Hybrid Intelligence: Coupling AI and the Human Brain

Even our most imaginative expectations of AI are only primitive — but as neuroscience understands the brain more deeply, it will unlock the full potential of hybrid intelligence.

Edward Boyden: Humans and machines have been merging for thousands of years. Right now I’m wearing shoes, I have a microphone on my jacket, we all probably used our phones at least once today… And we communicate with the augmentation of all sorts of amplification and even translation technologies: You can speak into a machine, and it’ll translate the words you’re saying in nearly real time. 

So I think what might be different in the years to come is a matter of degree, not a matter of kind. One concept that I think is emerging is what I like to call the brain coprocessor, a device that intimately interacts with the brain. It can upload information to the brain and download information from it. Imagine that you could have a technology that could replace lost memories or augment decision making or boost attention or cognition. To do that though we have to understand how the brain works at a very deep level. 

Although over a third of a million patients have had brain implants or neural implants that stimulate the nervous system, so far they’ve operated in an open-loop fashion. That is, they drive activity in the brain, but not in a fully-responsive fashion. What we want to do is to have bi-directional communication to the brain: Can you read and write information continuously, and supply—maybe through coupling these interfaces to silicon computers— exactly the information the brain needs?

My hope is that over the next five to ten years we’re going to get deep insights thanks to our technologies into how brain circuits compute, and that will drive the design of these interfaces so that we can deliver information to the brain and record information from the brain using the natural language of the brain – reading and writing information in a way that augments, for example, the number of things you can hold in your mind at once. Or the ability to recall things nearly perfectly, which is, you know, not an ability so different from looking something up on a search engine on your phone, right?

So I think what’s going to happen is a continuation of this trend, and I think a lot of people like to talk about artificial intelligence right now. Artificial intelligence as it stands is based on a lot of concepts that go back many decades that build from some very simple observations about the brain.

What might A.I. do though, once we have incredibly deep insights into the nature of creativity and ethics (and other things that the human brain seems to be uniquely equipped for)? 

I think once we start to couple artificial intelligence to the brain that can really augment these uniquely human capabilities, it leads to a new era of what you might call “hybrid intelligence”.

So it won’t just be A.I. running away in some positive-feedback loop; It won’t be humans upgrading themselves in the absence of coupling to the world; But I think it will yield a new kind of symbiosis. And I think that’s probably the best possible path, and it’s also already (if you look at how people operate in the world) what seems to be one of the most prevalent models.

 

Edward Boyden is a Hertz Foundation Fellow and recipient of the prestigious Hertz Foundation Grant for graduate study in the applications of the physical, biological and engineering sciences. A professor of Biological Engineering and Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT, Edward Boyden explains how humanity is only at its infancy in merging with machines. His work is leading him towards the development of a "brain co-processor", a device that interacts intimately with the brain to upload and download information to and from it, augmenting human capabilities in memory storage, decision making, and cognition. The first step, however, is understanding the brain on a much deeper level. With the support of the Fannie and John Hertz Foundation, Ed Boyden pursued a PhD in neurosciences from Stanford University.


The Hertz Foundation mission is to provide unique financial and fellowship support to the nation's most remarkable PhD students in the hard sciences. Hertz Fellowships are among the most prestigious in the world, and the foundation has invested over $200 million in Hertz Fellows since 1963 (present value) and supported over 1,100 brilliant and creative young scientists, who have gone on to become Nobel laureates, high-ranking military personnel, astronauts, inventors, Silicon Valley leaders, and tenured university professors. For more information, visit hertzfoundation.org.

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How do 80-year-old 'super-agers' have the brains of 20-somethings?

Most elderly individuals' brains degrade over time, but some match — or even outperform — younger individuals on cognitive tests.

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At some point in our 20s or 30s, something starts to change in our brains. They begin to shrink a little bit. The myelin that insulates our nerves begins to lose some of its integrity. Fewer and fewer chemical messages get sent as our brains make fewer neurotransmitters.

As we get older, these processes increase. Brain weight decreases by about 5 percent per decade after 40. The frontal lobe and hippocampus — areas related to memory encoding — begin to shrink mainly around 60 or 70. But this is just an unfortunate reality; you can't always be young, and things will begin to break down eventually. That's part of the reason why some individuals think that we should all hope for a life that ends by 75, before the worst effects of time sink in.

But this might be a touch premature. Some lucky individuals seem to resist these destructive forces working on our brains. In cognitive tests, these 80-year-old "super-agers" perform just as well as individuals in their 20s.

Just as sharp as the whippersnappers

To find out what's behind the phenomenon of super-agers, researchers conducted a study examining the brains and cognitive performances of two groups: 41 young adults between the ages of 18 and 35 and 40 older adults between the ages of 60 and 80.

First, the researchers administered a series of cognitive tests, like the California Verbal Learning Test (CVLT) and the Trail Making Test (TMT). Seventeen members of the older group scored at or above the mean scores of the younger group. That is, these 17 could be considered super-agers, performing at the same level as the younger study participants. Aside from these individuals, members of the older group tended to perform less well on the cognitive tests. Then, the researchers scanned all participants' brains in an fMRI, paying special attention to two portions of the brain: the default mode network and the salience network.

The default mode network is, as its name might suggest, a series of brain regions that are active by default — when we're not engaged in a task, they tend to show higher levels of activity. It also appears to be very related to thinking about one's self, thinking about others, as well as aspects of memory and thinking about the future.

The salience network is another network of brain regions, so named because it appears deeply linked to detecting and integrating salient emotional and sensory stimuli. (In neuroscience, saliency refers to how much an item "sticks out"). Both of these networks are also extremely important to overall cognitive function, and in super-agers, the activity in these networks was more coordinated than in their peers.

Default Mode Network

Wikimedia Commons

An image of the brain highlighting the regions associated with the default mode network.

How to ensure brain health in old age

While prior research has identified some genetic influences on how "gracefully" the brain ages, there are likely activities that can encourage brain health. "We hope to identify things we can prescribe for people that would help them be more like a superager," said Bradford Dickerson, one of the researchers in this study, in a statement. "It's not as likely to be a pill as more likely to be recommendations for lifestyle, diet, and exercise. That's one of the long-term goals of this study — to try to help people become superagers if they want to."

To date, there is some preliminary evidence of ways that you can keep your brain younger longer. For instance, more education and a cognitively demanding job predicts having higher cognitive abilities in old age. Generally speaking, the adage of "use it or lose it" appears to hold true; having a cognitively active lifestyle helps to protect your brain in old age. So, it might be tempting to fill your golden years with beer and reruns of CSI, but it's unlikely to help you keep your edge.

Aside from these intuitive ways to keep your brain healthy, regular exercise appears to boost cognitive health in old age, as Dickinson mentioned. Diet is also a protective factor, especially for diets delivering omega-3 fatty acids (which can be found in fish oil), polyphenols (found in dark chocolate!), vitamin D (egg yolks and sunlight), and the B vitamins (meat, eggs, and legumes). There's also evidence that having a healthy social life in old age can protect against cognitive decline.

For many, the physical decline associated with old age is an expected side effect of a life well-lived. But the idea that our intellect will also degrade can be a much scarier reality. Fortunately, the existence of super-agers shows that at the very least, we don't have to accept cognitive decline without a fight.


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