Friday, October 3, 2008

Head Cheese Gone Wild

I was plenty pleased when little porridges of cultured neurons took their first baby steps towards running flight simulators or operating robots in the lab; I was downright smug when folks noticed that I'd got there first. Now, though, researchers from the Missouri University of Science and Technology are planning on putting head cheeses in charge of real-world power grids in half a dozen countries, including China and Mexico (but not including, interestingly enough, the United States). According to this article, "…these networks could control not only power systems, but also other complex systems, such as traffic-control systems or global financial networks."

Traffic control systems. Financial networks. Being run by meaty neuron networks whose thought processes are, by definition, opaque. For real.

I wrote a trilogy about just this scenario. It did not end well (just ask Kirkus). Maybe someone could pass a copy on to this Venayagamoorthy dude.

Next up, two papers in today's issue of Science: one on the evolution of religious belief, the other on the perception of imaginary patterns under conditions of perceived helplessness. These dovetail nicely with some slightly staler findings on the arrogance of stupid people, the inherent fear responses of political conservatives, and last night's competing North-American neocon/centrist debates. But I have to actually watch those debates before I blog on that. (I was out at Don Giovanni last night. I didn't even know that they had dry-ice smoke machines in 1787…)

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Friday, August 22, 2008

A Plague of Angels (or, Rorschach in your living room!)

Well, this is interesting. Intel has leapfrogged MIT on the whole magnetic-resonance schtick. They can wirelessly light a 60-watt bulb from almost a meter away, wasting only 25% of the broadcast energy in transit. This is a good thing, because "…the human body is not affected by magnetic fields," Josh Smith from Intel reassures us. "It is affected by electric fields. So what we are doing is transmitting energy using the magnetic field not the electric field." And I have to admit, it's heartening that the whole zapped-by-the-arc problem that electrocuted so many early-adopters seems to be a thing of the past.

I just have two teensy, niggling questions.

First up, in a world in which Peak Oil also seems to be a thing of the past — and in which the inextricably-linked issues of energy security and climate change grow increasingly troubling to anyone who isn't a) Michael Crichton and/or b) convinced that the Rapture will spirit them away and save their asses before the bill comes due — do we really want to be celebrating a technology that wastes a quarter of its kick before it even reaches its destination? Yes, the technology will improve over time; yes, efficiency will increase. But we're still talking about an omnidirectional broadcast here; even if the bulk of the signal strength passes in one direction, there's still going to be at least some wasted energy going out along the whole 360.

More to the point though, is Smith's confident assertions that "the human body is not affected by magnetic fields". Maybe he's talking about a different model of human body. Maybe the model he's talking about comes with a Faraday cage built into the skull, and is not susceptible to the induction of religious rapture1, selective blindness2, or the impaired speech and memory effects3,4 that transcranial magnetic stimulation can provoke in our obsolete ol' baseline brains.

Or maybe, once Intel gets its way and this "worldchanging" technology saturates our living space with directed magnetic fields, we'll all just start seeing things, bumping into chairs, vomiting from inexplicable bouts of spontaneous nausea, and freaking out at the sight of angels and aliens5 swarming through our living rooms.

Granted, so far you have to sit down in a lab and wear a magnetic hair-net to experience the effects I've described. But I wonder how many appliance-feeding magnetic-resonance transmitters we'll be able to load into our apartments before hallucinogenic hotspots start spontaneously appearing in our living rooms. At which point our local utility will reclassify these side-effects from "bug" to "feature", and add a small additional charge for "multisensory entertainment" onto our monthly power bill.

I'm actually kind of looking forward to it. It's bound to be cheaper than cable.

(Photo credit: Australian PC Authority)

Ramachandran, V.S., and Blakeslee, S. 1998. Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind. William Morrow, New York.
Kamitani, Y. and Shimojo, S. 1999. Manifestation of scotomas created by transcranial magnetic stimulation of human visual cortex. Nature Neuroscience 2: 767-771.
Hallett, M. 2000. Transcranial magnetic stimulation and the human brain. Nature 406: 147-150.
Goldberg, C. 2003. Zap! Scientist bombards brains with super-magnets to edifying effect. Boston Globe 14/1/2003, pE1.
Persinger, M.A. 2001 The Neuropsychiatry of Paranormal Experiences. J Neuropsychiatry & Clinical Neuroscience 13: 515-524.

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Sunday, June 8, 2008

I Still Want My Fucking Jet Pack...

But this will do in the meantime. Emotiv's brainwave-reading products made a brief appearance in last year's flash piece "Repeating the Past", which is set less than ten years from now, so it's nice to see they're still on track.

I bet Stephen Hawking already has one.


Sunday, March 9, 2008

Mind Reading Technology...

...has been a staple of every low-budget piece of celluloid skiffy going back at least to that early-sixties Gerry-Anderson puppet show Stingray (which no one with any dignity will admit to having watched, although I clearly remember the episode with the mind-reading chair). The Prisoner also featured an episode in which No. 6's dreams could be probed, and the various incarnations of Star Trek must have had a half-dozen such episodes among them although they all seem to run together after awhile (the episode I'm thinking of had aliens with bumpy foreheads; does that help at all?).

Now here comes Kendrick Kay and his buddies in Nature with "Identifying natural images from human brain activity", and if they haven't actually vindicated all those cheesy narrative gimmicks, they've made a damn good first pass at it. They used fMRI scans to infer which one of 120 possible novel images a subject was looking at. "Novel" is important: the system trained up front on a set of nearly 2,000 images to localize the receptive fields, but none of those were used in the actual mind-reading test. So we're not talking about simply recognizing a simple replay of a previously-recorded pattern here. Also, the images were natural— landscapes and still-lifes and snuff porn, none of this simplified star/circle/wavey-lines bullshit.

The system looked into the minds of its subjects, and figured out what they were looking at with accuracies ranging from 32% to 92%. While the lower end of that range may not look especially impressive, remember that random chance would yield an accuracy of 0.8%. These guys are on to something.

Of course, they're not there yet. The machine only had 120 pictures to choose from; tagging a card from a known deck is a lot easier than identifying an image you've never seen before. But Kay et al are already at work on that; they conclude "it may soon be possible to reconstruct a picture of a person’s visual experience from measurements of brain activity alone." And in a recent interview Kay went further, suggesting that a few decades down the road, we'll have machines that can read dreams.

He was good enough to mention that we might want to look into certain privacy issues before that happens...

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Friday, January 18, 2008


One of the bits of chrome I drizzled throughout the rifters books were "Tactical Contacts" ("ConTacs", in the vernacular): contact lenses that acted as a kind of personal GUI, feeding information to the wearer and using the roving eyeball itself as a kind of trackball pointer. Yves Scanlon wore them sometimes; Patricia Rowan would have rather have been caught naked in public than with her eyes unTacked. (Come to think of it, the masking of eyes was a consistent general motif throughout those books. Which is kind of an interesting inversion of the usual sort of mask, which covers everything except the eyes. But I digress.)

Anyway, the guys over at the University of Washington claim to have developed a working prototype.

I don't know if I buy this. My understanding is that a passive ConTac-type display is probably unworkable in principle because of the eye's focal length: you just can't focus clearly on anything close enough to sit on your cornea (my own whacked-out version got around this by shooting images directly onto the retina using a teensy lenticular laserium setup, but I don't remember if I actually spelled that out in the books). The UW PR flack doesn't address this issue at all, and in fact the researchers don't even seem to have generated a visible image using the technology. Their main claim to fame so far is that they've been able to embed circuits into a contact lens and plunk it down on a rabbit's eyeball for twenty minutes without killing him, which is certainly necessary albeit not sufficient. That doesn't stop them from cheerfully predicting that Terminator-vision is just around the corner, though.

But they must have solved that problem. They wouldn’t be going on like this if they hadn't addressed such an obvious hurdle. Nobody could be that dumb. I mean, that would be about as likely like a famous geneticist claiming that Human evolution had stopped because God likes us the way we ar— oh, wait...

Photo credit, as far as I can tell, is University of Washington Weekly.