from the world's big
The old idea of running with springs on your feet gets a high-tech makeover.
The precursor to the modern bicycle, dubbed the hobby horse, was invented in 1817 by Baron Karl von Drais.
Researchers at UCSF have trained an algorithm to parse meaning from neural activity.
Eavesdropping<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjkxMDY1MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxNDQ4MjM4MX0.xn8aljMO7UFbibI2-B0AoniAfvkrOWiDx7diBVEdMBc/img.jpg?width=980" id="b7ede" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8a54d456f0a8a9594f4db1512286b564" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Image source: Teeradej/Shutterstock<p>To train their AI, Makin and co-author <a href="http://changlab.ucsf.edu/our-team" target="_blank">Edward F. Chang</a> "listened in" on the neural activity of four participants. As epileptics, each participant had had brain electrodes implanted for the purpose of seizure monitoring.</p><p>The participants were supplied 50 sentences they were to read aloud at least three times. As they did, neural data was collected by the researchers. (Audio recordings were also made.)</p><p>The study lists a handful of the sentences the participants recited, among them:</p><ul><li>"Those musicians harmonize marvelously."</li><li>"She wore warm fleecy woolen overalls."</li><li>"Those thieves stole thirty jewels."</li><li>"There is chaos in the kitchen."</li></ul><p>The algorithm's task was to analyze the collected neural data and make predictions as to what was being said when the data was generated. (Data associated with non-verbal sounds captured in the participants' audio recording was factored out first.)</p><p>The researchers' algorithm learned pretty quickly to predict the words associated with chunks of neural data. The AI predicted the data generated when "A little bird is watching the commotion" was spoken would mean "The little bird is watching watching the commotion," quite close, while "The ladder was used to rescue the cat and the man" was predicted as, "Which ladder will be used to rescue the cat and the man."</p><p>The accuracy varied form participant to participant. Makin and Chang found that an algorithm based on one participant had a head start on being trained for another, suggesting that training the AI could get easier over time and repeated use. </p><p><em>The Guardian</em> spoke with expert Christian Herff, who found the system impressive for using less than 40 minutes of training data for each participant rather than the far greater amount of time required by other attempts to derive text from neural data. He says, "By doing so they achieve levels of accuracy that haven't been achieved so far."</p><p>Previous attempts to derive speech from neural activity focused on the phonemes from which spoken words are built, but Makin and Chang focused on the overall words instead. While there are certainly more words than phonemes, and thus this poses a greater challenge, the study says, "the production of any particular phoneme in continuous speech is strongly influenced by the phonemes preceding it, which decreases its distinguishability." To minimize the difficulty of their word-based approach, the spoken sentences used a total of just 250 words.</p>
Through the neural fog<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjkxMDY5MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYwOTgyODY2Mn0.W3MTkTzZcgkERRj3fN_VFtjR_qC1rpse0h-kllA18dQ/img.jpg?width=980" id="6c223" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="b74ddd0c88ddb97d7bcb5b723905a856" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Image source: whitehoune/Shutterstock/Big Think<p>Clearly, though, there's room for improvement. The AI also predicted that "Those musicians harmonize marvelously" was "The spinach was a famous singer." "She wore warm fleecy woolen overalls" was mis-predicted as "The oasis was a mirage." "Those thieves stole thirty jewels" was misconstrued as "Which theatre shows mother goose," while the algorithm predicted the data for "There is chaos in the kitchen" meant "There is is helping him steal a cookie."</p><p>Of course, the vocabulary involved in this research is limited, as are the sentence exemplars. "If you try to go outside the [50 sentences used] the decoding gets much worse," notes Makin, citing the limitations of his study. Another obvious caveat comes from the fact that the AI was trained from sentences spoken aloud by each participant, an impossibility with locked-in patients.</p><p>Still, the research by Makin and Chang is encouraging. Predictions for one of their participants required just a tiny 3% correction. That's actually better than the 5% error rate found in human transcriptions.</p>
Our clever human hands may soon be outdone.
- MIT-affiliated researchers develop a hypersensitive glove that can capture the way in which we handle objects.
- The data captured by the glove can be "learned" by a neural net.
- Smart tactile interaction will be invaluable when A.I.-based robots start to interact with objects — and us.
The STAG<p>The "scalable tactile glove," or "STAG," that the CSAIL scientists are using for data-gathering contains 550 tiny pressure sensors. These track and capture how hands interact with objects as they touch, move, pick up, put down, drop, and feel them. The resulting data is fed into a <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Convolutional_neural_network" target="_blank">convolutional neural network</a> for learning. So far, the team has taught their system to recognize 26 everyday objects — among them a soda can, pair of scissors, tennis ball, spoon, pen, and mug — with an impressive 76 percent accuracy rate. The STAG system can also accurately predict object's weights plus or minus 60 grams.</p><p>There are other tactile gloves available, but the CSAIL gloves are different. While other versions tend to be very expensive — costing in the thousands of dollars — these are made from just $10 worth of readily available materials. In addition, other gloves typically sport a mingy 50 sensors, and are thus not nearly as sensitive or informative as this glove.</p><p>The STAG is laminated with electrically conductive polymer that perceives changes in resistance as pressure is applied to an object. Woven into the glove are conductive threads that overlap, producing comparative <a href="https://www.quora.com/What-is-meant-by-Delta-in-computer-terms" target="_blank">deltas</a> that allow pairs of them to serve as pressure sensors. When the wearer touches an object, the glove picks up each point of contact as a pressure point.</p>
Touching stuff<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTU2NjE3NS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0MzEwMzU1OX0.MziYVOFa9SEMYGa4sNkV6mQX4vNJqSQcT6Ku0MisJWI/img.jpg?width=980" id="c047d" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="efbc2262a50481c982243806f5f2ff72" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Image source: Jackie Niam/Shutterstock<p>An external circuit creates "tactile maps" of pressure points, brief videos that depict each contact point as a dot sized according to the amount of pressure applied. The 26 objects assessed so far were mapped out to some 135,000 video frames that show dots growing and shrinking at different points on the hand. That raw dataset had to be massaged in a few ways for optimal recognition by the neural network. (A separate dataset of around 11,600 frames was developed for weight prediction.) </p><p>In addition to capturing pressure information, the researchers also measured the manner in which a hand's joints interact while handling an object. Certain relationships turn out to be predictable: When someone engages the middle joint of their index finger, for example, they seldom use their thumb. On the other hand (no pun intended), using the index and middle-fingertips always means that the thumb will be involved. "We quantifiably show for the first time," says Sundaram, "that if I'm using one part of my hand, how likely I am to use another part of my hand."</p>
Feelings<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTU2NjE3OS9vcmlnaW4uZ2lmIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1Njc4MDU3MX0.2dbfMcuASiFaXnTjG__mSIl1lVaHRvLSnWybykSf1bo/img.gif?width=980" id="0ff2d" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8bcc24be4effae6e27baceeef6eb6619" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />Giphy<p>The type of convolutional neural network that learned the team's tactile maps is typically used for classifying images, and it's able to associate patterns with specific objects so long as it has adequate data regarding the many ways in which an object may be handled.</p><p>The hope is that the insights gathered by the CSAIL researchers' STAG can eventually be conveyed to sensors on robot joints, allowing them to touch and feel much as we do. The result? You'll be able to vigorously shake hands with an automaton without getting your hand crushed.</p>
Neuroscience is working to conquer some of the human body's cruelest conditions: Paralysis, brain disease, and schizophrenia.
- Neuroscience and engineering are uniting in mind-blowing ways that will drastically improve the quality of life for people with conditions like epilepsy, paralysis or schizophrenia.
- Researchers have developed a brain-computer interface the size of a baby aspirin that can restore mobility to people with paralysis or amputated limbs. It rewires neural messages from the brain's motor cortex to a robotic arm, or reroutes it to the person's own muscles.
- Deep brain stimulation is another wonder of neuroscience that can effectively manage brain conditions like epilepsy, Parkinson's, and may one day mitigate schizophrenia so people can live normal, independent lives.
A balanced discussion of the realities, the mythologies, and the concerns surrounding cutting-edge brain research.
- A new film, I AM HUMAN, takes a comprehensive look at the realities of neurotechnology today.
- The film follows three patients for whom experimental treatment may be the best option.
- Experts weigh in on the difficulties and the promise of neurotech.
Bill, Anne, and Stephen<p>One of the great hopes for brain research, of course, is that we'll discover the mechanisms behind brain disorders and learn how they can be cured. The World Health Organization has <a href="https://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2007/pr04/en/" target="_blank">estimated</a> that about 1 in 6 people have a brain disorder of some sort — that's a billion-plus people. As our visionaries fuel our imaginations regarding the eventual possibilities, it's easy to forget there are people here and now for whom the restorative potential of brain technology is no sci-fi daydream — it's a source of hope that their health can be restored. As doctors and technicians embark on this journey, they're accompanied by people you'd never imagine meeting at the cutting edge. People for whom such wildly experimental therapies are their best, and maybe only, hope.</p><p><em>I AM HUMAN</em> introduces us to three such people. It's in following them through their procedures that we see the latest technologies being explored. Our emotional investment in this brave trio viscerally reminds us of the stakes involved. </p> <ul> <li><em>Bill</em> recalls, "I was riding a bicycle in a charity event. It was raining really badly and I was following a mail truck. And then all of a sudden, it stopped and I didn't." A tetraplegic, Bill has no feeling below his mid-chest and longs to be able to one day regain enough movement simply to feed himself without assistance.</li> <li><em>Anne</em> has Parkinson's disease. "I'm not really sure what's happening in my brain. Anxiety. Insomnia. Paralysis," says Anne. In addition to her fear of becoming nothing but a burden to her family as her symptoms worsen, "One of the Parkinson's symptoms I was always afraid of was that you couldn't smile and when you smiled you had a stony expression," she says. "It's hard to connect with people. I'm just way too exhausted and way too disorganized mentally to be with people the way I used to."</li><li><em>Stephen</em> was born with a condition he knew nothing about until his world world turned white: " When I lost my vision, the whole world collapsed." He lives alone, aided by his sister, with whom he's close, helping him get through life. "I just miss being independent."</li></ul>
The challenge of the human brain<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTQwNDI3My9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxOTc1NzY0Mn0.Q2iWN807837ClOVS9aqfKyWiqTNaq7TElTVIywEUccA/img.jpg?width=980" id="26525" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="6e7eefcd86028114191040c534b0506e" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Connective ports provide access to electrodes implanted in Bill's brain.
Image source: Luca del Puppo<p>None of the many experts interviewed in <em>I AM HUMAN</em> believe that a fundamental understanding is imminent of that three-pound object that has so much to do with who we are. Southern tells<em> Big Think</em> that, "The one consistent thing I've learned about a lot of neuroscientists is they have a very sober and humble view of just how complex and difficult of a problem they are tackling."</p><p>The current estimate is that the brain contains 100 billions neurons. As neuroscientist <a href="https://www.nicolelislab.net" target="_blank">Miguel Nicolelis</a> notes, "100 billion was the old estimate of the number of galaxies in the universe." And even that number doesn't convey the true mathematical complexity involved. <a href="https://www.eagleman.com" target="_blank">David Eagleman</a>, also a neuroscientist, says that each of those neurons "is as complicated as the city of Los Angeles. It's connecting to 10,000 of its neighbors — so you have, you know, 500 trillion connections" to identify if you're trying to understand the human brain. Computer scientist <a href="http://rameznaam.com" target="_blank">Ramez Naam</a> says it simply: "The brain is the most complicated object we've ever encountered in nature."</p><p>It's also a black box. Alongside each movement we make are lightning-fast instructions exchanged between these many neurons in some internal language we don't speak. Researchers use a range of technologies to eavesdrop on the brain's chatter — as Southern says, "You have methods like EEG, which uses electrical impulses to read brain activity; deep-brain electrodes also use electricity. But then you've got magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to read blood flow and sound waves through ultrasound. Of course, the non-invasive methods are more palatable. I'm sure that soon in the future, neuroscientists will see all of our methods now as crude."</p><p>Just as daunting, when neuroscientists attempt to manipulate individual neurons, the precision required is astounding, with each procedure a white-knuckle procedure. Surgeon <a href="https://www.uhnresearch.ca/researcher/andres-m-lozano" target="_blank">Andres Lozano</a> tells the filmmakers, "This is a game where you have to be within one millimeter. That one millimeter means a difference between success and failure."</p><p>Or stumbling into another area of the brain. One doctor told the filmmakers of a case in which an interface was implanted into the hypothalamus of a patient weighing 420 pounds "to see if they could regulate hunger or appetite." No dice. On the other hand, "To their surprise, the patient had vivid flashes of memory from 30 years earlier. When they left the stimulator on for a period of time, at a lower current, the patient had huge increases in memory capacity and being able to remember lists of words." </p><p>So for all of the fever-dreams of any-time-now cyber-brains, neurotech investor <a href="https://bryanjohnson.co" target="_blank">Bryan Johnson</a> offers a reality check: "It's extraordinarily difficult to make breakthroughs in neuroscience. Scientists are tackling these really complicated problems, trying to do things that other people consider to be impossible. And it makes it both an extremely exciting time but also, it's daunting because there is no clear path to success."</p>
Visions of the neurotech future<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTQwNDI3Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYwNzE1OTM0OX0.47xKyM4N3MMuHdorByaWE0DleGhngmpbYi5RbwvQuFo/img.jpg?width=980" id="53858" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="74473324dd365ebb237b16c18d1e81e3" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Anne must remain conscious during her deep brain surgery.
Image source: Joel Froome, ACS<p>The film presents' a range of advocates' visions of the possibilities should we finally be able to master the workings of the brain.</p><p>"We are about to enter into the most consequential revolution in the history of the human race," says Johnson, "where we can take control of our cognitive evolution. If we can make breakthroughs in the brain, we can overcome our biological limitations. We can reject the things that stop us from moving forward. My hope is that we get to a point in tech advancement that we're not limited by our technology, we're empowered by it, so it's a matter of choice of what we want to become."</p><p>While Southern says coverage of research is often focused on the enhancement of people to be "smarter, better, faster," she suggests that this may merely be a reflection of "our own sort-of Western bias to favor productivity and efficiency. But perhaps in other Eastern cultures they would orient the use of an interface to induce greater states of calm or create more empathy."</p><p>Johnson offers up how this could work: "Imagine I had a tool to interface with my brain where I could walk a mile in someone else's shoes. What if I could feel what it was like to be you? What if I could understand your contextual framework? What if I understand your memories and your emotions? Would that change the way we deal with each other? The way we cooperate, the way we make decisions?" Or, he adds, "Would that change our creative ability?" </p>
Philosophical question arise<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTQwNDI4My9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyODQ3MDkxMX0.R8FJ-A8HEG4AbpDI9Nt_nzRvY1-orJTw_8Jvo_MIgKY/img.jpg?width=980" id="690eb" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="699ac91e65cc40fd08008aff033e7bc7" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Retinal implants such as Stephen's are created in Second Sight's lab in Sylmar, CA.
Image source: Credit: Joel Froome, ACS<p>Of course, not everyone is embracing neurotechnology. According to a recent <a href="https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/09/26/americans-wary-of-using-chip-implants-to-boost-brain-power-for-the-healthy/" target="_blank">Pew study</a> for example, people are more worried than enthusiastic when it comes to brain chip implants designed to boost a person's natural abilities — only 34% would be interested in getting one. (About half are okay with implants' use for therapeutic value.)</p><p>It's not just a fear of change — there are genuine philosophical and ethical issues. As Naam says in the film, "As we have this ability to change who we are, change our personality, what's at the core of us? What does that do to our sense of where we belong in the universe?"</p><p>Professor of philosophy and law <a href="https://law.duke.edu/fac/farahany/" target="_blank">Nita Farahany</a> sums up the question this way: "If we start tinkering with the brain, if we start changing it….What does that mean? Are we about to fundamentally change what it means to be human? And if so, are we okay with that?" Seeing that, "We're at the moment where there are a lot of very rapidly emerging technologies, and brain computer interfaces are starting to become part of mainstream society,"' she warns that we'd better start figuring out where we want all this research to go before it's too late.</p><p>Southern tells us, "My biggest concern around the ethics is the lack of basic knowledge that we have as a society about science and tech. Scientists are so great at science, but sometimes lack the time or ability to connect that information to a larger audience. I think information is power, and the first step is education."</p><p>As far as the ethics of experimenting on living patients goes, the decisions of Bill, Anne, and Stephen to participate reflect their lack of better options. "People are worried, you know, 'Will I be the same, coming out, as I was going in?'" says Lozano. "There's a tremendous amount of anxiety about whether they are going to change in their outlook, in their personality, in their motivation, in their drive. You know, this <em>is</em> brain surgery. It's invasive. It is a scary thought."</p><p>The doctors involved, says Southern, are "incredibly conscientious about the impact of their work on the world, and those that we worked with on the film have a real drive to help people and improve lives. I don't think many people would argue that restoring function to someone with a disease as a resort of a brain interface is a bad thing. The ethical questions come down the road from there, when adoption becomes more widespread and normalized and people start to seek 'cosmetic' applications of these currently medical devices."</p>