“Why did we miss 9/11?” 

In 2001, that’s a question many people were asking, but Paul Sajda took a particular interest in responding to it.

Sajda is a professor of biomedical engineering at Columbia University and chief scientific officer at Optios, a company dedicated to leveraging neuroscience and AI-based technology to help optimize brain function.

In June 2023, he explained at the inaugural Think Bigger Innovation Summit, supported by Columbia Business School’s think tank The Hub, that in the aftermath of the devastating terror attacks, it became apparent that there was a severe mismatch between the amount of data US intelligence services were collecting and the number of people tasked with examining and analyzing it. 

“Essentially, only 10 percent of all the images that were out there — of Afghanistan, of Iraq, or wherever — had an eyeball on them,” he said. That realization led to a call to arms: Something had to be done to prevent an equally disastrous event from happening. Leaders had to think differently about national security — they had to think bigger.

In the field of neuroscience, Sajda had been working with a process called rapid serial visual presentation triage, a technique in which humans examine a huge number of images that flash before them in quick succession. Their brains don’t have time to carefully determine exactly what each image shows, but they do have the capacity to register something that’s out of the ordinary or noteworthy. Thanks to technology, those brain signals can be detected and used to inform intelligence. 

“I may not be able to decode that I saw a picture of a car. But I can decode that I was oriented to something in the environment,” Sajda explained. “Can we use that to help particular classes of tasks, particularly demanding tasks, increase speed and accuracy? Can we even start to combine some of these types of signals that we can measure now to create superhuman capabilities and identify biomarkers of good decision-making?” Sajda didn’t go so far as to answer that question explicitly, but what he did talk about implies that — even if it’s not the case now — the answer at some point in the future will likely be yes. 

Sajda’s approach has paid off. When tested in a secure environment, under the supervision of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, analysts were wired up and tasked with detecting images of interest. Their performance improved by some 300 percent when using the technique Sajda described, underscoring the great potential and promise for innovation the field of neuroscience might hold when coupled with new technologies. 

Building on this groundbreaking work, Sajda’s company, Optios, is now applying these processes for commercial success in everything from finance to the world of sports. In securities trading, for example, Optios is using the technique Sajda described as a basis for identifying the markers of a good decision as compared with those of a poor decision. 

For many, this may all sound a little utopian, a little futuristic, perhaps hard to conceptualize. But inarguably, it’s filled with promise too, promise for what the human genius might be capable of if we think that little bit bigger.


Takeaways from this event: 

  1. Technology is most powerful when coupled with the human brain. 
  1. Developing a specific solution to a specific problem can help us innovate in ways we might not have anticipated.