Frontiers of Neuroscience: Neurohacking and Neuromorphics

neural-network-consciousness-downloading-640x353It is one of the hallmarks of our rapidly accelerating times: looking at the state of technology, how it is increasingly being merged with our biology, and contemplating the ultimate leap of merging mind and machinery. The concept has been popular for many decades now, and with experimental procedures showing promise, neuroscience being used to inspire the next great leap in computing, and the advance of biomedicine and bionics, it seems like just a matter of time before people can “hack” their neurology too.

Take Kevin Tracey, a researcher working for the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in Manhasset, N.Y., as an example. Back in 1998, he began conducting experiments to show that an interface existed between the immune and nervous system. Building on ten years worth of research, he was able to show how inflammation – which is associated with rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn’s disease – can be fought by administering electrical stimulu, in the right doses, to the vagus nerve cluster.

Brain-ScanIn so doing, he demonstrated that the nervous system was like a computer terminal through which you could deliver commands to stop a problem, like acute inflammation, before it starts, or repair a body after it gets sick.  His work also seemed to indicate that electricity delivered to the vagus nerve in just the right intensity and at precise intervals could reproduce a drug’s therapeutic reaction, but with greater effectiveness, minimal health risks, and at a fraction of the cost of “biologic” pharmaceuticals.

Paul Frenette, a stem-cell researcher at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, is another example. After discovering the link between the nervous system and prostate tumors, he and his colleagues created SetPoint –  a startup dedicated to finding ways to manipulate neural input to delay the growth of tumors. These and other efforts are part of the growing field of bioelectronics, where researchers are creating implants that can communicate directly with the nervous system in order to try to fight everything from cancer to the common cold.

human-hippocampus-640x353Impressive as this may seem, bioelectronics are just part of the growing discussion about neurohacking. In addition to the leaps and bounds being made in the field of brain-to-computer interfacing (and brain-to-brain interfacing), that would allow people to control machinery and share thoughts across vast distances, there is also a field of neurosurgery that is seeking to use the miracle material of graphene to solve some of the most challenging issues in their field.

Given graphene’s rather amazing properties, this should not come as much of a surprise. In addition to being incredibly thin, lightweight, and light-sensitive (it’s able to absorb light in both the UV and IR range) graphene also a very high surface area (2630 square meters per gram) which leads to remarkable conductivity. It also has the ability to bind or bioconjugate with various modifier molecules, and hence transform its behavior. 

brainscan_MRIAlready, it is being considered as a possible alternative to copper wires to break the energy efficiency barrier in computing, and even useful in quantum computing. But in the field of neurosurgery, where researchers are looking to develop materials that can bridge and even stimulate nerves. And in a story featured in latest issue of Neurosurgery, the authors suggest thatgraphene may be ideal as an electroactive scaffold when configured as a three-dimensional porous structure.

That might be a preferable solution when compared with other currently vogue ideas like using liquid metal alloys as bridges. Thanks to Samsung’s recent research into using graphene in their portable devices, it has also been shown to make an ideal E-field stimulator. And recent experiments on mice in Korea showed that a flexible, transparent, graphene skin could be used as a electrical field stimulator to treat cerebral hypoperfusion by stimulating blood flow through the brain.

Neuromorphic-chip-640x353And what look at the frontiers of neuroscience would be complete without mentioning neuromorphic engineering? Whereas neurohacking and neurosurgery are looking for ways to merge technology with the human brain to combat disease and improve its health, NE is looking to the human brain to create computational technology with improved functionality. The result thus far has been a wide range of neuromorphic chips and components, such as memristors and neuristors.

However, as a whole, the field has yet to define for itself a clear path forward. That may be about to change thanks to Jennifer Hasler and a team of researchers at Georgia Tech, who recently published a roadmap to the future of neuromorphic engineering with the end goal of creating the human-brain equivalent of processing. This consisted of Hasler sorting through the many different approaches for the ultimate embodiment of neurons in silico and come up with the technology that she thinks is the way forward.

neuromorphic-chip-fpaaHer answer is not digital simulation, but rather the lesser known technology of FPAAs (Field-Programmable Analog Arrays). FPAAs are similar to digital FPGAs (Field-Programmable Gate Arrays), but also include reconfigurable analog elements. They have been around on the sidelines for a few years, but they have been used primarily as so-called “analog glue logic” in system integration. In short, they would handle a variety of analog functions that don’t fit on a traditional integrated circuit.

Hasler outlines an approach where desktop neuromorphic systems will use System on a Chip (SoC) approaches to emulate billions of low-power neuron-like elements that compute using learning synapses. Each synapse has an adjustable strength associated with it and is modeled using just a single transistor. Her own design for an FPAA board houses hundreds of thousands of programmable parameters which enable systems-level computing on a scale that dwarfs other FPAA designs.

neuromorphic_revolutionAt the moment, she predicts that human brain-equivalent systems will require a reduction in power usage to the point where they are consuming just one-eights of what digital supercomputers that are currently used to simulate neuromorphic systems require. Her own design can account for a four-fold reduction in power usage, but the rest is going to have to come from somewhere else – possibly through the use of better materials (i.e. graphene or one of its derivatives).

Hasler also forecasts that using soon to be available 10nm processes, a desktop system with human-like processing power that consumes just 50 watts of electricity may eventually be a reality. These will likely take the form of chips with millions of neuron-like skeletons connected by billion of synapses firing to push each other over the edge, and who’s to say what they will be capable of accomplishing or what other breakthroughs they will make possible?

posthuman-evolutionIn the end, neuromorphic chips and technology are merely one half of the equation. In the grand scheme of things, the aim of all of this research is not only produce technology that can ensure better biology, but technology inspired by biology to create better machinery. The end result of this, according to some, is a world in which biology and technology increasingly resemble each other, to the point that they is barely a distinction to be made and they can be merged.

Charles Darwin would roll over in his grave!

Sources:,, (2),

The Future is Here: VR Body-Swapping

simstimOne of the most interesting and speculative things to come out of the William Gibson’s cyberpunk series The Sprawl Trilogy was the concept of Simstim. A term which referred to “simulated stimulation”, this technology  involved stimulating the nervous system of one person so that they could experience another’s consciousness. As is so often the case, science fiction proves to be the basis for science fact.

This latest case of science imitating sci-fi comes from Barcelona, where a group of interdisciplinary students have created a revolutionary VR technology that uses virtual reality and neuroscience to let people see, hear, and even feel what it’s like in another person’s body. The focus, though, is on letting men and women undergo a sort of high-tech “gender swapping”, letting people experience what it’s like to be in the others’ shoes.

VR_simstim2Be Another Lab is made up of Philippe Bertrand, Daniel Gonzalez Franco, Christian Cherene, and Arthur Pointea, a collection of interdisciplinary artists whose fields range from programming and electronic engineering to interactive system design and neuro-rehabilitation. Together, the goal of Be Another Lab is to explore the concepts of empathy through technology, science, and art.

In most neuroscience experiments that examine issues of empathy and bias, participants “trade places” with others using digital avatars. If a study wants to explore empathy for the handicapped, for example, scientists might sit subjects down in front of a computer and make them play a video game in which they are confined to a wheelchair, then ask them a series of questions about how the experience made them feel.

BeanotherlabHowever, Be Another Lab takes a different, more visceral approach to exploring empathy. Instead of using digital avatars, the group uses performers to copy the movements of a subject. For example, racial bias is studied by having a subject’s actions mirrored by a performer of color. And for something like gender bias, men and women would take a run at living inside the body of one another.

Bertrand and company have taken this approach to the next level by leveraging the tech of a paid Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, renaming it the Machine To Be Another. In the project, two participants stand in front of one another, put on their headsets, and effectively see out of one anothers’ eyes. When they look at each other, they see themselves. When they speak, they hear the other person’s voice in their ears.

VR_simstim1But things don’t end there! Working together, the two participants are encouraged to sync their movements, touching objects in the room, looking at things, and exploring their ‘own’ bodies simultaneously. Bertrand explains the experience as follows:

The brain integrates different senses to create your experience of the world. In turn, the information from each of these senses influences how the other senses are processed. We use these techniques from neuroscience to actually affect the psychophysical sensation of being in your body.

In other words, in combination with being fed video and sound from their partner’s headset, by moving and touching things at the same time, the Machine To Be Another can actually convince people that they are in someone else’s body as long as the two partners remain in sync.

VR_simstimIt’s a radical idea that Be Another Lab is only beginning to explore. Right now, their experiments have mostly focused on gender swapping, but the team hopes to expand on this and tackle issues such as transgender and homosexuality. The group is currently looking to partner with various organizations, experts and activists to help them further perfect their techniques.

It’s a unique idea, giving people the ability to not only walk a mile in another’s shoes, but to know what that actually feels like physically. I can foresee this sort of technology becoming a part of sensitivity training in the future, and even as education for sex offenders and hate criminals. Currently, such training focuses on getting offenders to empathize with their victims.

What better way to do that than making them see exactly what it’s like to be them? And in the meantime, enjoy this video of the Machine To Be Another in action:


The Future is Creepy: Reading Consumer’s Brainwaves

brainscansProduct marketing has always been a high stakes game, where companies rely on psychology, competitive strategies, and well-honed ad campaigns to appeal to consumer’s instincts. This has never been an exact science, but it may soon be possible for advertisers to simply read your brainwaves to determine what you’re thinking and how much you’re willing to pay.

This past October, the German news site Spiegel Online profiled the provocative work of a Swiss neuroscientist and former sales consultant who is working on a method of measuring brain waves to determine how much a person would be willing to pay for a good or service. Known as “feel-good pricing” to marketing critics, the idea is already inspiring horror and intrigue.

brainwavesThe neuroscientist in question is Kai-Markus Müller, the head of Neuromarketing Labs who has over 10 years of experience in neuroscience research. According to his test, Starbucks is not actually charging enough for its expensive coffee. In fact, it’s probably leaving profits on the table because people would probably still buy it if they charged more.

To conduct this test, Müller targeting an area in the brain that lights up when things don’t really make sense. When test subjects were presented with the idea of paying 10 cents for coffee, their brain reacted unconsciously because the price seemed too cheap. A coffee for $8, on other hand, produced a similar reaction since the price seemed too high.

brain-activityOne would think that this method would help to determine optimum pricing. However, Müller then set up a coffee vending machine where people were allowed to set their own price. The two methods then matched up and revealed that people were willing to pay a higher price than what Starbucks actually charges. Somehow, paying less made people think they were selecting an inferior grade of product.

Naturally, there are those who would be horrified by this idea, feeling that it represents the worst combination of Big Brother surveillance and invasive marketing. This is to be expecting when any talk of “reading brainwaves” is concerned, dredging up images of a rampant-consumer society where absolutely no privacy exists, even within the space of your own head.

neuromarketOn the other hand, Müller himself takes issue with the notion of the “transparent consumer”, claiming that “Everyone wins with this method”. As proof, he cited the numerous flops in the consumer economy in the Spiegel Online article. Apparently, roughly 80 percent of all new products disappear from shelves after a short time, mainly because the producers have misjudged the markets desire for them or what they are willing to pay.

It’s all part of a nascent concept known as Neuromarketing, and it is set to take to the market in the coming years. One can expect that consumers will have things to say about it, and no doubt those feelings will come through whenever and wherever producers try to sell you something. Personally, I am reminded of what Orwell wrote in 1984:

“Always the eyes watching you and the voice enveloping you. Asleep or awake, working or eating, indoors or out of doors, in the bath or in bed — no escape. Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimetres inside your skull.”

futurama_lightspeedbriefsAnd perhaps more appropriately, I’m also reminded of what Fry said about advertising in the Season 1 episode of Futurama entitled “A Fistfull of Dollars”:

“Leela: Didn’t you have ads in the 21st century?

Fry: Well sure, but not in our dreams. Only on TV and radio, and in magazines, and movies, and at ball games… and on buses and milk cartons and t-shirts, and bananas and written on the sky. But not in dreams, no siree.”

Somehow, truth is always stranger than fiction!


Judgement Day Update: The Human Brain Project

brain_chip2Biomimetics are one of the fastest growing areas of technology today, which seek to develop technology that is capable of imitating biology. The purpose of this, in addition to creating machinery that can be merged with our physiology, is to arrive at a computing architecture that is as complex and sophisticated as the human brain.

While this might sound the slightest bit anthropocentric, it is important to remember that despite their processing power, supercomputers like the D-Wave Two, IBM’s Blue Gene/Q Sequoia, or MIT’s ConceptNet 4, have all shown themselves to be lacking when it comes to common sense and abstract reasoning. Simply pouring raw computing power into the mix does not make for autonomous intelligence.

IBM_Blue_Gene_P_supercomputerAs a result of this, new steps are being taken to crate a computer that can mimic the very organ that gives humanity these abilities – the human brain. In what is surely the most ambitious step towards this goal to date, an international group of researchers recently announced the formation of the Human Brain Project. Having secured the $1.6 billion they need to fund their efforts, these researchers will spend the next ten years conducting research that cuts across multiple disciplines.

This will involve mapping out the vast network known as the human brain – a network composed of over a hundred billion neuronal connections that are the source of emotions, abstract thought, and this thing we know as consciousness. And to do so, the researchers will be using a progressively scaled-up multilayered simulation running on a supercomputer.

Human-Brain-project-Alp-ICTConcordant with this bold plan, the team itself is made up of over 200 scientists from 80 different research institutions from around the world. Based in Lausanne, Switzerland, this initiative is being put forth by the European Commission, and has even been compared to the Large Hadron Collider in terms of scope and ambition. In fact, some have taken to calling it the “Cern for the brain.”

According to scientists working on the project, the HBP will attempt to reconstruct the human brain piece-by-piece and gradually bring these cognitive components into the overarching supercomputer. The expected result of this research will be new platforms for “neuromorphic computing” and “neurorobotics,” allowing for the creation of computing and robotic architectures that mimick the functions of the human brain.

^According to a statement released by the HBP, Swedish Nobel Laureate Torsten Wiesel had this to say about the project:

The support of the HBP is a critical step taken by the EC to make possible major advances in our understanding of how the brain works. HBP will be a driving force to develop new and still more powerful computers to handle the massive accumulation of new information about the brain, while the neuroscientists are ready to use these new tools in their laboratories. This cooperation should lead to new concepts and a deeper understanding of the brain, the most complex and intricate creation on earth.

Other distinguished individuals who were quoted in the release include President Shimon Peres of Israel, Paul G. Allen, the founder of the Allen Institute for Brain Science; Patrick Aebischer, the President of EPFL in Switzerland; Harald Kainz, Rector of Graz University of Technology, Graz, Austria; as well as a slew of other politicians and academics.

Combined with other research institutions that are producing computer chips and processors that are modelled on the human brain, and our growing understanding of the human connectome, I think it would be safe to say that by the time the HBP wraps up, we are likely to see processors that are capable of demonstrating intelligence, not just in terms of processing speed and memory, but in terms of basic reasoning as well.

At that point, we really out to consider instituting Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics! Otherwise, things could get apocalyptic on our asses! 😉


The Future is Here: Silk Brain Implant to Treat Epilespy

silk_implantsSilk implants are becoming the way of the future as far as brain implants are concerned, due to their paradoxically high resiliency and ability to dissolve. By combining them with nanoelectric circuits or drugs, scientists are exploring several possible applications, ranging from communications devices to control prosthetics and machines to medicinal devices that could treat disabilities and mental illnesses.

And according to a recent study released by the National Institutes of Health, treating epilepsy is just the latest application. According to the study, when administered to a series of epileptic rats, the treatment led to the rats experiencing far fewer seizures. What’s more, this new treatment represents something entirely new in terms of treatment of neurological disorder.

brain_chipFor starters, Rebecca L. Williams-Karneskyand and her colleagues used the silk implants for a timed-release therapy in rats experiencing epileptic seizures. Working on the theory that people with epilepsy suffer from a low level of adenosine – a chemical that the brain releases naturally to suppress seizures (and also perhaps movement during sleep) – they soaked the silk implants before implanting them.

Those rats who recieved the silk brain implants still had seizures, but their numbers were reduced fourfold. The implant released the chemical for ten days before they completely dissolved. And with time and testing, the treatment could very easily be made available for humans. According to the study’s co-author, Detlev Boison:

Clinical applications could be the prevention of epilepsy following head trauma or the prevention of seizures that often — in about 50 percent of patients — follow conventional epilepsy surgery. In this case, adenosine-releasing silk might be placed into the resection cavity in order to prevent future seizures.

brainscanBetween the timed release of drugs and nanoelectric circuits that improve neuroelasticity, recall and relaxation, brain implants are coming a long way. At one time, they were the province of cyberpunk science fiction. But thanks to ongoing research and development, they are quickly jumping from the page and becoming a reality.

Though they currently remain confined to medical tests and laboratories, experts agree that it will be just a few years time before they are commercially available. By sometime in the coming decade, medimachines and neural implants will probably become a mainstay, and neurological disorders a fully treatable phenomena.


Should I Be Afraid of the Future?

should-i-be-afraid-of-the-futureNot that long ago, I discovered a site dedicated to taking speculations about the future, crunching data and trends, and producing visualizations about them. Already, they had me with their graph that shows when future technologies will emerge, and how they will be interrelated. But then came their future of education and health technology, both of which addressed the same issue – what can we can expect within the next few decades, leading up to the middle of this century?

And now, the good folks at Envisioning Technology have created something truly informative and relevant. Entitled “Should I be afraid of the future?”, the infograph addresses all the big questions people might have when it comes to emerging technology, environmental perils, and the kind of technophobia that often result.

“Geophysical disasters, global warming, robot uprisings, zombie apocalypse, overpopulation, and last but not least the end of the Mayan calendar – humanity faces many threats! Will we survive the end of the year? And if we do, what’s next lurking around the corner? What is science fiction, what is science fact? Join in exploring the world of existential risks – but always remember what Carl Sagan said: ‘Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.'”

The questions are broken down into three interrelating fields. First, there is Nature, covering such things as geological disasters, climate change, a possible ice age, and even astronomical events. Then comes Mankind, addressing possible factors such as war, apocalyptic scenarios, and overpopulation. And finally, there is technology, where questions about whether robots and AIs could turn hostile, and if advances in nanotech, biotech, and neuroscience could be potentially harmful.

And of course, each question is addressed in a rational, sensible fashion, even when the questions themselves are based on irrational, myth-peddling paranoia. The Mayan Calendar, bio-outbreaks, every possible technophobic impulse, and even a zombie apocalypse are covered. But then again, the infograph is all about addressing fears. Fear, by its very definition is irrational, and the only cure is information. A well-informed public is not only a safeguard against persecution and bigotry, but against a future full of existential risks.

Source: Envisioning Technology

Envisioning The Future of Health Technology

My thanks, yet again, to Futurist Foresight for providing the link to this fascinating infographic, which is the work of the good people at Envisioning Technology. People may remember this website from their work on “Envisioning Emerging Technology”, an infographic from a previous article which addressed the likelihood of interrelated technological developments in the coming decades. As a trend forecasting studio, compiling information and predictions into reports and tables in pretty much what these guys do. What a cool job!

In any case, here we have a table representing the future of health technology, as predicted by ET. Diving their findings into the fields of Augmentation, Biogerontology, Diagnostics, Telemedicine, Treatments, and Regeneration respectively, they attempt to show how small advancement in the near future will branch outwards to more radical ones in the not-too-distant future. The rough dates correspond to their previous graphic, starting with modern day research and culminating in 2040.

And of course, the infographic also shows how developments in all these fields over time will be interrelated, corresponding to different sub fields and becoming part of the ever-expanding field of advanced medicine. These sub fields include:

  • 3D Printing
  • Big Data
  • Cryonics
  • Life Extension
  • mHealth (health services supported by mobile devices)
  • Remote Virtual Presence
  • Neuroprosthetics
  • Sensors
  • Sensory Augmentation
  • Synthetic and Artificial Organs

Some inventions that are predicted include the Tricorder, 3D printed organs, artificial limbs, artificial eyes, cryogenic freezing, gene therapy, AI therapists, robotic nurses, robot surgery, implanted sensors, and exoskeletons. Wow, tricorders, really? In truth, I am often alarmed at what will be possible in the near future, but knowing that advancements are around the corner that could make life a lot healthier and happier for so many people gives me hope. Until next time!