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From words to machines

With a degree in literature, cognitive scientist André Souza dabbled in psychology and statistics, and today works with new technologies in the USA

PERSONAL ARCHIVES At Google, Souza works on the development of products that mimic human cognitionPERSONAL ARCHIVES

As a teenager, cognitive scientist Andre Souza, now 36, had only one goal: to live in the United States. At the time, he was told that he would first have to have a university degree and to learn English. Unable to afford the cost of language classes or a private university, he tried his luck on the university entrance exam at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG). His goals were to graduate from a free federal college and to learn English in the process.

The strategy worked. The opportunity to go to the United States came up during his undergraduate studies, when he was able to spend a few months at the University of Texas as part of a foreign exchange program. At the time, Souza was interested in cognitive linguistics, which focuses on how context guides or influences the meaning of words. As he learned more about the subject, he discovered that Richard Meier, of the Department of Linguistics at the University of Texas, had gotten his degree from the University of California, San Diego, a world reference in cognitive linguistics. “I contacted him to see if he had any projects I could collaborate with him on,” Souza says.

Meier directed him to another researcher, Catharine Echols, from the Department of Psychology at the same university, who studied language psychology and was advising another Brazilian student on her doctoral research. “Catharine allowed me to work as a volunteer in her laboratory,” recalls Souza. “At the end of the exchange program, she suggested that I go back to Brazil and help collect data for her doctoral student. That way, I could create an opportunity to return to the United States.”

PERSONAL ARCHIVES Equipment used by the researcher to monitor the eye movements of users of new technologiesPERSONAL ARCHIVES

That is precisely what he did. He graduated in 2004 but did not immediately return to Texas. He entered the master’s degree program in the Department of Psychology of UFMG and studied how children in early childhood learn to speak and the verb inflections (conjugation) they use in the process. The work broadened his horizons regarding his doctorate research. Souza then created a study to compare the same inflection learning process between Portuguese- and English-speaking children, a study which was accepted by the University of Texas.

He left Brazil in 2007 to begin his doctorate. Over the course of the program, he got involved in several research projects, taught classes, advised students, and published articles. He also changed his own advisor and the topic of his research. “I studied how certain accents influence the decisions we make on a daily basis,” he explains. He then completed two postdocs—one in Canada and one in Texas—where he began working with eye tracking, a technique used to evaluate individuals’ behaviors by monitoring their eye movements.

In 2014, he went to the University of Alabama to work as an advanced statistics professor. He has created a line of research to study how our cognitive abilities change as we interact with new technologies. In order to fund his research, Souza submitted a grant request to a Google fund for technology research at universities, and it was approved.

While still in Alabama, Souza was invited to present the results of his research at Google’s headquarters in California. He was enchanted by the workplace dynamics of the company and decided to try something new. He sent resumes to Google, Twitter, Facebook, and other technology companies. “In late 2016, Google invited me to participate in a series of interviews for a researcher position,” he says. Weeks later, he received the news that he had been hired. Today, he coordinates a team that researches the use of artificial intelligence in the design of products that mimic human cognition.