By Jean Christou
Dr Catherine Demetriades describes herself as a “fully-functional autistic savant”, the true meaning of which might not be immediately apparent, at least until the jaw-dropping things she has accomplished come pouring out in conversation.
A scientist at CERN – home of the Large Hadron Collider or particle smasher – and with four PhDs in molecular medicine, biophysics, particle physics and quantum psychology, Demetriades is also an author, musician, registered nutritionist – since the age of 16 – and an Egyptologist specialising in ancient perfumery.
Born in Toronto, to a father with Egyptian roots and a mother with Greek Cypriot roots, Demetrides has lived in the US and in various other countries and has worked for CERN for going on eight years. Her background is all about science but only as a means to an end – to use what she has learned to become an inventor.
But Demetriades, who incidentally speaks five languages – self-taught, naturally – is not in Cyprus to brag about her vast credentials, though within minutes it’s apparent she is a person with extraordinary abilities and talents.
Demetriades has a mission and she wants Cyprus to be part of it, to put the island on the map when she and her team launch the world’s first quantum robot specifically designed to help autistic children communicate with their parents.
“I work at CERN. I’m project leader for creating the first and only quantum robot that can scan non-verbal autistic children and translate what they are thinking and feeling in depth,” she said.
“It is revolutionising both robotics and autism at the same time. Until now robots haven’t been used for emotional reasons. Some of them can see facial expressions and translate them into emotions but not actually understand the sequences of events and the stories in their DNA.”
Demetriades said she wants the robot, AutiZmo, to be built in Cyprus and launched from here. She’s set a deadline of November to unveil the prototype being built under the supervision of her robotics engineer Alaa Faraag from Egypt.
Faraag said they came up with AutiZmo while sharing ideas. “We were joking around and saying wouldn’t it be nice if there was a robot you could tell your problems to and find a solution and Cat said she could do that,” he told the Sunday Mail.
Demetriades had already invented a system that could run such scans, and the idea developed to put that ‘brain’ into an affordable robot that families with autistic children could acquire.
“We want it in homes. We don’t want it complicated… AutiZmo will be part of the family and we want him small enough so people can carry him,” said Demetriades.
The system it will run on is called SMART, which stands for ‘stored memory access retrieval technique’ and is based on DNA sequencing.
“I can chart and measure every emotional experience you’ve had in your life and the life stories that are encoded into your DNA, decode and deactivate them,” Demetriades said.
“I was working on this obsessively for the last seven years and I kept upgrading it and understanding more indepth and I saw what other scientists were doing and the mistakes they made in the mathematics because you need maths, physics, chemistry, biophysics, you need particle physics, you need a lot of different sciences to understand this and I couldn’t for the life of me. As a scientist… I would go up to people and say, ‘you know it’s so exciting and I can understand all the stories of your life from the DNA.’ And it just scared people and I couldn’t understand why this could not go out into the world successfully but I keep working on it.”
There is a very technical explanation for how it works involving subatomic particles, genetic commands and emotional blueprints programmed into DNA-RNA. But to put it more simply, Demetriades says: “There’s an energy you project on a subconscious level called quanta. When you have subconscious issues you have very powerful forces you would call negative energies, if you want to be basic about it,” she said.
For instance, if someone has had a traumatic experience as a child such as a dog bite, it creates a force, a heat inside the body. It’s how something that starts as a fear and that grows can turn into a panic attack, which is basically an explosion of energy.
“We give off this quanta, and AutiZmo is able to pick up the quanta with precision and depth and understand children who have temper tantrums, very common, so you would understand how it all starts. When they are overwhelmed the energy explodes and now you have a child in crisis and you can’t figure out where it all started. The robot will translate this. That’s where the maths and biophysics come in. It’s a complicated process but the point is to have a simple explanation for parents to understand.”
Demetriades says she has been involved in molecular medicine for 26 years so understands how things work on a physical cellular level. She said she was curious as to how the mind could made the body sick and “how the energy shifts and how it reacts inside of you”.
In fact, she was drawn to create SMART to try and understand her own autism because in a way her higher brain function or having a consciousness exist on a different level made it difficult to cope with the ‘real world’.
“I am a fully functional autistic savant myself so I have savant syndrome. For this kind of stuff lucky me,” she said. “The more I uncovered about savant syndrome the more paralysed I was. You can’t function like normal people. I could only work at CERN. I needed to understand how to function in this world. I went so far back in my own DNA… I went deeper and deeper into it and thought if I could read the quanta I would be able to understand the trauma.”
Creating AutiZmo is not a panacea, however, Demetriades said. All it can do is point out what the problem is in those who can’t communicate how they feel. Treatment is the job of doctors and psychologists. “We’d like to emphasise that this going to help everyone’s job. It’s not taking anyone’s job.”
The team is not working with any universities on the island but is working with the GC School of Careers to help launch the project. It also includes CERN scientists from Italy and Cyprus, computer scientists and programmers from Cyprus and India, and robotic engineers from Egypt, who work remotely, led by Faraag, who has studied mechatronics. He’s been involved with robotics since he was six.
Demetriades has also written a small book called Speak to Me, currently in English but she hopes to have it translated into Greek as well. “I did research to understand on a molecular and biophysics level the reasons the children can’t speak. My goal is to help parents understand their children better,” she said.
Demetriades and Faraag have not decided on the final shape of the prototype yet.
“The shape will be super important,” he said. “We are doing research in order to make a perfect shape to communicate with autistic kids.” This is because some might be scared of the robot. Colour will also be important so no “aggressive red” so basically “friendly, cute and neutral”.
Hands and legs for AutiZmo might make it more expensive so that has not been decided yet. “What’s important is what it does,” said Demetriades.
AutiZmo, which is already patented worldwide through Demetriades company Catatrix, will be small enough to fit in a carry bag and Demetriades and Faraag want to keep the price as affordable as possible. Each robot will be programmed for a specific child and his or her progress tracked through algorithms.
To create the prototype, the team still needs some funding and is hoping to receive enough financial support for the more sophisticated version.
Demetriades said in a way that is why they brought the project to Cyprus.
“I believe people are very eager to help such causes here. Being a scientist from CERN I could easily give this to the Swiss first and then everyone else but I have come here because I wanted this small little island to launch,” she said. “Cyprus has gone really forward in research and innovation. They are really supporting young scientists now. We believe the right people will come and help us.”
She hopes that the sale of the book at a special price will also help funding and are looking at crowdfunding.
Demetriades said she and Faraag attended the Light it up Blue event recently in Limassol to mark World Autism Day and she was happy to see that First Lady Andri Anastasiades supported the cause.
“We’re trying to create awareness,” she said.
Catatrix is also running robotics workshops in Cyprus for various age groups as the project moves ahead.
Delving into other ways AutiZmo could be used, such as military or policing application, Demetriades said: “The robot does not read minds. It just picks up traumas. It doesn’t literally say ‘mommy I have to go to the bathroom’. It’s not going to this point.” Demetriades conceded however that her mother had expressed this concern. “It’s not a mind reading thing. It’s more about emotions, not thinking,” she insists.
That hasn’t stopped her scanning her cats, she has eight, with some interesting results. But pet lovers might need to hold off on a PetiZmo for now. Demetriades and Faraag are busy getting AutiZmo into the world.
“One of the things that interests me is creating a robot for clinics to help coma patients,” she said. “They’re completely gone but we know now they can hear their loved one talking to them. If we could be of service in that area…”