Will Lifestreaming Become a Fact of Life?

Question: What is “lifestreaming,” and are modern social networking tools making it universal?

David Gelernter: The first part of your question, lifestreaming is, we defined it and first implemented it back in the mid 1990’s, was a time-based versus space or surface-based organization of information. The idea was that every electronic asset you had, every piece of information, whether it was an email or instant message, whether it was a file or spreadsheet, whether it was a photo or am MP3, it would appear in a single time ordered stream that mirrored the evolution of your life. So, in principle the first thing on the stream would be my birth certificate, a little electronic version of that, my parents would put my school records, health records, whatever of their child onto the stream. And the stream continues to flow forward through time. I can deal with the – the future is available to me as well as the past. I can search in the past to find whatever I want and everything is fully indexed. If, when I schedule things when I know things are coming up, I put them in the future. When I have something I need to return to that I don’t have time for now, I put it in the future.

And together with that, we had an interface. We thought it was important not to only make use of the surface of the screen, but to present displays in depth to make use of the virtual depth of the screen. So, I wasn’t looking at a surface, I was looking through a window through an arbitrarily large information landscape. So, instead of the mouse just moving a cursor over the surface, it would be a robot vehicle moving through free space, or some arbitrary space.

But the basic idea was to assemble just a chronological timeline heterogeneous with just absolutely everything on it. We have seen it commercialized in two different ways. One way, the one that I’m allowed to talk about; I no longer own these patents. The patents have changed hands and the patents are now subject to an enormous lawsuit against Apple, which is not mine because I don’t own the patent, I’m told it is the largest lawsuit in patent history. Apple took these ideas; I’m not in a position to say they stole them, I don’t know if they did or not legally, but these ideas are the basis of Apple’s cover flow of the way they display originally songs on iTunes. Cover Flow has now become a standard way of displaying files on virtually all Apple platforms; Spotlight, which allows you to find files, not by name or folder, but by content. And Time Machine, which is a series of archive things.

Without commenting on the legal aspects, which I’m not capable of doing, those are lifestreams and there are other companies that have done similar things. That makes me angry personally, not because of the money, but because of the deliberate failure to acknowledge work that we would have made freely available as academics and that companies will not acknowledge because there is so much money involved. 

At the same time, on the networks, there are thousands of groups that are building lifestreams, or lifestreaming for themselves in their own way. We’d love to see this activity. There’s a lifestream blog talking about all the different lifestreams. So, that’s great. And for that matter, we’d like to see Apple do it too. But when there are large companies that work on it, which is also the case with Friend Feed, with the event stream on Facebook, which is true of the AOL B-boast stream, which they actually call a lifestream, or lifestreaming. It’s not as if we want to stop that activity – shut it down, but we’d like to see credit where credit is due. Not just to me, or mainly to me, but to graduates who’ve actually built the software, worked tremendously hard, published the papers, put them in – you know, made them available, and we’d like to see credit awarded.

The concept that David Gelernter defined in the 1990s is fast becoming universal.

7 fascinating UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Here are 7 often-overlooked World Heritage Sites, each with its own history.

Photo by Raunaq Patel on Unsplash
Culture & Religion
  • UNESCO World Heritage Sites are locations of high value to humanity, either for their cultural, historical, or natural significance.
  • Some are even designated as World Heritage Sites because humans don't go there at all, while others have felt the effects of too much human influence.
  • These 7 UNESCO World Heritage Sites each represent an overlooked or at-risk facet of humanity's collective cultural heritage.
Keep reading Show less

Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Big Think
Sponsored by Lumina Foundation

Upvote/downvote each of the videos below!

As you vote, keep in mind that we are looking for a winner with the most engaging social venture pitch - an idea you would want to invest in.

Keep reading Show less