Scientists have discovered drugs which can block out memories and have the potential to radically alter human personalities. No, this isn’t the “nerd discovers beer” scene from every college movie ever – chemicals like propranolol and ZIP have already been shown to remix recollections. But if memories make the man, what happens when you mess with them?
We simply don’t know. Neuroscience Lesson #1 is “The human brain is a terrifyingly complex device, even ones which watch American Idol.” Any alteration could cause serious side-effects, with the additional problem that such symptoms are difficult to diagnose. If your kidney stops working, we have all kinds of ways of measuring that. How you eventually fall over, for one thing. But outside of the Care Bears cartoon there’s nothing to quantify imagination or confidence.
A major part of this problem is that human beings are simply crap at collecting data. Any number of reasons from forgetfulness to embarrassment can prevent patients from reporting regular symptoms for things like broken feet, never mind the nature of their own thoughts – they’re patients, not Zen philosophers. This is why some scientists think online logging might be the answer – a medical version of twitter, for example, where out-patients can report any and every odd feeling as they happen and have the data logged in real time. It’ll certainly be no worse than much of the content already up there – though putting somebody online and telling them to share personal information after erasing their memories may cause new problems. And boost the Nigerian economy.
If you’ve e ver been educated, and the fact that you’re reading this means that you either have or are extremely good at guessing, you’ve tried to find a way to enhance your memory. Reading things ten times, flash cards, enough coffee to accelerate an elephant to eighty-eight miles an hour – and none of them work. Now scientists may have found an all-purpose “memory on” switch hiding in your head.
A team of German an UK researchers have applied magnetoencephalographic techniques to look inside the very living brain of dozens of people, and if that fact doesn’t impress you chalk one up to “humans can get used to anything.” These people have machines that can scan your mind and draw maps! Sure, those maps are like urban planners trying to document a computer chip, not really sure of which does what or how to represent it, but we can still see some general functions from all the data acquired.
Just Say NO To Old Age: Professor X isn’t the only one with incredible mental powers: recent research says that you might be even better at brain-boosting, helping heal yourself with the power of a positive attitude – while he can’t even summon up the mental energy to stand.
The power of positive thinking might make us sound infinity percent more likely to wear hemp and say “man” an inappropriate number of times for science reporters (i.e. ever), but it’s real research at Harvard. Professor Ellen Langer has conducted several studies into “mindfulness theory”, researching just how much your attitude affects your actual body. The answer: quite a bit.
One of Benjamin Button’s many stories-within-stories in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, involves the tale of a clock built for the New Orleans train station that is designed to run backwards, in the hope that it will resurrect the First World War dead.
With a similar result in mind, in one experiment Langer shut several septuagenarians in a hotel that had been redecorated in mid-eighties style, eliminating all evidence of the last two decades. Subjects were instructed to act as if they’d really gone all Doctor Who, and after only seven days they were faster, stronger, better than before. Stronger for seventy-year olds, anyway, and certainly stronger than a control group who didn’t get this amateur time-travel and were basically left to think about how damn old they were.
Also see this article.
In a study published recently in the Journal of Neuroscience, UCLA neurology professor Paul Thompson and colleagues used a new type of brain-imaging scanner to show that intelligence is strongly influenced by the quality of the brain’s axons, or wiring that sends signals throughout the brain. The faster the signaling, the faster the brain processes information. And since the integrity of the brain’s wiring is influenced by genes, the genes we inherit play a far greater role in intelligence than was previously thought.
Genes appear to influence intelligence by determining how well nerve axons are encased in myelin — the fatty sheath of “insulation” that coats our axons and allows for fast signaling bursts in our brains. The thicker the myelin, the faster the nerve impulses.
Thompson and his colleagues scanned the brains of 23 sets of identical twins and 23 sets of fraternal twins. Since identical twins share the same genes while fraternal twins share about half their genes, the researchers were able to compare each group to show that myelin integrity was determined genetically in many parts of the brain that are key for intelligence. These include the parietal lobes, which are responsible for spatial reasoning, visual processing and logic, and the corpus callosum, which pulls together information from both sides of the body.
For those of you who want the world at your fingertips, the wait is almost over.
The future PC promises to put nearly everything you could need or want right in your palm.
Think of a souped-up version of today’s smartphone, with a monitor that unrolls into a larger screen and a biometric security system that lets you access everything in your professional and personal life from anywhere, with all the data residing in the cloud. Wave it at your car to unlock the door. Order and pay for your morning coffee with a touch of a button. Plug it into a docking station and project that big presentation to your clients. Book a weekend getaway with just a few clicks.
“PCs are going from engines or tools to portals and enablers. The vision of what they’ll be in the future is a partner. They’ll be participating in the higher cognitive tasks of what people do to get their jobs done,” says Andrew Chien, director of research at Intel Corp.
The personal computer has been a corporate workhorse for decades. And while it has evolved, becoming slimmer and more mobile, in many ways it still resembles those old terminals tethered to the mainframe. But the next decade will bring dramatic changes, as the PC evolves past the standard desktop and laptop units to amalgamations of computing devices and their peripherals.
This future PC will be smarter, too. It could discreetly remind you of the name of an acquaintance and alert you when it’s time to take your medicine. It will be your colleague, your butler — and possibly your friend.
In this age of super-rapid technological advance, we do well to obey the Boy Scout injunction: “Be prepared”. That requires nimbleness of mind, given that the ever accelerating power of computers is being applied across such a wide range of applications, making it hard to keep track of everything that is happening. The danger is that we only wake up to the need for forethought when in the midst of a storm created by innovations that have already overtaken us.
We are on the brink, and perhaps to some degree already over the edge, in one hugely important area: robotics. Robot sentries patrol the borders of South Korea and Israel. Remote-controlled aircraft mount missile attacks on enemy positions. Other military robots are already in service, and not just for defusing bombs or detecting landmines: a coming generation of autonomous combat robots capable of deep penetration into enemy territory raises questions about whether they will be able to discriminate between soldiers and innocent civilians. Police forces are looking to acquire miniature Taser-firing robot helicopters. In South Korea and Japan the development of robots for feeding and bathing the elderly and children is already advanced. Even in a robot-backward country like the UK, some vacuum cleaners sense their autonomous way around furniture. A driverless car has already negotiated its way through Los Angeles traffic.
I’m sitting in a Sussex cottage, wearing a rubber swimming cap dotted with wires and electrodes. On a laptop in front of me, a constantly shifting wash of coloured graphics portrays the activity in my brain. It’s a neat party trick, but it is also a Pandora’s box: across the world, scientists are using this kind of technology to prise open our minds, to fathom our voting preferences, our guilty thoughts, our shopping desires, even the words we are thinking. Already their activities are stealthily changing our world.
I’m the guest of Dr David Lewis, a British neuropsychologist who uses electronic brain-scanning to help brands see which of their marketing strategies best snare our interest. His Sussex University-based company, the Mind Lab, uses equipment that monitors electrical activity in the brain, and is currently investigating how to refine people’s enjoyment of video games. This is definitely the least contentious end of the market.
Amid all the scientific gadgetry and research, sceptics argue that brain-reading systems are not yet sufficiently developed to be of real use in any field. But in fact, that doesn’t matter: the prospects are far too tantalising. Companies are already marketing the technology as a way to penetrate the last frontier of exploration – the space between our ears. Lawyers, military chiefs, advertisers and politicians are eagerly buying. Welcome to the world of brainjacking, where science fiction is happening now.
Be very careful what you think about Shania Twain. Not only is she a national hero in her homeland of Canada, she’s popular in America too, with the bestselling country album of all time to her name. Now, new technology developed by scientists in Toronto enables Canadians to detect how you feel about their favourite singer – without you even saying a word.
A team of researchers from the University of Toronto has developed a brain-scanning headset that can detect a person’s preferences, with an accuracy of 80%. The headset is fitted with fibre-optic cables that emit infrared light at around the same frequency as a typical TV remote control.
This harmless radiation is beamed into the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain associated with decision-making. Here it is scattered by blood vessels, and the reflections are picked up by sensors on the headband. By measuring the amount of oxygen in the blood, researchers can decode brain activity and determine whether a person prefers Twain’s country pop to, say, the crooning of Céline Dion.
What if your computer had a brain, one that worked like our very own grey matter?
It sounds like science fiction, but with incredible advancements in the fields of neuroscience, nanotechnology and supercomputing technology, the time is right for computer scientists to begin trying to create computers that are able to approach the brain’s abilities.
So what would that mean for tomorrow’s computers? It’s a tantalising question that scientists working in the field of cognitive computing are striving to answer. And, if they’re successful in their goal of ousting silicon from the PC and inserting a brain, we could witness a revolution in computing power and potential. Tomorrow’s computers may be able to think rather than just follow programs.
IBM Research on Thursday is expected to uncover work it is doing to bring the brain’s processing power to computers, in an effort to make it easier for PCs to process vast amounts of data in real time.
The researchers want to put brain-related senses like perception and interaction into hardware and software so that computers are able to process and understand the data quicker while consuming less power, said Dharmendra Modha, a researcher at IBM. The researchers are bringing the neuroscience, nanotechnology, and supercomputing fields together in an effort to create the new computing platform, he said.
The goal is to create machines that are mind-like and adapt to changes, which could allow companies to find more value in their data. Right now, a majority of information’s value is lost, but relevant data can allow businesses or individuals to make rapid decisions in time to have significant impact, he said.
“If we could design computers that could be in real-world environments and sense and respond in an intelligent way, it would be a tremendous step forward,” Modha said.
There is a problem in the core philosophy of computing and a new approach is needed, Modha said. Today’s model first defines objectives to solve problems, after which algorithms are built to achieve those objectives.
“The brain is the opposite. It starts with an existing algorithm and then problems [are] second. It is a computing platform that can address a wide variety of problems,” Modha said.
For example, the new approach could help efficiently manage the world’s water supplies through real-time analysis of data that could help discover new patterns, Modha said. A network of sensors could monitor temperature, pressure, wave height and ocean tide across the oceans. “Imagine streaming this data to a global brain that discovers invariant patterns and associations that no algorithms of today can do,” Modha said.
It will also be able to sense the world’s markets, like stocks, bonds and real estate, extracting patterns and associations in the way the brain extracts information from those environments.
Also see IBM to Build “Thinking” Computers Modeled on the Brain and IBM plans ‘brain-like’ computers.