Interview with Massimiliano Versace, CEO and Founder of Neurala - Nasdaq Disruptors

Elyse Southwell interviews Massimiliano Versace, CEO and Founder of Neurala. Watch the video above or read the transcript below:

Elyse Southwell: Live at the Nasdaq Market Site in Times Square for Nasdaq Disruptors, I'm Elyse Southwell. Today, we're talking about artificial intelligence specifically brains for robots we are with Massimiliano Versace, CEO and Founder of Neurala. He's also the director of the Neuromorphics Lab at Boston University. He's talking to us about his company and how they are making software brains for robots. Welcome Max, thank you for being here.

Max Versace: Thank you, thanks for having me.

Elyse Southwell: What is Neurala?

Max Versace: Neurala is an artificial intelligence company that was born out of Boston University. We designed the neurala brain and the neurala brain is an artificial intelligence brain that emulates the aspect of human perception and the intelligence in software, and we use this to make the machine more intelligent, interactive, safer to use and in general more useful for humans.

Elyse Southwell: Can you talk to us about what are learning neural networks?

Max Versace: Yes. So, learning neural networks is a subset of artificial intelligence, right? And AI or artificial intelligence has been around for many many years. Neural networks is essentially mathematical emulation of brain function and software. So you study the brain, you study how perception, memory, language work and you reproduce using software, and the mathematical equation that work together and emulates this intelligence in software. So neural network is essentially the closest copy of human brain that today we have and we can use in software.

Elyse Southwell: So what is the difference between neural networks for let's say a super computer and then what you are doing?

Max Versace: Yes. So neural networks need a lot of compute power to run, so we at Neurala we have designed a new methodology that enables this neural network to run on very very inexpensive and cheap hardware. The same hardware that people today carry in cellphones and today can be used to emulate human visual cortex which revolutionary, because today you can put very sophisticated intelligence that you need super computer for just a few years ago, you can put it on a device where it's needed, in real time interacting with its environment.

Elyse Southwell: Is this, so this is SDK technology?

Max Versace: Well, the SDK is a software development kit. The technology is called the Neurala Brain and that's essentially the software.

Elyse Southwell: Why is there so many trends on mimicking the human brain right now?

Max Versace: It's actually very simple. Today, just looking around Time Square or the studio you would see thousands of devices, and a device can be as simple as a camera with a little chip installed to it, and so these devices are proliferating let alone drones, self-driving cars, IoT devices, the number of people who can actually control these devices remains constant unless we want the earth to be populated by many many billions of people. So, it's inevitable that artificial intelligence will be needed to make this device more useful, and essentially the future we're going to is each device will have a brain, so that it wouldn't need the brain of the operator to function, but it can just rely on an artificial brain and that's what we're building.

Elyse Southwell: So essentially like a self-driving car can operate without a human behind the wheel. That is what you're saying?

Max Versace: Exactly. So, if you think self-driving cars what the English is trying to do is to imitate the human which essentially is to build the brain for the self-driving car, and you will see this for cars, for drones, airplanes, industrial robots, companion robots and so forth.

Elyse Southwell: You think eventually planes will fly themselves?

Max Versace: Yes, and that's essential, right? Because if you think of today's airplanes, they are way more complicated than a space shuttle over a few years ago, and there are way too many sensors and way too many controls for the human to be able to handle it, and so AI is not only something that maybe will come, but it's something that is inevitable to sort of counter balance the complexity of machines today.

Elyse Southwell: On a consumer side of things there obviously is a trust factor, we spoke about AI over Nasdaq Disruptors with other organizations of course, but there is this trust factor, right?

Max Versace: Yes. Yeah, I mean I believe that AI will need to be trusted with the same criteria that you trust a human, right? So how do you trust a human driving a car, right? So, first of all we should lower the bar, right? Human is not infallible, it has defects and self-driving cars are I think more conservative than humans in driving. So first of all let's lower the bar, we're not aiming for God, we're aiming for human performance, and then we should certify AI, so we should put AI to the same test that we put humans, right?

So the AI should be able to drive like a human take a driving test or essentially do the same kind of training and testing that you must go and do. And if the equation AI equals to human brain then we should trust AI as much as we trust humans or more.

Elyse Southwell: Very interesting. What work are you doing with NASA?

Max Versace: We at NASA we completed the work to build essentially an emulation of a rough brain to power the Mars rover. And so, if you rely on the speed of light to communicate between Earth and Mars, it takes 20 minutes for a signal to go one way like the movie The Martian, you remember, the guy had to wait? And so that's not really the way to talk, right, to a machine. You need the machine to have its own brain, and what we did is we designed an artificial brain for the Mars rover, it didn't go to Mars yet, but enabled the machine to essentially govern itself like a small rodent will do and navigate around Mars by itself.

Elyse Southwell: Wow. Max, not going totally off topic, but I just want to say that you are part of fashion royalty, right?

Max Versace: That's the rumor, yes. So we have a relationship, cousins and--

Elyse Southwell: The Versace?

Max Versace: Versace family. So, they do modeling and they do brain modeling, right? So that's always modelling.

Elyse Southwell: So Neurala was put on the map because you entered the incubator accelerator program Boston Tech Stores.

Max Versace: Yes.

Elyse Southwell: How was that experience for you?

Max Versace: It was galvanizing in particular because my daughter was born a week before, so she came to, for 3 months she came to work in the accelerator. So, it was a lot of fun. It was the moment in which we took our research and essentially thought very hard on how to make a product out of it, and at each step of this process, the complexity and the challenges go further and further, so it's sort of exponential, but it was a turning point for us and I would advice everybody to do it.

Elyse Southwell: You're the director of the Neuromorphics Lab at Boston University, what is that and what do you do there?

Max Versace: Well, so the Neuromorphics Lab is shrinking as time goes on because everybody gets higher in Neurala, so that's the transition process, and so in Neuromorphics Lab essentially we studied the human brain and we build mathematical models that emulates cognitive and perceptual ability in software. So, it's sort of reverse engineering the brain.

Elyse Southwell: So it's like an R and D lab almost in this space?

Max Versace: It is.

Elyse Southwell: And then that is what inspired you to start Neurala, can you talk about your inspiration?

Max Versace: Yes. The inspiration actually came in 2006 and I was working with Heather and Anatoli which were my two co-founders, so Heather is American, Anatoli is Russian, I'm from Italy, sounds like a joke, we meet in the square and we say well, our software was very very slow, we wanted to run it faster because otherwise it was just impractical, and so we devised a method to use graphic processing cars which are the vaguely video cars that are in everyone’s cellphones today and we say oh, what if a video card as opposed to rendering pixels will render neurons, and so we did the patent and we look at each other and say what do we do with this patent? Now, we are studying at Boston University, we decided to create Neurala to contain it, and that's how we started a company almost like a joke and then it grew with NASA, Air Force and a bunch of other customers to become what it is.

Elyse Southwell: Wow. Do you consider yourself and your co-founders a disruptor?

Max Versace: Absolutely. So, I think that we took on a challenge that was at that time gargantuan right? I remember talking to some investors back then and the expert in the field, they were laughing at us, and just 10 years ago, the world neural network was banned from any proposal I was writing for instance for funding, and today the same guys ask me to put that thing on paper. So, it's a huge validation, you have to have the perseverance and the strength to stay around and feel what you think is a dream becomes everybody's obvious reality.

Elyse Southwell: Max, what do you think the future is for artificial intelligence as a whole?

Max Versace: That artificial intelligence is going to be our companion everywhere, and that I would say contrary to what you hear from Musk, Gates and Hawkins, I think it's going to be saving human kind rather than harming us. The complexity of human kind is such that we need AI not only to solve big problems like pollution and overpopulation, but to cope with progress. We cannot be more sophisticated than we are today unless AI helps us to do that, right? Machines are too complex, sensors are too complex, so it's going to be liberating.

Elyse Southwell: Wow, this is also interesting. Thank you so much for being here and a little piece of advice before you go, Nasdaq’s ambition, our themes here are ambition and innovation, what advice do you have for entrepreneurs?

Max Versace: Don't embark in an enterprise that you consider possible. Always aim for something that’s slightly impossible and then do it.

Elyse Southwell: Great. Max thank you so much for being here.

Max Versace: Thank you.

Elyse Southwell: And thank you for watching. I'm Elyse Southwell and this is Nasdaq disruptors.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.