Columbia Neuroscientist Rafael Yuste Awarded Eliasson Global Leadership Prize

Carla Cantor
October 17, 2018

Rafael Yuste, a professor of Biological Sciences at Columbia University, has been awarded the Eliasson Global Leadership Prize by the Tällberg Foundation for his seminal contributions in inspiring the US and International BRAIN initiatives and for his efforts toward building ethical guidelines for neurotechnology and artificial intelligence.  

Named after Jan Eliasson, a Swedish diplomat and former Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations, the foundation, which has offices in New York and Sweden, aims to provoke people to think differently about the global issues that are shaping the present and the future.

The prize is awarded annually to up to four individuals; each laureate receives an award of $50,000. The other awardees this year are Obaid-Chinoy, a Pakistani filmmaker, and a joint prize for the three founders of the Plateforme des Confessions Religieuses de Centrafrique (PCRC): Imam Omar Kobine Layama, Cardinal Dieudonné Nzapalainga and Nicolas Guérékoyame-Gbangou.

Neuroscientist Rafael Yuste, the director of the Neuro Technology Center and co-director of the Kavli Institute of Brain Science at Columbia, has pioneered the development and application of optical methods to understand how neural circuits in the cerebral cortex work.

In addition to his own research, he has played a major role in scientific advocacy since 2011, when he put forward the idea of a large-scale scientific project to measure and manipulate the activity of complete neural circuits as a way to unlock fundamental and pathological brain processes.

Yuste then led a small group of scientists that proposed this project to the White House, and this proposal went on to become the US BRAIN Initiative, launched by the Obama administration in 2013 and funded by Congress with bipartisan support since then.The goal of the project, which is planned to last 12 years and currently encompasses 500 labs in the United States and around the world, is to build new methods to understand and manipulate neural circuits in laboratory animals and human patients.

The BRAIN Initiative has itself helped inspire similar large-scale neuroscience projects around the world, including ones in Japan, China, South Korea, Canada and Australia. A European Initiative, the Human Brain Project, originated independently. Since 2017, these efforts have been coordinated as the International BRAIN Initiative (IBI), which Yuste also played a role in forming.

As a scientist who has developed and pushed for the necessity of novel neurotechnologies, Yuste has also been, at the same time, deeply concerned about the consequences of these technologies for society. The convergence of neurotechnologies with artificial intelligence technology (AI), in particular, promises endless possibilities for humanity, from diagnosing and treating mental illnesses and neurological diseases to allowing us to boost our mental abilities.

But these powerful technologies could also be used in harmful ways, exacerbating social inequalities; threatening individual privacy, identity and autonomy; and offering corporations, governments and hackers new ways to exploit and manipulate people. To address this, Yuste has been involved in bringing together key players in neuroscience, neurotechnology, technology industry, bioethics and law to work toward the establishment of a new international system of guidelines, aiming at the inclusion of five new so-called “NeuroRights” in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

“Through the convergence of neuroscience and AI, we are at the gates of a profound transformation in our society, akin to a new Renaissance. But while these new technologies could help us understand and cure many mental and neurological diseases, they could also be used in detrimental ways,” said Yuste, who is also a member of the Data Science Institute at Columbia. “With a group of colleagues from different countries and disciplines, we are proposing to follow the time-tested model of the Hippocratic Oath and ensure that the developers and practitioners of novel neurotechnologies and AI adhere to ethical guidelines and use these transformational methods to help humankind.”

In awarding the global leadership prize to Yuste, Alan Stoga, chairman of Tällberg Foundation, said the Prize jury recognized  Professor Yuste’s  “commitment to thinking about human identity in more robust ways and his absolute urgency to encourage others to think deeply about the ethics and ethical implications of disruptive technology, particularly in neuroscience."

For media inquiries or more information, contact Carla Cantor at 212-854-5276 or [email protected].