Tag Archives: neocortex

Powerful infant.

In previous blogs (such as this one), I have discussed the subject of virtual reality. Yesterday, I tried it. The motivation for my visit to The Advanced Computing Center for the Arts and Design (ACCAD), Ohio State’s cutting-edge technology and arts center, was a field trip for my junior Collaborative Studio design students. Their project this semester is to design a future system that uses emerging technologies. It is hard to imagine that in the near-future VR will be commonplace. We stepped inside the a large, empty performance stage rigged with a dozen motion capture cameras that could track your movements throughout virtual space. We looked at an experimental animation in which we could stand amidst the characters and another work-in-progress that allowed us to step inside a painting. It wasn’t my first time in a Google cardboard device where I could look around at a 360-degree world (sensed by my phone’s gyroscope), but on an empty stage where you could walk amongst virtual characters, the experience took on a new dimension—literally. I found myself concerned about bumping into things that weren’t there and even getting a bit dizzy. (I did not let on in front of my students).

I immediately saw an application for The Lightstream Chronicles and realized that I could load up one of my scenes from the graphic novel, bring it over to ACCAD’s mocap studio and step into this virtual world that I have created. I build all of my scenes (including architecture) to scale, furnish the rooms and interiors and provide for full 360º viewing. Building sets this way allows me to revisit them at any time, follow my characters around or move the camera to get a better angle without having to add walls that I might not have anticipated using. After the demo, I was pretty excited. It became apparent that this technology will enable me to see what my characters see, and stand beside them. It’s a bit mind-blowing. Now the question becomes which scene to use. Any ideas?

Clearly VR is in its infancy, but it is a very powerful infant. The future seems exciting, and I can see why people can get caught up in what the promises could be. Of course, I have to be the one to wonder at what this powerful infant will grow up to be.

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Logical succession, the final installment.

For the past couple of weeks, I have been discussing the idea posited by Ray Kurzweil, that we will have linked our neocortex to the Cloud by 2030. That’s less than 15 years, so I have been asking how that could come to pass with so many technological obstacles in the way. When you make a prediction of that sort, I believe you need a bit more than faith in the exponential curve of “accelerating returns.”

This week I’m not going to take issue with an enormous leap forward in the nanobot technology to accomplish such a feat. Nor am I going to question the vastly complicated tasks of connecting to the neocortex and extracting anything coherent, but also assembling memories, and consciousness and in turn, beaming it to the Cloud. Instead, I’m going to pose the question of, “Why we would want to do this in the first place?”

According to Kurzweil, in a talk last year at Singularity University,

“We’re going to be funnier. We’re going to be sexier. We’re going to be better at expressing loving sentiment…” 1

Another brilliant futurist, and friend of Ray, Peter Diamandis includes these additional benefits:

• Brain to Brain Communication – aka Telepathy
• Instant Knowledge – download anything, complex math, how to fly a plane, or speak another language
• Access More Powerful Computing – through the Cloud
• Tap Into Any Virtual World – no visor, no controls. Your neocortex thinks you are there.
• And more, including and extended immune system, expandable and searchable memories, and “higher-order existence.”2

As Kurzweil explains,

“So as we evolve, we become closer to God. Evolution is a spiritual process. There is beauty and love and creativity and intelligence in the world — it all comes from the neocortex. So we’re going to expand the brain’s neocortex and become more godlike.”1

The future sounds quite remarkable. My issue lies with Koestler’s “ghost in the machine,” or what I call humankind’s uncanny ability to foul things up. Diamandis’ list could easily spin this way:

  • Brain-To-Brain hacking – reading others thoughts
  • Instant Knowledge – to deceive, to steal, to subvert, or hijack.
  • Access to More Powerful Computing – to gain the advantage or any of the previous list.
  • Tap Into Any Virtual World – experience the criminal, the evil, the debauched and not go to jail for it.

You get the idea. Diamandis concludes, “If this future becomes reality, connected humans are going to change everything. We need to discuss the implications in order to make the right decisions now so that we are prepared for the future.”

Nevertheless, we race forward. We discovered this week that “A British researcher has received permission to use a powerful new genome-editing technique on human embryos, even though researchers throughout the world are observing a voluntary moratorium on making changes to DNA that could be passed down to subsequent generations.”3 That would be CrisprCas9.

It was way back in 1968 that Stewart Brand introduced The Whole Earth Catalog with, “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.”

Which lab is working on that?

 

1. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/ray-kurzweil-nanobots-brain-godlike_us_560555a0e4b0af3706dbe1e2
2. http://singularityhub.com/2015/10/12/ray-kurzweils-wildest-prediction-nanobots-will-plug-our-brains-into-the-web-by-the-2030s/
3. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/02/health/crispr-gene-editing-human-embryos-kathy-niakan-britain.html?_r=0
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Logical succession, Part 2.

Last week the topic was Ray Kurzweil’s prediction that by 2030, not only would we send nanobots into our bloodstream by way of the capillaries, but they would target the neocortex, set up shop, connect to our brains and beam our thoughts and other contents into the Cloud (somewhere). Kurzweil is no crackpot. He is a brilliant scientist, inventor and futurist with an 86 percent accuracy rate on his predictions. Nevertheless, and perhaps presumptuously, I took issue with his prediction, but only because there was an absence of a logical succession. According to Coates,

“…the single most important way in which one comes to an understanding of the future, whether that is working alone, in a team, or drawing on other people… is through plausible reasoning, that is, putting together what you know to create a path leading to one or several new states or conditions, at a distance in time” (Coates 2010, p. 1436).1

Kurzweil’s argument is based heavily on his Law of Accelerating Returns that says (essentially), “We won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate).” The rest, in the absence of more detail, must be based on faith. Faith, perhaps in the fact that we are making considerable progress in architecting nanobots or that we see promising breakthroughs in mind-to-computer communication. But what seems to be missing is the connection part. Not so much connecting to the brain, but beaming the contents somewhere. Another question, why, also comes to mind, but I’ll get to that later.

There is something about all of this technological optimism that furrows my brow. A recent article in WIRED helped me to articulate this skepticism. The rather lengthy article chronicled the story of neurologist Phil Kennedy, who like Kurzweil believes that the day is soon approaching when we will connect or transfer our brains to other things. I can’t help but call to mind what one time Fed manager Alan Greenspan called, “irrational exuberance.” The WIRED article tells of how Kennedy nearly lost his mind by experimenting on himself (including rogue brain surgery in Belize) to implant a host of hardware that would transmit his thoughts. This highly invasive method, the article says is going out of style, but the promise seems to be the same for both scientists: our brains will be infinitely more powerful than they are today.

Writing in WIRED columnist Daniel Engber makes an astute statement. During an interview with Dr. Kennedy, they attempted to watch a DVD of Kennedy’s Belize brain surgery. The DVD player and laptop choked for some reason and after repeated attempts they were able to view Dr. Kennedy’s naked brain undergoing surgery. Reflecting on the mundane struggles with technology that preceded the movie, Engber notes, “It seems like technology always finds new and better ways to disappoint us, even as it grows more advanced every year.”

Dr. Kennedy’s saga was all about getting thoughts into text, or even synthetic speech. Today, the invasive method of sticking electrodes into your cerebral putty has been replaced by a kind of electrode mesh that lays on top of the cortex underneath the skull. They call this less invasive. Researchers have managed to get some results from this, albeit snippets with numerous inaccuracies. They say it will be decades, and one of them points out that even Siri still gets it wrong more than 30 years after the debut of speech recognition technology.
So, then it must be Kurzweil’s exponential law that still provides near-term hope for these scientists. As I often quote Tobias Revell, “Someone somewhere in a lab is playing with your future.”

There remain a few more nagging questions for me. What is so feeble about our brains that we need them to be infinitely more powerful? When is enough, enough? And, what could possibly go wrong with this scenario?

Next week.

 

1. Coates, J.F., 2010. The future of foresight—A US perspective. Technological Forecasting & Social Change 77, 1428–1437.
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Logical succession, please.

In this blog, I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that of all the people I talk (or rant) about most is Ray Kurzweil. That is not all that surprising to me since he is possibly the most visible and vociferous and visionary proponent of the future. Let me say in advance that I have great respect for Ray. A Big Think article three years ago claimed that
“… of the 147 predictions that Kurzweil has made since the 1990’s, fully 115 of them have turned out to be correct, and another 12 have turned out to be “essentially correct” (off by a year or two), giving his predictions a stunning 86% accuracy rate.”

Last year Kurzweil predicted that
“ In the 2030s… we are going to send nano-robots into the brain (via capillaries) that will provide full immersion virtual reality from within the nervous system and will connect our neocortex to the cloud. Just like how we can wirelessly expand the power of our smartphones 10,000-fold in the cloud today, we’ll be able to expand our neocortex in the cloud.”1

This prediction caught my attention as not only quite unusual but, considering that it is only 15 years away, incredibly ambitious. Since 2030 is right around the corner, I wanted to see if anyone has been able to connect to the neocortex yet. Before I could do that, however, I needed to find out what exactly the neocortex is. According to Science Daily, it is the top layer of the brain (which is made up of six layers). “It is involved in higher functions such as sensory perception, generation of motor commands, spatial reasoning, conscious thought, and in humans, language.”2 According to Kurzweil, “There is beauty, love and creativity and intelligence in the world, and it all comes from the neocortex.”3

OK, so on to how we connect. Kurzweil predicts nanobots will do this though he doesn’t say how. Nanobots, however, are a reality. Scientists have designed nanorobotic origami, which can fold itself into shapes on the molecular level and molecular vehicles that are drivable. Without additional detail, I can only surmise that once our nano-vehicles have assembled themselves, they will drive to the highest point and set up an antenna and, violå, we will be linked.

 

Neurons of the Neocortex stained with golgi’s methode - Photograph: Benjamin Bollmann
Neurons of the Neocortex stained with golgi’s methode – Photograph: Benjamin Bollmann

I don’t let my students get away with predictions like that, so why should Kurzweil? Predictions should engage more than just existing technologies (such as nanotech and brain mapping); they need demonstrate plausible breadcrumbs that make such a prediction legitimate. Despite the fact that Ray gives a great TED talk, it still didn’t answer those questions. I’m a big believer that technological convergence can foster all kinds of unpredictable possibilities, but the fact that scientists are working on a dozen different technological breakthroughs in nanoscience, bioengineering, genetics, and even mapping the connections of the neocortex4, doesn’t explain how we will tap into it or transmit it.

If anyone has a theory on this, please join the discussion.

1. http://bigthink.com/endless-innovation/why-ray-kurzweils-predictions-are-right-86-of-the-time
2. http://www.sciencedaily.com/terms/neocortex.htm
3. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-3257517/Human-2-0-Nanobot-implants-soon-connect-brains-internet-make-super-intelligent-scientist-claims.html#ixzz3xtrHUFKP
4. http://www.neuroscienceblueprint.nih.gov/connectome/

Photo from: http://connectomethebook.com/?portfolio=neurons-of-the-neocortex

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Harmless.

 

Once again, it has been a week where it is difficult to decide what present-future I should talk about. If you are a follower of The Lightstream Chronicles, then you know I am trying to write about more than science fiction. The story is indeed a cyberpunk-ish, crime-thriller, drama intended to entertain, but it is also a means of scrutinizing a future where all the problems we imagine that technology will solve often create new ones, subtle ones that end up re-engineering us. Many of these technologies start out a curiosities, entertainments, or diversions that are picked-up by early-adopting technophiles and end up, gradually in the mainstream.

One of these curiosities is the idea of wearable tech. Wristbands watches and other monitors are designed to keep track of what we do, remind us to do something, or now in increasing popularity, remind us not to do something. One company, Chaotic Moon is working on a series of tattoo-like monitors. These are temporary, press-on circuits that use the conductivity of your skin to help them work and transmit. They are called Tech Tats and self-classified as bio-wearables. In addition to their functional properties, they also have an aesthetic objective—a kind of tattoo. Still somewhat primitive (technologically and artistically) they, nevertheless, fall into this category of harmless diversions.

techtats
Monitoring little Susi’s temperature.

Of course, Chaotic Moon is hoping (watch the video) that they will become progressively more sophisticated, and their popularity will grow from both  as both tech and fashion. Perhaps they should be called bio-fashion. If no one has already claimed this, then you saw it here first, folks. If you watch the video from Chaotic Moon you’ll see this promise that these things (in a future iteration) will be used for transactions and should be considered safer than carrying around lots of credit cards. By the way, thieves are already hacking the little chip in your credit card that is supposed to be so much safer than the old non-chipped version. Sorry, I digress.

My brand of design fiction looks at these harmless diversions and asks, “What next?”, and “What if?”. I think most futurists agree that these kinds of implants will eventually move inside the body through simple injections or, in future versions, constructed inside via nanobots. Under my scrutiny, two interesting things are at work here. First there is the idea of wearing and then implanting technology which clearly brings us across a transhuman threshold, and the idea of fashion as the subtle carrier of harmlessness and adoptive lure. You can probably imagine where I’m going with that.

Next up is VR. Virtual reality is something I blog about fairly often. In The Lightstream Chronicles, it has reached a level of sophistication that surpasses game controllers boxes and hardware. You simply dial in your neocortex to the Lightstream, (the future Internet) and you are literally wherever you want to be and doing whatever your imagination can conjure up.  In the story, I more or less predict that this total immersion becomes seriously addictive. Check out the prologue episodes to Season 4.

Thanks to one of my students for pointing out this video called the Uncanny Valley.

“I feel like I can be myself and not go to jail for it.”
“I feel like I can be myself and not go to jail for it.”

You can watch it on Vimeo. Chat up the possible idea of any detrimental effects of video games with a gamer and you’ll almost certainly hear the word harmless.

These are the design futures that I think about. What do you think?

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