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Erase Memories to Achieve Your Own “Eternal Sunshine”

Question: Why should people be allowed to erase their memories?

Matthew Liao:  So imagine that a drunk driver hits you and you’re… it crushes your leg and you’re completely traumatized by the event and they take you to the hospital and just before your operation they give you a pill to erase your memory of this traumatic event. Or imagine that your fellow soldier and… you’re a soldier and your fellow soldier gets blown up next to you and you’re very traumatized, then again they give you a pill to reduce the trauma of this particular event or imagine that you’re a heroin addict and you are… they give you a drug so that you can forget about your addiction in order to help you with the addiction.  It sounds like something from a movie.  Well, actually we’re getting pretty close to be able to do some of these things.  

So this is what we know now and what we can do now.  Basically memory is a system for storing and recalling experiences.  Our best account of memory right now is as follows.  Basically we experience certain events and a set of... a network of neurons get activated.  The more significant the event, the more... the stronger the connections between the neurons.  When we recall that particular event these neurons get... that network, that particular network gets reactivated again and so this is what we can do to affect, to modify our memories.  One is we can affect it at the storage level when it’s about to get stored, when it is about to get transferred from short term memory to long term memory and the way to do that is to affect the emotional strength of the storing process. So for example, propranolol, the drug, that’s how it works.  It works by weakening that storage process, weakening the emotional strength so that the memory doesn’t get stored into the long term memory.  The other process is through... is by affecting the recall of the memory.  Basically each time you recall a memory, the memory has to reconsolidate itself again and it needs proteins to do that and there… it’s been found that if there is excess protein that can disrupt the reconsolidation process thereby weakening the memory.  

The biggest limitation to memory modification right now is that basically as we have seen the memory is a network of neurons, so that means that basically it’s interconnected and it overlaps with one another, so that there is a danger that if you delete one you can delete other memories, so that is one of the biggest limitations right now.

So suppose you can perfect this technology what are some of the ethical issues?  Well basically memory is a piece of evidence so if you change your memory you can change what you believe to be true about the world and about yourself, so for example a soldier who takes propranolol this may… he may think that he is not... he really doesn’t want to be in a war when in fact, he lusts after the killing or you may believe something about yourself.  You may think that you’re really brave or cowardly or you may think that you’re really altruistic or selfish, but if you take some memory modification drugs you may change what you believe to be true about yourself, but these problems are not so worrying because one thing to remember is that a bit of falsehood might not be so problematic, so if you wanted to believe that you had a nice holiday so that you can feel more relaxed that may be okay as long as you don’t harm anybody.  Another thing to remember is that if the event is so important it’s not really just up to you because even if you can erase the memory in yourself other people will remember it, so even if it affects a bit of falsehood in you it might not affect other people as well.

Okay, so ultimately the point of using these drugs is to increase our personal well-being.  Now there is some obvious constraints to pursuing personal well-being.  One obvious constraint is to... sort of harm to others.  If you want to take these drugs so that you can feel less guilty when you commit a crime obviously this would constitute a harm to others and another constraint is harm to self.  An obvious example of that is if you just wipe all of your memories.  That would be...  In many cases that would be obvious harm to self. But there are also subtler forms of harm to self, self harm such as living in falsehood, affecting the way you react to certain situations morally and also your duties to remember certain things, but ultimately it seems that as long as you don’t harm other people you should be allowed to use these memory modification drugs in order to improve your personal well-being.

Could we ever zap memories using a machine like the one in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind?"

Matthew Liao: Well you saw how they zap it, right? So it’s basically the whole network.  I think you’re zapping the whole network and that’s going to be pretty difficult without zapping other memories, but the way to do it I think is basically if you can get the right cues because basically you cue the memory, so if you can cue it right then only those networks come up and then you zap that then I think you can do it and actually there is some evidence of doing that.

If you look at FMI machines it’s kind of it seems like through correlations they can begin to figure out which part is… you know what people are thinking or what they are you know like when they’re imagining playing tennis, et cetera, et cetera, certain parts of the brain light up. And it seems like if you can get enough consistency, enough of a correlation that this is that particular memory then maybe you can begin to do that, but you’d have to do that many times and get you know a set of allotted correlation and stuff like that.  I think that would be the way to go.

Recorded July 27, 2010

Interviewed by Max Miller

Soon, neuroscientists will be able to use drugs to selectively erase traumatic memories from the brain. NYU bioethicist Matthew Liao thinks we should have the right to modify memories to improve our well-being.

Does conscious AI deserve rights?

If machines develop consciousness, or if we manage to give it to them, the human-robot dynamic will forever be different.

  • Does AI—and, more specifically, conscious AI—deserve moral rights? In this thought exploration, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, ethics and tech professor Joanna Bryson, philosopher and cognitive scientist Susan Schneider, physicist Max Tegmark, philosopher Peter Singer, and bioethicist Glenn Cohen all weigh in on the question of AI rights.
  • Given the grave tragedy of slavery throughout human history, philosophers and technologists must answer this question ahead of technological development to avoid humanity creating a slave class of conscious beings.
  • One potential safeguard against that? Regulation. Once we define the context in which AI requires rights, the simplest solution may be to not build that thing.

A new hydrogel might be strong enough for knee replacements

Duke University researchers might have solved a half-century old problem.

Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images
Technology & Innovation
  • Duke University researchers created a hydrogel that appears to be as strong and flexible as human cartilage.
  • The blend of three polymers provides enough flexibility and durability to mimic the knee.
  • The next step is to test this hydrogel in sheep; human use can take at least three years.
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Hints of the 4th dimension have been detected by physicists

What would it be like to experience the 4th dimension?

Two different experiments show hints of a 4th spatial dimension. Credit: Zilberberg Group / ETH Zürich
Technology & Innovation

Physicists have understood at least theoretically, that there may be higher dimensions, besides our normal three. The first clue came in 1905 when Einstein developed his theory of special relativity. Of course, by dimensions we’re talking about length, width, and height. Generally speaking, when we talk about a fourth dimension, it’s considered space-time. But here, physicists mean a spatial dimension beyond the normal three, not a parallel universe, as such dimensions are mistaken for in popular sci-fi shows.

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Predicting PTSD symptoms becomes possible with a new test

An algorithm may allow doctors to assess PTSD candidates for early intervention after traumatic ER visits.

Image source: camillo jimenez/Unsplash
Technology & Innovation
  • 10-15% of people visiting emergency rooms eventually develop symptoms of long-lasting PTSD.
  • Early treatment is available but there's been no way to tell who needs it.
  • Using clinical data already being collected, machine learning can identify who's at risk.

The psychological scars a traumatic experience can leave behind may have a more profound effect on a person than the original traumatic experience. Long after an acute emergency is resolved, victims of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) continue to suffer its consequences.

In the U.S. some 30 million patients are annually treated in emergency departments (EDs) for a range of traumatic injuries. Add to that urgent admissions to the ED with the onset of COVID-19 symptoms. Health experts predict that some 10 percent to 15 percent of these people will develop long-lasting PTSD within a year of the initial incident. While there are interventions that can help individuals avoid PTSD, there's been no reliable way to identify those most likely to need it.

That may now have changed. A multi-disciplinary team of researchers has developed a method for predicting who is most likely to develop PTSD after a traumatic emergency-room experience. Their study is published in the journal Nature Medicine.

70 data points and machine learning

nurse wrapping patient's arm

Image source: Creators Collective/Unsplash

Study lead author Katharina Schultebraucks of Columbia University's Department Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons says:

"For many trauma patients, the ED visit is often their sole contact with the health care system. The time immediately after a traumatic injury is a critical window for identifying people at risk for PTSD and arranging appropriate follow-up treatment. The earlier we can treat those at risk, the better the likely outcomes."

The new PTSD test uses machine learning and 70 clinical data points plus a clinical stress-level assessment to develop a PTSD score for an individual that identifies their risk of acquiring the condition.

Among the 70 data points are stress hormone levels, inflammatory signals, high blood pressure, and an anxiety-level assessment. Says Schultebraucks, "We selected measures that are routinely collected in the ED and logged in the electronic medical record, plus answers to a few short questions about the psychological stress response. The idea was to create a tool that would be universally available and would add little burden to ED personnel."

Researchers used data from adult trauma survivors in Atlanta, Georgia (377 individuals) and New York City (221 individuals) to test their system.

Of this cohort, 90 percent of those predicted to be at high risk developed long-lasting PTSD symptoms within a year of the initial traumatic event — just 5 percent of people who never developed PTSD symptoms had been erroneously identified as being at risk.

On the other side of the coin, 29 percent of individuals were 'false negatives," tagged by the algorithm as not being at risk of PTSD, but then developing symptoms.

Going forward

person leaning their head on another's shoulder

Image source: Külli Kittus/Unsplash

Schultebraucks looks forward to more testing as the researchers continue to refine their algorithm and to instill confidence in the approach among ED clinicians: "Because previous models for predicting PTSD risk have not been validated in independent samples like our model, they haven't been adopted in clinical practice." She expects that, "Testing and validation of our model in larger samples will be necessary for the algorithm to be ready-to-use in the general population."

"Currently only 7% of level-1 trauma centers routinely screen for PTSD," notes Schultebraucks. "We hope that the algorithm will provide ED clinicians with a rapid, automatic readout that they could use for discharge planning and the prevention of PTSD." She envisions the algorithm being implemented in the future as a feature of electronic medical records.

The researchers also plan to test their algorithm at predicting PTSD in people whose traumatic experiences come in the form of health events such as heart attacks and strokes, as opposed to visits to the emergency department.