University of Texas at Austin


UT Experts Delve into Topics from Brain-Computer Interface to Space Junk at SXSW

By Joanne Foote

Published March 27, 2024

David Paydarfar (middle right).

Research innovations from brain-computer interface to tracking space junk were among the multitude of panels at the 2024 SXSW Festival held earlier in March. These two unique panels featured core faculty from the Oden Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences, and emphasized the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration among academic and industry stakeholders to address challenges that impact daily life.

David Paydarfar

A panel held at The University of Texas’ SXSW Hook’em House takeover of Antone’s, “Brain-Computer Interface (BCI): Bridging Technology & Healthcare,” featured David Paydarfar, professor and chair of Neurology at Dell Medical School, and affiliated faculty at the Oden Institute at The University of Texas at Austin.

Though the idea may seem futuristic, Paydarfar described why this growing technology is so important. “Over my entire career, I’ve watched horrible neurological illnesses that robbed people in their ability to move, to speak, to understand and to feel. This ultimately in many instances leads to early choice to die because the building blocks of what it is for them to feel is lost.” 


Students and researchers demonstrate how BCI works. Photo: Joanne Foote

In a nutshell, BCI allows people to control machines using their thoughts. An example on display during the panel demonstrated how this technology works. A wearable cap packed with electrodes that is hooked up to a computer which detects electric signals from the brain. These signals send a message enabling movement of an arm or hand with the aid of robotics connected to the subject. The vision is to one day have an implantable device, similar to a pacemaker used for heart patients, that has minimal risk with great gain in quality of life.

Researchers at the Dell Medical School at UT are already thinking about how the technology can improve someone’s everyday life. Others are contemplating about BCI’s societal impact, not to mention the legal and ethical questions of having a computer chip wired to your brain. The potential of BCI to help patients living with diseases like multiple sclerosis, or other mobility impairment injuries cannot be understated. According to Paydarfar, the brain is the least understood part of the body, and while Paydarfar doesn’t build brain-machine interfaces he is building a team at Dell Medical School who are dedicated to making this happen. 

“Now for the first time, the pipeline of discovery is accelerating. A lot is right here in Austin. It’s a team sport, and expertise in all components are coming together for the patients that need it the most,” said Paydarfar, who was featured in a recent university interview.

The panel was moderated by Kavita Patel, M.D., a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Moriba Jah

From technology that works inside the brain to technology looking at space junk orbiting the Earth, astrophysicist Moriba Jah lead a discussion on “How the Tech That Tracks Space Junk Will Save Life on Earth,” on March 12 as part of SXSW Interactive. 

Jah, professor of aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics at UT Austin, leads the Computational Astronautical Sciences and Technologies Group at the Oden Institute, digging into astro analysis, the motion of objects in space. He is also cofounder of Privateer which developed Wayfinder to track space objects.

Jah first encountered dark skies when he served in the military and was stationed at Malmstrom Airforce Base in Montana. “I grew up in Caracas, Venezuela, a city illuminated by lights, with limited opportunities to see a true night sky. On a good night, you might see the moon and a couple of stars and that’s about it.”

Jah says it was during his time in Montana that he truly discovered how jam packed space is with planets, galaxies, stars. “During my night shifts, I could see streaks of light go across sky and sometimes they would disappear. This sparked my interest in understanding more about human made objects that had been launched into orbit.”

Following graduate school, Jah’s first job was with NASA at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Mars missions. It was during a trip to Maui for a conference that he encountered telescopes tracking objects orbiting Earth. “At the time 26,000 objects ranging in size from a cell phone to the space station were being tracked, of which 1200 were working satellites providing services and capabilities. But everything else was garbage, like 96%.”

According to Wayfinder, more than 27,000 pieces of human-made objects are currently being tracked as they orbit the Earth, but that number only includes objects larger than a softball. The actual quantity of space debris 1mm+ is estimated to be closer to 100 million. According to Jah, more satellites than ever before are being launched each month, satellites that fuel our daily life on Earth to enhance communications, predict climate and weather, and run financial systems, such as ATMs and point-of-sale transactions.

With tens of thousands of pieces of junk orbiting Earth, Jah has developed technology called Wayfinder which seeks to identify and map where each object is orbiting the Earth at any given time. Jah explained that 9 out of 10 useful satellites are located in an area called low Earth orbit, as is most of the junk. Objects in this zone move at about 17,000 miles per hour. He said even an object as small as a bullet can cause serious issues if it collides with another object moving at that rate of speed.

Just like we have single use plastics, we have single use satellites, which means when things die in orbit, they continue to move at very high speeds because there’s no off ramp -  these orbital highways are becoming congested.

— Moriba Jah

Space junk defies the adage, what goes up must come down. In actuality, most of it continues to revolve in space. “The problem is, most of the stuff that we put up there rarely comes back. Just like we have single use plastics, we have single use satellites, which means when things die in orbit, they continue to move at very high speeds because there’s no off ramp – these orbital highways are becoming congested. My goal is to have the space industry look at things in a circular lifecycle – right now it’s linear.”

Creating a classification scheme for these objects of different sizes, shapes and properties would help the identification process. “Right now, it's up to an astroanalysis to try to put the physics together to try to resolve the identity crisis in orbit. But we're far from being able to achieve that,” said Jah.  

Jah believes that all things are interconnected, and many current mainstream societies have forgotten about the idea of stewardship and instead often focus on ownership. “Stewardship leads with a responsibility as caretakers. Many have forgotten about finding balance with the environment. Earth is resilient, as we learned during the pandemic. When societies pull back even a little bit, the environment and Earth has the potential to heal itself." 

The panel was moderated by Sudhir Hasbe, Chief Product Officer at Neo4j.