old girl, noticing how when you make a fist and use the outer portion to do a handprint on the steamy shower glass and it looks like a footprint, asked whether this might not be an accident. That was a great question! And funny, somehow. (Alas, surely the answer is no, because our ancestors to my knowledge never walked on our hands in *that* fashion.)

Who is your hero, and why?

Philosopher / mathematician / scientists like Hilary Putnam, Bertrand Russell, Rudolf Carnap, and Alan Turing. Even though I’m now more of a theoretical neurobiologist, my way of going about it is driven in a much more philosophical light. See

Do you ever worry that you may be out of ideas, discoveries?

Yes indeed, it’s a worry. There will be a time – unknown to me – when no more interesting ideas or discoveries or inventions will be in my future. If I knew when that time had come, I could take up, say, car racing or cow-pod throwing. Then again, I wonder at times whether I like discovering things, or, instead, like the process itself. The mystery about whether all this work will lead anywhere. That itself is part of the romance.

How do you get your abs to look so rippled?

The benefits of being a master of illusion.


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