Action! Directing your Dreams may soon be Possible

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It’s always been one of our dreams… to be able to direct our dreams. it’s known as lucid dreaming. A dream state where you are totally or partially aware of being in a dream and being able to act and direct yourself and others within it. Imagine being the star, director, and scriptwriter for your own ultra-realistic dream-film!

Scientists have discovered that it is possible to induce lucid dreaming in sleepers by applying mild electrical currents to their scalps, a recent  study reported in the publication Nature Neuroscience says.

Professor J Allan Hobson, from Harvard Medical School co-authored the paper. He said:

“The key finding is that you can, surprisingly, by scalp stimulation, influence the brain. And you can influence the brain in such a way that a sleeper, a dreamer, becomes aware that he is dreaming.” 

It is a continuation of previous research in this field  led by Dr Ursula Voss of Johann Wolfgang Goethe-University in Germany who said:

“Lucid dreaming is a very good tool to observe what happens in the brain and what is causally necessary for secondary consciousness.”

Prof. Hobson also thought it could have medical benefits:

As a model for mental illness, understanding lucid dreaming is absolutely crucial. “I would be cautious about interpreting the results as of direct relevance to the treatment of medical illnesses, but [it’s] certainly a step in the direction of understanding how the brain manages to hallucinate and be deluded.”

By examining the sleepers’ REM (Rapid Eye Movements- the indicator of deep sleep dreaming) and brainwaves over a range of frequencies, scientists have found that lucid dreamers demonstrate a shift towards a more “awake-like” state in the frontal and temporal parts of the brain, with the peak in increased activity occurring around 40Hz.

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The study involved 27 volunteers, none of whom had experienced lucid dreaming before. The researchers waited until the volunteers were experiencing uninterrupted REM sleep before applying electrical stimulation to the frontal and temporal positions of the volunteers’ scalps. The applied stimulation had a variety of frequencies between two and 100Hz, but neither the experimenter nor the volunteer was informed which frequency was used, or even whether a current was applied. Five to 10 seconds later the volunteers were roused from their sleep and asked to report on their dreams. Brain activity was monitored continuously throughout the experiment.

The results showed that stimulation at 40Hz (and to a lesser extent at 25Hz) resulted in an increase in brain activity of around the same frequency in the frontal and temporal areas. They  found that such stimulation, more often than not, induced an increased level of lucidity in the dreams of  the sleepers.

The authors suggest triggering lucid dreaming in sleepers might enable them to control nightmares, for example returning soldiers  suffering with PTSD; post-traumatic stress disorder.

But for others, the chance to be “awake within a dream” may be possible… perhaps a dream come true?

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Stephen Hawking and his fear of Artificial Intelligence

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In the blue corner we have Stephen Hawking, representing mankind; world renowned physicist, presenter, philosopher and cosmologist, author of the blockbusting book “A Brief History of Time”, and a brain the size of a small planet.

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In the red corner, a computer. Or a computer programme, perhaps, representing AI. Artificial Intelligence.

Seconds, away, Round One. Well, not just yet, this is to be a future bout of boxing, in the not too distant future. Humankind versus AI. Some would say it should never be a contest at all. We humans invented AI, and can control it. It is our baby, our spawn of the future, and it can never bite the hand that feeds…. or can it? Stephen Hawking thinks AI is a threat to all our futures…

Stephen Hawking, in an interview with a UK Sunday paper is quoted thus:

“Success in creating AI would be the biggest event in human history. Unfortunately, it might also be the last.”

Hawking thinks we are moving too quickly, too far, without considering the possiblerepercussions. From digital personal assistants to self-driving  cars- he believes we’re on the cusp of the kinds of artificial intelligence that were previously exclusive to science fiction films. Shades of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Hal 9000 and I, Robot? The possibility of smart robots roaming the streets is not so far-fetched.  he basically asks who will control AI when AI becomes programmed to control itself?

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It’s not just that there may be massive unemployment due to robotisation, if a robot is sufficiently intelligently programmed to consider itself “aware” or even “alive” then why would it allow anyone to control it, or worse still, switch it off? If the answer is no, then we could be on the way to a global conflict between humans and robots. Pure fantasy? Stephen Hawking doesn’t think so. Perhaps we should start dumbing down drones already….

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Immortality. Where to Put all those Accumulating Memories?

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Let’s imagine (or scroll forward if you think it definitely will happen) we manage to cure ageing, both in the body and in the mind. We have immortality. Nice. But how would we be able to cope with the infinitely accumulating number of memories and things to remember?

Memory is a funny old thing. We do get more forgetful as we get older. Yet we still have retained and lodged forever in our memory certain events, numbers, faces, facts and triggers.  Even though brain cells die at a quicker rate as we get older, we must assume that immortality will include the ability for the brain to regenerate itself. So our capacity to think is unimpaired because our brains will remain functioning.

But what of memory? Research indicates that there is a certain part of the brain where memories reside. But it is of a finite size. As more and more experiences and memories are accumulated throughout the centuries and aeons of our immortality, that part of the brain will just become clogged and full and unable to absorb any more information. It would also be difficult if not impossible  to recall information because there are so many full rooms,corridors and halls all full of filing cabinets, full of folders, full of papers.

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Your brain can keep all that stuff organized for a while (say, the span of most of a normal human lifetime) but it’s not like you can go into your brain and just delete files like cleaning up a hard drive of a computer.

Your immortal life and experiences may be infinite, but your brain’s ability to store and recall them is not. After a relatively short time into your immortality, as early as 300 years old,  your brain will be chock-a-block piled up with information/junk like one of the habitual hoarders who can never clean up or throw anything out.

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The only possible solution would appear to be to connect to technology that could store, sort and recall all that information- and perhaps delete it to. “Total Recall” anyone?  So perhaps at 30o years old plus you’ll be permanently wired in to a data/memory dump/recall system.  But your biological brain’s ability to process the information and retain it, would not be expanded once it has received the input from the memory card or whatever.  And of course you might forget that you have stored the information remotely and so the whole system falls down again!

Immortality? Not as easy as it sounds!

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Paraplegic’s Robotic Exoskeleton to take First Kick of World Cup

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There are some World Cup Football Teams who you may think need a miracle in order to win the coveted World Cup. But a miracle, of sorts, will take place on the football pitch of the Arena Corinthians in  São Paulo at the opening ceremony of the World Cup at 5pm 12 June (local time). A young Brazilian will take a kick of a football on the centre spot.

But this is no ordinary young man, nor is the kick trivial. The boy, yet to be chosen from a shortlist of nine aged between 20 and 40,will be  a paraplegic. He will rise from his wheelchair and walk to the midfield and then kick the ball. How?

It’s down to Miguel Nicolelis and his team of neuro-engineers and scientists at Duke University in North Carolina. And if the event works as intended, it should spell the end for wheelchairs, and the evolution of mind-controlled exoskeleton robots. Here’s a picture of the robot:

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The mind-controlled robotic exoskeleton is a complex robotic suit built from lightweight alloys and powered by hydraulics. When a paraplegic person straps themselves in, the machine does the job that their leg muscles no longer can. But there are no buttons levers or controls to tell the robot what to do. Only the human brain.

The exoskeleton is the culmination of years of work by an international team of scientists and engineers on the Walk Again project. The robotics work was coordinated by Gordon Cheng at the Technical University in Munich and the French researchers built the exoskeleton. Nicolelis’ team focused on what many say is the most difficult bit; ways to read people’s brain waves, and use those signals to control robotic limbs.

To operate the exoskeleton, the person is helped into the suit and given a cap to wear that is fitted with electrodes to pick up their brain waves. These signals are passed to a computer worn in a backpack, where they are decoded and used to move hydraulic drivers on the suit. There’s a battery that powers everything, with a two hour life before it needs re-charging.

Nicolelis releases video with robotic exoskeleton in action

The operator’s feet rest on plates which have sensors to detect when contact is made with the ground. With each footstep, a signal is transmitted to a vibrating device sewn into the forearm of the wearer’s shirt. The device fools the brain into thinking that the sensation came from their foot. In virtual reality simulations, patients felt that their legs were moving and touching something. Here’s a diagram showing the details.

Last month, Nicolelis and his colleagues went to some football matches in São Paulo to check whether mobile phone radiation from the crowds might interfere with the suit. Electromagnetic waves could make the exoskeleton misbehave, but they were reassured.

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This is ground-breaking robotic/artificial intelligence/mind-control technology all rolled into one: Let’s keep our fingers crossed that  we will all witness the miracle first kick of the World Cup on 12 June.

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The Secret to Longer, Healthier and Happier lives? 20% Less Food!

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In a recent study by Harvard Medical School, which used data going back to the 1970s, Professor of medicine Francine Grodstein concluded that “diet makes a difference”. Plain and simple.

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Francine Grodstein

“The higher our body weight and body mass index, the less likely we are to live older, happier, healthier lives,” she said.

Well you may have preferred to hear about a breakthrough in a longevity magic bullet, or transferring DNA from animals that live for over 150 years to humans, but there’s no getting away from it. If you reduce your food intake by just a fifth, you will live a longer life.  This has been shown in animals too- reducing bodyweight by 20% in mice increased their lifespans.

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William Mair

William Mair, HSPH assistant professor of genetics and complex diseases, said a study that has gained a lot of attention found that reducing body weight by 20 percent in mice increased their longevity. It is even true for insects such as the fruit fly.

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By cutting down our food intake and body mass, we won’t live forever, but the quality of life should be better for longer. In other words all the morbidities that can afflict us will be pushed back to the last years of our lives.

Turning to avoiding mental disease, a promising area in warding off dementia involves taking up a personal challenge such as learning to play an instrument or to speak another language, said Thomas Perls, a Boston University professor of medicine and director of the New England Centenarian Study. However building up these mental functional reserves that seem to stave off or delay dementia don’t seem to apply to everyone. The brainiest most mentally advanced people can still succumb to dementia.

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“Pre-Life” is where Faith in Immortality is Conceived

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Most people, of most faiths, and even some atheists, believe that all or part of the body, mind and/or soul survives, transcending death.  Is this because of man’s evolutionary brain, conditioning from our parents, priests or peers? Taking an impassionate look at the hard facts, the evidence, there is virtually no solid evidence that humans experience life after death and immortality for their core being. So why is it so persistent?

Boston University think they have the answer.  It’s developed in “Pre-life”, not just before birth, but before conception.

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A study published a couple of weeks ago in the online edition of “Child Development”by a team led by postdoctoral fellow Natalie Emmons (pictured above) illuminates this area following interviews with 283 children from two distinct cultures in Ecuador. The research suggests that the human bias toward thinking we are  immortal is a part of human intuition that  emerges, naturally, in our early in life- before we are conceived.  And that’s not all, the theory goes on to suggest that the part of us that is eternal, we believe, is not our skills or ability to reason, but instead our hopes, desires and emotions. In a nutshell we are what we feel. And we feel immortal.

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The co-author of the paper, Deborah Keleman, pictured above, an Associate Professor of Psychology at Boston University, said:

“This work shows that it’s possible for science to study religious belief. At the same time, it helps us understand some universal aspects of human cognition and the structure of the mind. By focusing on prelife, we could see if culture causes these beliefs to appear, or if they appear spontaneously”.

It may come as no surprise to learn that most studies on immortality have focused on people’s views of the afterlife, often coloured by religious indoctrination. Both children and adults seem to agree that physical bodily needs, such as hunger and thirst, end when people die, but our mental capacities, such as thinking or feeling emotion, continue in some form or another. But all previous studies have not tried to address the question where do these beliefs come from? Emmons suggests that they are not developed through exposure to religious teaching, reading, learning or even the television, but from our intuition. Just as children learn to talk without formal instruction, the research suggests that intuitively they develop the belief that part of their mind could exist apart from their body.

Emmons interviewed children from an indigenous Shuar village in the Amazon Basin of Ecuador. She chose this group because they have no cultural pre-life beliefs, and she suspected that indigenous children, who have regular exposure to birth and death through simple hunting and farming, would have a more rational, biologically-based view of the time before they were conceived. Another “control” group was needed for comparison, so she also interviewed children from an urban area near Quito, where the children were Roman Catholics. That  religion teaches that life begins only at conception. Emmons was looking to see if cultural influences ruled all, so that both urban and indigenous children should reject the idea of life before birth.

Emmons showed the children drawings of a baby, a young woman, and the same woman while pregnant, then asked a series of questions about the child’s abilities, thoughts and emotions during each period: as babies, in the womb, and then, before conception.

The results were not those expected. Both groups gave very similar answers, despite their very different cultures. The children in both groups reasoned that their bodies didn’t exist before birth. However, both groups also said that their emotions and desires existed before they were born. For example, while children generally told researchers that they didn’t have eyes and couldn’t see things before birth, they often reported being happy that they would soon meet their mother, or sad that they were apart from their family.

So why would humans have evolved this universal belief ?

The answer Emmons suggests is not science-based, it’s due to the  by-product of our highly developed social reasoning.  She said:

“We’re really good at figuring out what people are thinking, what their emotions are, what their desires are. We tend to see people as the sum of their mental states, and desires and emotions may be particularly helpful when predicting their behaviour. Because this ability is so useful and so powerful, it flows over into other parts of our thinking. We sometimes see connections where potentially none exist, we hope there’s a master plan for the universe, we see purpose when there is none, and we imagine that a soul survives without a body.”

So standing back from all this, it does not seem to me to take us any closer to attaining or confirming our immortality. The study merely confirms, in my view, the ability to convince ourselves that we shall live forever in one form or another.  Personally, I’m still looking for the elixir of life, the tome of immortality, or the DNA equivalent of the God-particle that will stop our bodies from ageing.

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The Brain in BMW

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We’ve come a long way since the speaking clock, but transactions over the phone or online can still sometimes be frustrating affairs. Endless options repeated just to get your bank balance, and not having a 24 hour service can be a pain. But if you want to ask something, anything about the new BMW electric car, the i3, you’ll get a swift and expert response… from a computer. The BMW I genius is a remarkable programme, known as “The Brain”.

Dimitry Aksenov, 21 years old, founded technology company London Brand Management in 2011. The company provides an AI service for big companies who want to outsource customer/staff interactions to computers.

 BMW UK marketing director Chris Brownridge said:

“BMW I Genius is capable of understanding each question and responding accurately every time as if you were talking to an expert from the company. The system operates around the clock, allowing the consumer to ask any question relating to the “i” cars but without the hassle of having to pick up the phone or go into a dealership.”

Not only can the computer recognise the question, and provide an answer. It does it within three seconds. It reads and recognises keywords, as well as understanding context, and learns about you during the exchange and is capable of having a meaningful conversation as well as providing answers to questions about the car.

 LBM’s system is cloud-based, and so it can be accessed from anywhere . It can deal with thousands of enquiries simultaneously, and its database has a virtually unlimited memory capacity. It’s the equivalent of having hundreds or even thousands of call centre staff, with the added advamtage that it remembers and learns, and there is no downtime. Much better then than our human brain?

Aksenov provides the technology to brands under licence with a one-off implementation fee to “teach” the system. Unlike hiring humans, the AI only has to learn once and that’s it for good. He said:

“Within five years we will have a system that truly knows more than a human could ever know and is more efficient at delivering information. It will replace many of the boring jobs that are currently done by humans. Unfortunately, this may take some jobs from the economy by replacing human beings with a machine. But it is the future.”

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Brains Grown in Laboratory

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There was a line in the Bonzo Dog Doh Dah Band’s cover of the song “The Monster Mash” in which the question is asked of Igor.. “Have you watered the brains?” While a mock schlock rock song about werewolves, vampires and mummies having a great party rave up together may not seem predictive, the reference to nurturing brains now might seem prescient. That’s because “mini-brains” have been grown in a laboratory, and they may hold the key to diseases such as schizophrenia and autism.
The 4mm-wide biological structures have made using human stem cells. Can they be used instead of computer CPU’s? Can they be used as add-on memory to our own brains? Could they be grown so large that they could be used a substitute superior brains? Are they alive and can they think?Sorry, that’s still science fiction. The mini brains are incapable of thought and no use for transplants. So what on earth use are they? Because they share the design of functioning brains, they may be useful for research into the brain and its workings and in the testing of drugs.Rather bizarrely, we have been asked to think..

“about the brain as a car, [and] what we have created is a car which has its engine on the roof and the gear box in the trunk. You can study the car parts but you can’t drive it.”

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These are the wprds of Professor Juergen Knoblich of the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology in Vienna and head of a British and Austrian team. The research was published in journal Nature recently.

In one experiment, the researchers grew a mini-brain using cells taken from a patient with microcephaly. That disease (meaning “small head”) is when the size of the skull limits the size of the brain and therefore results in impaired brain function and limited longevity. They found that the brain grown from microcephaly-affected stem cells resulted in a stunted mini brain – mimicking the effects of the disease.

Neuroscientist Professor Paul Matthews, from Imperial College London, said the study offered the promise of a ‘major new tool’ for understanding major developmental disorders.

But not everyone is bubbling with enthusiasm for this breakthrough: Dr Dean Burnett, lecturer in psychiatry at the University of Cardiff, said;

“Saying you can replicate the workings of the brain with tissue in a dish is like inventing the abacus and saying you can use it to run the latest version of Microsoft Windows.”

So the bottom line is that while this is progress, we’ll be assembling no Franklenstein monsters, or finding a cure for brain diseases just yet.

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Digital Mind Mapping- with a Real Human Brain

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The brain.  Famously said by Woody Allen to be his “second-favourite organ”.  The brain. The key component used by Baron von Frankenstein to create his creature (too bad that he had to use the damaged brain of a criminal instead of a healthy brain- damn that clumsy Igor!).

Whereas organ transplants are common these days, there has been no known attempt to effect a human brain transplant. But advances in understanding that most complex part of our body are being made.

A 65 year old European woman donated her brain to science five years ago. Over the next half a decade, the brain was sliced into extremely thin strips and then studied and copied into a computer programme known as “BigBrain”.  The brain can be viewed at virtually cellular level- zooming in to a resolution of just 20 microns across (a millimetre is 1000 microns). The information is being shared; reserachers worldwide are able to download digital slices of the computerised BigBrain to assist their own research projects.

Prof. Katrin Amunts at Dusseldorf’s Heinrich Heine University said:

“It is impossible to understand the function of the brain without knowing its anatomy, and its microstructure in particular. Brain structure and function go hand-in-hand.”

The donated brain was immersed in paraffin and transported to the University in Germany. A custom built bacon-slicer was used to cut the brain into  nearly 7,500 separate slices, each the thickness of plastic food wrap. The slices were then stained, mounted on slides, and then scanned onto a computer. At McGill University in Canada, computer scientists then used this to create a 3D model, BigBrain, taking up a terabyte of computer memory. The project is ongoing; the next step is to use the BigBrain to simulate the entire workings of the brain.

At what point might BigBrain comes self-aware within the computer? We are told that that is not possible…

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