The Future is Here: The Insight Neuroheadset

Emotiv_insightPortable EEG devices have come a long way in recent years. From their humble beginnings as large, wire-studded contraptions that cost upwards of $10,000, they have now reached the point where they are small, portable, and affordable. What’s more, they are capable of not only reading brainwaves and interpreting brain activity, but turning that activity into real-time commands and controls.

Once such device is the Emotiv Insight, a neuroheadset that is being created with the help of a Kickstarter campaign and is now available for preorder. Designed by the same company that produced the EPOC, an earlier brain-computer interface (BCI) that was released in 2010, the Insight offers many improvements. Unlike its bulky predecessor, the new model is sleeker, lighter, uses five sensors instead of the EPOC’s fourteen and can be linked to your smartphone.

Emotiv_insight_EPOCIn addition, the Insight uses a new type of hydrophilic polymer sensor that absorbs moisture from the environment. Whereas the EPOC’s sensors required that the user first apply saline solution to their scalp, no extra applied moisture is necessary with this latest model. This is a boon for people who plan on using it repeatedly and don’t want to moisten their head with goo every time to do it.

The purpose behind the Insight and EPOC headsets is quite simple. According to Tan Le, the founder of Emotiv, the company’s long term aim is to take a clinical system (the EEG) from the lab into the real world and to democratize brain research. As already noted, older EEG machines were prohibitively expensive for smaller labs and amateur scientists and made it difficult to conduct brain research. Le and his colleagues hope to change that.

emotiv_insight1And it seems that they are destined to get their way. Coupled with similar devices from companies like Neurosky, the stage seems set for an age when brain monitoring and brain-computer interface research is something that is truly affordable – costing just a few hundred dollars instead of $10,000 – and allowing independent labs and skunkworks to contribute their own ideas and research to the fore.

As of September 16th, when the Kickstarter campaign officially closed, Emotiv surpassed its $1 million goal and raised a total of $1,643,117 for their device. Because of this, the company plans to upgrade the headset with a six-axis intertial sensor – to keep track of the user’s head movements, gait, tremor, gestures, etc. – a microSD card reader for added security, and a 3-axis magnetometer (i.e. a compass).

woman-robotic-arm_650x366In some cases, these new brain-to computer interfaces are making it possible for people with disabilities or debilitating illnesses to control robots and prosthetics that assist them with their activities, rehab therapy, or restore mobility. On a larger front, they are also being adapted for commercial use – gaming and interfacing with personal computers and devices – as well as potential medical science applications such as neurotherapy, neuromonitoring, and neurofeedback.

Much like a fitness tracker, these devices could let us know how we are sleeping, monitor our emotional state over time, and make recommendations based on comparative analyses. So in addition to their being a viable growth market in aiding people with disabilities, there is also the very real possibility that neuroheadsets will give people a new and exciting way to interface with their machinery and keep “mental records”.

Passwords are likely to replace passthoughts, people will be able to identify themselves with brain-activity records, and remote control will take on a whole new meaning! In addition, mental records could become part of our regular medical records and could even be called upon to be used as evidence when trying to demonstrate mental fitness or insanity at trials. Dick Wolf, call me already! I’m practically giving these ideas away!

And be sure to enjoy this video from Emotiv’s Kickstarter site:


Sources: fastcoexist.com, kickstarter.com

Patenting Genes: US Supreme Court Says No

dna_doublehelixLast week, in a landmark decision that is expected to have far-reaching consequences, the United States Supreme Court announced in a unanimous decision that no part of the human DNA sequence – or the DNA of any living organism – is patentable. This decision came after thirty years of patents being issued on genes for the sake of genetic research, and which was spurred on by recent developments, such as the publication of the human genome.

Specifically, the case came down to a claim made by Myriad Genetics, the company that discovered the BRCA-1 and BRCA-2 genetic mutations that can lead to higher incidences of breast cancer. They patented these sequences in the hopes of having a lucrative investment when it came to future screenings and treatments. But for many, this signaled that a line was being crossed, and the case went to court.

us_supremecourtFor critics of Myriad’s attempt to patent the genetic mutations, they claimed that this made screening often prohibitively expensive. Angelina Jolie was one such person, who drew attention to the fact that her mother – who died of breast cancer – and women like her would be unable to afford the treatment if Myriad got it’s way. Myriad fought back by saying that without the possibility of future financial gain, there would be no incentive for companies to sink money into searching for these genes.

In the end, the Supreme Court voted 9 to 0 that genes are products of nature and not human-made inventions, which makes them ineligible for a patent. For many, this decision has temporarily closed Pandora’s Box and prevented corporations from obtaining the right to carve up the human genome and lay claim to it, a process which many believed would lead to monopolies of gene treatments and the potential ownership of human beings themselves.

GMO_seedsOn the other hand, the court’s ruling did not apply to one other key issue: synthetic genes. Basically, genetic modifications that are made my companies for the sake of modifying foods, agricultural produce, and even animals are still up for grabs. And at least one major corporation is pretty pleased about this. In allowing for synthetic genes to remain a grey area, Monsanto is likely to continue seeking to patent its genetically-modified seeds.

Just over a month ago, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the giant agribusiness in one of the most important lawsuits filed by the company in recent years. In essence, the court’s ruled that an Indiana soybean farmer was infringing on Monsanto’s soybean patent by buying the seeds from a nearby grain elevator and then saving them.

agribusinessOf the 144 lawsuits filed against 410 farmers and 56 small farm businesses throughout the U.S. in the past few years (according to the Center for Food Safety), this case was especially important. It essentially set the precedent that anyone selling genetically-modified grains had to pay royalties to the company responsible for their creation. This in turn has long-reaching implications which go far beyond agribusiness.

Though it is still a grey area, the legal battle over modified genes seems all but decided at this point. Whereas natural genes cannot be subject to patents, anything a company modifies in a lab already have been. But given the growth of skunkworks and biohacking labs around the world, there is still time for small operations and independent companies to get in on the action.

As time has shown, diversification is the natural enemy of monopolization. But by far the most important thing of all, whether it’s about patenting genes or modifying them for our use, is for people to remain informed on the issue. As long as people know what decisions are being made behind closed doors, they will have a shot at controlling the outcome.

Sources: fastcoexist.com, (2)

The Future of Cities and Urban Planning

future-city-1With the development of vertical farms, carbon capture technology, clean energy and arcologies, the future of city life and urban planning is likely to be much different than it does today. Using current trends, there are a number of people who are determined to gain some understanding of what that might look like. One such group is Arup, a design and engineering firm that produced a mockup that visualizes what urban environments will look like in 2050.

Based on the world as it is today, certain facts about the future seem relatively certain. For starters, three-quarters of the population will live in cities, or 6.75 billion of the projected 9 billion global total. In addition, everyone will have grown up with the Internet, and its successors, and city residents will have access to less natural resources than they do today, making regeneration and efficiency more of a priority.

Add to this several emerging technologies, and our urban environments are likely to look something like the building mockup below. As you can see, it has its own energy systems (“micro-wind,” “solar PV paint,” and “algae facade” for producing biofuels). There is an integrated layer for meat, poultry, fish, and vegetable farming, a “building membrane” that converts CO2 to oxygen, heat recovery surfaces, materials that phase change and repair themselves, integration with the rest of the city, and much more.

future_urban_planning

Most futuristic of all is the fact that the structure is completely modular and designed to be shifted about (by robots, of course). The building has three layer types, with different life-spans. At the bottom is a permanent layer – with a 10 to 20-year lifespan – which includes the “facade and primary fit-out walls, finishes, or on-floor mechanical plant” – and a third layer that can incorporate rapid changes, such as new IT equipment.

As Arup’s Josef Hargrave described the building when unveiling the design:

[A]ble to make informed and calculated decisions based on their surrounding environment… [a] living and breathing [structure] able to support the cities and people of tomorrow.

In short, the building is designed with personal needs in mind, based on information gleamed from a person’s behaviors, stated preferences, and even genetic information.

aircleaning_skyscraper3But what is even more interesting is how these buildings will be constructed. As countless developments are made in the field of robotics, biotechnology and nanotechnology, both the materials used and the processes involved are likely to be radically different. The rigid construction that we are used to is likely to give way to buildings which are far more flexible, adaptive, and – best of all – built by robots, drones, tiny machines and bacteria cultures.

Once again, this change is due mainly to the pressures that are being placed on urban environments, and not just technological advances. As our world becomes even more densely populated, greater proportions of people live in urban environments, and resources become more constrained, the way we build our cities must offer optimum efficiency with minimal impact.

nanomachineryTowards this end, innovations in additive manufacturing, synthetic biology, swarm robotics, and architecture suggest a future scenario when buildings may be designed using libraries of biological templates and constructed with biosynthetic materials able to sense and adapt to their conditions.

What this means is that cities could be grown, or assembled at the atomic level, forming buildings that are either living creatures themselves, or composed of self-replicated machines that can adapt and change as needed. Might sound like science fiction, but countless firms and labs are working towards this very thing every day.

It has already been demonstrated that single cells are capable of being programmed to carry out computational operations, and that DNA strains are capable of being arranged to carry out specialized functions. Given the rapid progress in the field of biotech and biomimetics (technology that imitates biology), a future where the built environment imitates organic life seems just around the corner.

biofabrication For example, at Harvard there is a biotech research outfit known as Robobees that is working on a concept known as “programming group dynamics”. Like corals, beehives, and termite colonies, there’s a scalar effect gained from coordinating large numbers of simple agents to perform complex goals. Towards this end, Robobees has been working towards the creation of robotic insects that exhibit the swarming behaviors of bees.

Mike Rubenstein leads another Harvard lab, known as Kilobot, which is dedicated to creating a “low cost scalable robot system for demonstrating collective behaviors.” His lab, along with the work of researcher’s like Nancy Lynch at MIT, are laying the frameworks for asynchronous distributed networks and multi-agent coordination, aka swarm robotics, that would also be capable of erecting large structures thanks to centralized, hive-mind programming.

nanorobot1

In addition to MIT, Caltech, and various academic research departments, there are also scores of private firms and DIY labs looking to make things happen. For example, the companies Autodesk Research and Organovo recently announced a partnership where they will be combining their resources – modelling the microscopic organic world and building bioprinters – to begin biofabricating everything from drugs to nanomachines.

And then there are outfits like the Columbia Living Architecture Lab, a group that explores ways to integrate biology into architecture. Their recent work investigates bacterial manufacturing, the genetic modification of bacteria to create durable materials. Envisioning a future where bacterial colonies are designed to print novel materials at scale, they see buildings wrapped in seamless, responsive, bio-electronic envelopes.

ESA_moonbaseAnd let’s not forget 3D printing, a possibility which is being explored by NASA and the European Space Agency as the means to create a settlement on the Moon. In the case of the ESA, they have partnered with roboticist Enrico Dini, who created a 3-D printer large enough to print houses from sand. Using his concept, the ESA hopes to do the same thing using regolith – aka. moon dust – to build structures on Earth’s only satellite.

All of these projects are brewing in university and corporate labs, but it’s likely that there are far more of them sprouting in DIY labs and skunkworks all across the globe. And in the end, each of them is dedicated to the efficiency of natural systems, and their realization through biomimetic technology. And given that the future is likely to be characterized by resources shortages, environmental degradation and the need for security, it is likely to assume that all of these areas of study are likely to produce some very interesting scenarios.

As I’ve said many times before, the future is likely to be a very interesting place, thanks to the convergence of both Climate Change and technological change. With so many advances promising a future of post-scarcity, post-mortality, a means of production and a level of control over our environment which is nothing short of mind-boggling – and a history of environmental degradation and resource depletion that promises shortages, scarcity, and some frightening prospects – our living spaces are likely to change drastically.

The 21st century is going to be a very interesting time, people. Let’s just hope we make it out alive!

Sources: fastcoexist.com, (2)