The Future is Here: Memory Prosthetics

Restoring Active Memory (Shutterstock)Developing implants that can restore damaged neural tissue – either by restoring the connections between damaged memory synapses or restoring cognitive function – is seen as the next great leap in prosthetic medicine. In recent years, steps have been taken in both areas, offering patients and willing subjects the option of restoring or hacking their neurology.

For example, last year, researchers working at the University of California and the University of Pennsylvania successfully managed to design and implement a brain implant that acted as a bypass for damaged brain tissue. This neural prosthesis successfully restored brain function in rats, demonstrating that the closed-loop brain-machine-brain interface could one day perform the same function in brain-damaged humans.

brain-darpa-617x416And as with many such projects, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) soon became involved, taking up the reins to fund the research and development of the technology. As part of the DARPA Restoring Active Memory (RAM) program, the device is currently being developed with the hope of restoring memory function in veterans who have suffered a traumatic brain injury.

Currently, over 270,000 military service members since 2000 and an estimated 1.7 million civilians in the US are affected by TBI, which often manifests as an inability to retrieve memories formed before being injured and an impaired ability to form new memories. Currently, there are also no effective treatments available, and beyond veterans, there are countless people around the world who suffer from the same condition as a result of accidents.

brainscansThe teams will first develop computer models that describe how neurons code memories, as well as analyzing neural signals in order to understand how targeted stimulation might help restore the brain’s ability to form memories. The UCLA team will use data collected from epilepsy patients that already have electrodes implanted in their brains to develop a model of the hippocampal-entorhinal system – known to be involved in learning and memory.

Meanwhile, the University of Pennsylvania team will study neurosurgical patients with implanted brain electrodes, recording data as they play computer-based memory games in order to gain an understanding of how successful memory function works. All patients will be volunteers, and the teams then plan to integrate these models into implantable closed-loop systems.

brain_chip2Like the research on rats, the implant will pick up neural signals from an undamaged section of the brain and route it around the damaged portion, effectively forming a new neural link that functions as well as the undamaged brain. And this is not the only research that aims to help assist in memory function when it comes to veterans and those suffering from TBI.

At Lawrence Livermore National Labs (LLNL), for example, efforts are being made to create a new type of “memory bridge”. This research builds upon similar efforts from USC, where researcher Ted Berger developed the first implantable memory device (coincidentally, also as part of DARPA’s RAM program) where limited electrodes were applied to the hippocampal regions of the brain to assist in recall and memory formation.

brain-implant-hippocampus-usc-640x424However, until now, no research lab has had any real clue as to what kinds of “codes” are involved when applying electrical stimulus to the brain. The LLNL group, which previously contributed to the groundbreaking Argus II retinal prosthesis is now taking a more integrated approach. With the recent announcement of ample federal BRAIN Initiative funding, they aim to build multifunction electro-optical-chemical neural sensor-effectors.

On the electrical end, LLNL’s new wafer technology will use fairly high electrode counts (perhaps 500-1000 spots). Compared to the usual higher density 11,000-electrode chips that have been used in the past, these chips will have more sparsely distributed electrode locations. Integrated light guides will provide conduits for optogenetic manipulations, and as an added bonus bi-directional fluid channels for any number of chemical exchanges are also etched in. 

llnl-brain-implantAnd like their California/Penn colleagues, the LLNL has teamed up with DARPA to get the funding they need to make this project a reality. So far, DARPA funders have brought in the implant heavyweight Medtronic, which made news last year with the development of its own closed-loop stimulators, to lend its expertise. In their case, the stimulators merged Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) with Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) to treat Parkinson’s.

Unfortunately, while immense progress in being made at the hardware end of things, there is still the matter of cracking the brains code first. In other words, where the device needs to be placed and which neurons need to be precisely controlled remain a mystery. Not all neurons are the same, and control hierarchies and preferred activation paths will inevitably emerge.

DeepBrain-New1Ultimately, what is needed in order to make precisely-targeted deep brain stimulation (DBS) possible is a real 3D model of the regions of the brain involved. Multiple efforts are underway, not the least of which are the work of Michele Tagliati’s group from the Movement Disorders Program in the department of neurology at Cedars-Sinai, or the Human Brain Project in Luasanne, Switzerland.

In these and other cases, the use of MRIs and brain scans to create a working map of the human brain – so that attempts to create biomimetic prosthetics that can enhance or assist in it’s functions – is the ultimate goal. And once researchers have a better idea of what the brain’s layout is, and what kinds of control hierarchies and paths are involved, we can expect to see brain implants becoming a regular feature of medicine.

And as always, devices that can restore function also open the way for the possibility of enhancement. So we can also expect that bionics prosthetics that restore memory and cognitive function will give way to ones that boost these as well. The dream of Homo Superior, the post-human, or transhumanism – whatever you choose to call it – is looking to be increasingly within our grasp.

And be sure to check out this video from LLNL showcasing how their new neural implant works:


Sources:
 cnet.com, extremetech.com, darpa.mil

Cyberwars: The Heartbleed Bug and Web Security

heartbleed-iconA little over two years ago, a tiny piece of code was introduced to the internet that contained a bug. This bug was known as Heartbleed, and in the two years it has taken for the world to recognize its existence, it has caused quite a few headaches. In addition to allowing cybercriminals to steal passwords and usernames from Yahoo, it has also allowed people to steal from online bank accounts, infiltrate governments institutions (such as Revenue Canada), and generally undermine confidence in the internet.

What’s more, in an age of cyberwarfare and domestic surveillance, its appearance would give conspiracy theorists a field day. And since it was first disclosed a month to the day ago, some rather interesting theories as to how the NSA and China have been exploiting this to spy on people have surfaced. But more on that later. First off, some explanation as to what Heartbleed is, where it came from, and how people can protect themselves from it, seems in order.

cyber_securityFirst off, Heartbleed is not a virus or a type of malware in the traditional sense, though it can be exploited by malware and cybercriminals to achieve similar results. Basically, it is a security bug or programming error in popular versions of OpenSSL, a software code that encrypts and protects the privacy of your password, banking information and any other sensitive data you provide in the course of checking your email or doing a little online banking.

Though it was only made public a month ago, the origins of the bug go back just over two years – to New Year’s Eve 2011, to be exact. It was at this time that Stephen Henson, one of the collaborators on the OpenSSL Project, received the code from Robin Seggelmann – a respected academic who’s an expert in internet protocols. Henson reviewed the code – an update for the OpenSSL internet security protocol — and by the time he and his colleagues were ringing in the New Year, he had added it to a software repository used by sites across the web.

Hackers-With-An-AgendaWhat’s interesting about the bug, which is named for the “heartbeat” part of the code that it affects, is that it is not a virus or piece of malware in the traditional sense. What it does is allow people the ability to read the memory of systems that are protected by the bug-affected code, which accounts for two-thirds of the internet. That way, cybercriminals can get the keys they need to decode and read the encrypted data they want.

The bug was independently discovered recently by Codenomicon – a Finnish web security firm – and Google Security researcher Neel Mehta. Since information about its discovery was disclosed on April 7th, 2014, The official name for the vulnerability is CVE-2014-0160.it is estimated that some 17 percent (around half a million) of the Internet’s secure web servers that were certified by trusted authorities have been made vulnerable.

cyberwarfare1Several institutions have also come forward in that time to declare that they were subject to attack. For instance, The Canada Revenue Agency that they were accessed through the exploit of the bug during a 6-hour period on April 8th and reported the theft of Social Insurance Numbers belonging to 900 taxpayers. When the attack was discovered, the agency shut down its web site and extended the taxpayer filing deadline from April 30 to May 5.

The agency also said it would provide anyone affected with credit protection services at no cost, and it appears that the guilty parties were apprehended. This was announced on April 16, when the RCMP claimed that they had charged an engineering student in relation to the theft with “unauthorized use of a computer” and “mischief in relation to data”. In another incident, the UK parenting site Mumsnet had several user accounts hijacked, and its CEO was impersonated.

nsa_aerialAnother consequence of the bug is the impetus it has given to conspiracy theorists who believe it may be part of a government-sanctioned ploy. Given recent revelations about the NSA’s extensive efforts to eavesdrop on internet activity and engage in cyberwarfare, this is hardly a surprise. Nor would it be the first time, as anyone who recalls the case made for the NIST SP800-90 Dual Ec Prng program – a pseudorandom number generator is used extensively in cryptography – acting as a “backdoor” for the NSA to exploit.

In that, and this latest bout of speculation, it is believed that the vulnerability in the encryption itself may have been intentionally created to allow spy agencies to steal the private keys that vulnerable web sites use to encrypt your traffic to them. And cracking SSL to decrypt internet traffic has long been on the NSA’s wish list. Last September, the Guardian reported that the NSA and Britain’s GCHQ had “successfully cracked” much of the online encryption we rely on to secure email and other sensitive transactions and data.

Edward-Snowden-660x367According to documents the paper obtained from Snowden, GCHQ had specifically been working to develop ways into the encrypted traffic of Google, Yahoo, Facebook, and Hotmail to decrypt traffic in near-real time; and in 2010, there was documentation that suggested that they might have succeeded. Although this was two years before the Heartbleed vulnerability existed, it does serve to highlight the agency’s efforts to get at encrypted traffic.

For some time now, security experts have speculated about whether the NSA cracked SSL communications; and if so, how the agency might have accomplished the feat. But now, the existence of Heartbleed raises the possibility that in some cases, the NSA might not have needed to crack SSL at all. Instead, it’s possible the agency simply used the vulnerability to obtain the private keys of web-based companies to decrypt their traffic.

hackers_securityThough security vulnerabilities come and go, this one is deemed catastrophic because it’s at the core of SSL, the encryption protocol trusted by so many to protect their data. And beyond abuse by government sources, the bug is also worrisome because it could possibly be used by hackers to steal usernames and passwords for sensitive services like banking, ecommerce, and email. In short, it empowers individual troublemakers everywhere by ensuring that the locks on our information can be exploited by anyone who knows how to do it.

Matt Blaze, a cryptographer and computer security professor at the University of Pennsylvania, claims that “It really is the worst and most widespread vulnerability in SSL that has come out.” The Electronic Frontier Foundation, Ars Technica, and Bruce Schneier all deemed the Heartbleed bug “catastrophic”, and Forbes cybersecurity columnist Joseph Steinberg event went as far as to say that:

Some might argue that [Heartbleed] is the worst vulnerability found (at least in terms of its potential impact) since commercial traffic began to flow on the Internet.

opensslRegardless, Heartbleed does point to a much larger problem with the design of the internet. Some of its most important pieces are controlled by just a handful of people, many of whom aren’t paid well — or aren’t paid at all. In short, Heartbleed has shown that more oversight is needed to protect the internet’s underlying infrastructure. And the sad truth is that open source software — which underpins vast swathes of the net — has a serious sustainability problem.

Another problem is money, in that important projects just aren’t getting enough of it. Whereas well-known projects such as Linux, Mozilla, and the Apache web server enjoy hundreds of millions of dollars in annual funding, projects like the OpenSSL Software Foundation – which are forced to raise money for the project’s software development – have never raised more than $1 million in a year. To top it all off, there are issues when it comes to the open source ecosystem itself.

Cyber-WarTypically, projects start when developers need to fix a particular problem; and when they open source their solution, it’s instantly available to everyone. If the problem they address is common, the software can become wildly popular overnight. As a result, some projects never get the full attention from developers they deserve. Steve Marquess, one of the OpenSSL foundation’s partners, believes that part of the problem is that whereas people can see and touch their web browsers and Linux, they are out of touch with the cryptographic library.

In the end, the only real solutions is in informing the public. Since internet security affects us all, and the processes by which we secure our information is entrusted to too few hands, then the immediate solution is to widen the scope of inquiry and involvement. It also wouldn’t hurt to commit additional resources to the process of monitoring and securing the web, thereby ensuring that spy agencies and private individuals are not exercising too much or control over it, or able to do clandestine things with it.

In the meantime, the researchers from Codenomicon have set up a website with more detailed information. Click here to access it and see what you can do to protect yourself.

Sources: cbc.ca, wired.com, (2), heartbleed.com

Judgement Day Update: Robot Versatility

AI_robotWhat is it about robots that manages to inspire us even as they creep us out? Somehow, we just can’t stop pushing the envelope to make them smarter, faster, and more versatile; even as we entertain fears that they might someday replace us. And at the forefront of this expanding research is the desire to create robots that can not only think for themselves, but also maintain and/or repair themselves.

Case in point, the new hexapod robot that was developed by researchers from Pierre-and-Marie-Curie University, in Paris. Built with survivability in mind, this robot is the first of its kind to be able to address structural damage, adapt, and carry on. In a world where robots can be very expensive, the ability to keep working despite the loss of a component is invaluable.

clever-hexapodTo do this, the hexapod uses what the team refers to as a T-resilience (the T standing for Transferability-based) algorithm. With six legs, the hexapod moves along quite at a steady 26 cm/s. But once it loses one its front legs, it manages only 8 cm/s. But after running 20 minutes’ worth of simulations and tests, the robot works out a new way of walking, and is able to more than double its speed and cover 18 cm/s.

Essential to this approach is that the robot is programmed with what amounts to an understanding of its ideal undamaged anatomy. Previously, roboticists believed that it was necessary for a robot to analyze its new gait to diagnose the damage and compensate accordingly. But the team argues that a robot can arrive at an answer more quickly by generating a number of possible alternatives based on an undamaged state, and then testing them.

clever-hexapod-4The robot spends 20 minutes testing 25 alternatives, during which a ranging camera feeds data to a separate algorithm which works out the distance traveled. In this way the robot is able to compare its actual performance with its theoretical performance, finally settling for the closest match: a gait which recovers much of the lost speed.

This resilience could one day be a godsend for crew that rely on robots to survey disaster zones, conduct rescue operations, or deal with explosive devices. The ability to carry on without the need for repair not only ensures a better history of service, but makes sure that a task can be completed with subjecting repair crews to danger.

The team’s findings were released in a self-published paper entitled “Fast Damage Recovery in Robotics with the T-Resilience Algorithm”. And of course, the hexapod’s test run was caught on video:


And then there’s the RHex robot, a machine designed with versatility and performance in mind. Much like many robots in production today, it utilizes a six-foot (hexapod) configuration. But it is in how the RHex uses its appendages that set it apart, allowing for such athletic feats as long jumps, pull-ups, climbing stairs and even scaling walls.

This is all made possible by RHex’s six spinning appendages, which act as a sort of wheel-leg combination rather than traditional feet. These legs provide for a form of motion that exceeds standard locomotion, and allow the robot to go places others could not. The robot was created through the collaborative efforts of Aaron Johnson, an engineering graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, and professor Daniel Koditschek at Penn State’s Kod*Lab.

RhexSaid Johnson of their robotic creation:

What we want is a robot that can go anywhere, even over terrain that might be broken and uneven. These latest jumps greatly expand the range of what this machine is capable of, as it can now jump onto or across obstacles that are bigger than it is.

Here too, the potential comes in the form of being able to mount rescue missions in rugged and hostile terrain. Thanks to its versatile range of motions, the RHex could easily be scaled into a larger robot that would be able to navigate rocky areas, collapsed buildings, and disaster zones with relative ease, and would have no trouble getting up inclined surfaces of hopping over gaps and holes.

And be sure to check out the video of the RHex in action. It’s like watching robot Parkour! Check it out:


Granted, we’re still a long way from the Nexus 6 or NS-5, but real advances are far more impressive than fictional representations. And with parallel developments taking place in the field of AI, it is clear that robots are going to be an integral part of our future. One can only hope its a happy, docile part. When it comes time for science fiction to give way to science fact, we could all do without certain cliches!

bender_killallhumans

Sources: gizmag.com, fastcoexist.com