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Jean-Michel Prima - 21/10/2016

Nataliya Kosmyna Awarded For Women in Science Fellowship

Nataliya Kosmina

The L'Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science program awards talented young female scientists with Fellowships to help pursue their projects. Currently a postdoctoral at Inria research center, in Rennes, Brittany, France, Nataliya Kosmyna is among the winners of the 2016 edition. Profile

Wide green eyes. A hint of Slavic accent. Cheerfulness aplenty. And a fast growing press book. At age 26, Nataliya Kosmyna has already built quite a reputation in the field of artificial intelligence. And with good reason, for she pilots... thought-controlled drones, mind you! A feat applauded by newspapers, TVs and now the L'Oreal-UNESCO Foundation which awarded her a Rising Talent grant.

The story started back in 2010 in faraway Zaporojie, on the banks of the Dniepr river. “I'm from Ukraine. While completing my bachelor degree, I wanted to go study abroad. I thought it would be a good experience. I knew of Grenoble, a well-reputed university in the field of Artificial Intelligence, which happens to be my domain of predilection. In addition to that, the courses were offered in English, a language I could speak. ” The only snag: “I just couldn't afford it. But I was fortunate enough to be bestowed a grant by the French Embassy. And that's how I came to France. At the time, I knew but two words of French: bonjour, merci.
Fast forward. Best PhD prize for her thesis on Co-Learning in Brain Computer Interfaces. A topic she was quite acquainted with. “My mother is a neurologist. At home, there would always be those brain diagrams and pictures.
It is during this PhD work that drones came humming over her life, or more precisely the art of piloting them by thought. “I wasn't the one who invented it. In 2012, tests were conducted at the University of Minnesota and a publication ensued. Training four persons for this test took them two months. When I came across their paper, I thought one could do better than that. Taking inspiration from their work, I improved the technology and proposed a system that is functional within 10 minutes.
By the way, what's the magic that makes it work? “When you think, your brain generates an electrical activity that can be captured through an electroencephalographic headset. One must efficiently translate this signal  so that the computer will be able to understand it and act upon it.
Is that to say that you read in the thoughts? “Not in the least. I don't have any mean to know what's in your mind. At best, could I make out something about your mental state: your being tired, stressed, relax...
Controlling a drone by thought therefore calls for an intermediate step: learning. It aims at identifying a brain signal and then coupling it to a computer command. “I will ask you to think to whatever you want. something. The sky, the lawn... The signal will be captured through the EEG headset and I will train the computer to detect this particular signal, this particular thought.”   The last step consists in matching it to a command. “Then, if the system detects the expected signal, it will make the drone take off.
Easy as a pie ? “No. It is very difficult indeed for a machine to recognize thoughts in a stable manner. Making out many patterns is very time demanding and exhausting. We hope that in the coming years, we will find ways to enrich this vocabulary which, for the time being, is still very limited.

Controlling Wheelchairs

Pretty hard to take full control of a drone then? “Yes, and I won't work in that direction. It is recreational, but a run-of-the-mill remote is more efficient. On the other hand, this technology can prove much more useful in  another context: improving  the autonomy of physically impaired people. Those are the ones that I would really like to help. By thought, they could switch on the light, close the shutters, open the door, steer the wheel chair, change the bed inclination... One does not realize the daily difiiculties that all this brings about.
Currently a postdoctoral in the Hybrid team at Inria, in Rennes,  Kosmyna contemplates two projects. “One deals with wheelchairs. The other one with home appliances. I already have volunteers for the experiments. Users' feedback is very important to me.”  What about vendors? “Interested. I have contacts for wheelchair loans for instance.” And EEG headsets? “The most suitable one for this research costs a mint! ”. The grant from the L'Oréal-UNESCO Foundation thus comes at the perfect time.

Keywords: Nataliya Kosmina ICO INRIA Rennes - Bretagne Atlantique HYBRID L'Oréal Unesco