Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Is AI Finally Acknowledging the Existence of Bio-Brains?

Randal Koene - Whole Brain Emulation from Raj Dye on Vimeo.
The above is a video from a conference on artificial general intelligence (AGI) held in Switzerland, last year. The speaker is a neuroscientist -- an outsider to the typical AI person who attends AI conferences. His appearance at the AGI conference indicates that the entire approach to AI is in a state of flux.

The attitude up until recently has been that intelligence does not rely upon any particular substrate, eg, a brain. AI researchers have boldly believed for several decades that intelligence could be built algorithmically inside machine architectures over a relatively short time span. "Sometime within 10 years . . ."

They have been saying the same thing -- "within 10 years" -- since the 1950s. Clearly not very much has happened in the way of significant breakthroughs since the 1950s. In fact, contemporary AI researchers themselves may well be growing less impressive, over time, than the pioneers of the field.

Hence the perceived need for possibly re-thinking the whole "substrate" approach. Another video in the series deals with the requirements of "cognitive architecture." An impressive phrase, although the reality is likely to prove far less impressive.  Another talk is entitled A General Intelligence Oriented Architecture for Embodied Natural Language Processing.   At least more thought is being devoted in the AI community toward the substrate of intelligence.   Late is better than never.

Adapted from Al Fin Potpourri

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Smart Drugs? No, Just Quicker at Being Stupid

Update: A review of an array of "smart drugs" from a company that actually sells them.
A brief description of one instance of Provigil use from a Times reporter
Why Smart Drugs Don't Work Like NZT

What are smart drugs? Pills that are supposed to enhance a person's cognitive abilities in some way. Anything from Ritalin to Amphetamines to Provigil might qualify, as well as a wide range of lesser known "nootropics."

These pills are not only popular among university students, but also , truck drivers, and fast-paced professionals pushing every synapse to its limit. They can enhance attention, prolong attention span, help keep the mind on topic. All very important when facing a deadline for a research paper, a big work project, or when cramming for an exam.

In one sense, advanced societies run on smart drugs. Western societies embraced coffee, tea, and chocolate as quickly as they could -- and significant battles were fought over the rights to market these early smart drugs.

Fast forward to today, and the "stimulant smart drugs" are being pumped onto the markets -- both legal and illegal -- at prodigious rates. But newer, more advanced generations of smart drugs may be on the horizon.

This Al Fin posting from 2007 is still one of the best summaries of smart drug research I have found. Here is a more recent survey of the field from Gizmodo. Some of the newer drugs enhance attention, some enhance memory, some may enhance creativity.

But what about other approaches to getting smarter, besides drugs?
Instead of drugs, the first brain boosters to channel creativity could be electromagnetic devices designed to enhance cognitive skills. One fascinating proposal comes from Allan Snyder, director of the Centre for the Mind at the University of Sydney in Australia. He theorizes that autistic savants derive their skills from an ability to access “privileged, less processed sensory information normally inhibited from conscious awareness.” For normal people, tapping that sensory well might lead to deeply buried creative riches. To test the idea, Snyder and colleagues exposed subjects to low-frequency magnetic pulses (the technology is called transcranial magnetic brain stimulation, or TMS) that suppressed part of their brain function. The researchers found that the subjects acquired savantlike skills, including the ability to render more detailed, naturalistic art. _Discover
Electromagnetic stimulation of the brain probably has a great future ahead of it. But caution is always wise, when working in and around the brain.

All of these drugs -- past, present, and future generation -- are relative sledge-hammers compared to the intricate workings of the human brain. But the real reason smart drugs won't work like "NZT" (from the movie "Limitless") is because none of them can make the necessary changes in both function and structure, to turn mediocrity into brilliance.

But for some of us, not trying is not an option.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Building a Neo-Nano-Neuro-Brain from Scratch


Human brains are amazing mental machines. As far as we know, there is nothing else quite like them in the universe. But we always wonder whether perhaps, we could build something just a bit better? Observe all the hoopla and expenditure over the past 60+ years in the field of "artificial intelligence." What a disappointment that has been so far.

It seems we may be taking the wrong approach to the problem. Why should we abandon the human brain -- the only working model of conscious intelligence that we know of -- and place all our hopes on digital silicon? Perhaps the human brain is not as intelligent as we thought -- at least human brains in academia, research, and research funding?

Here is an interesting twist on the conundrum: Why not design a neuronal scaffolding out of nanotubes made of germanium and silicon, then allow neurons to grow within the scaffolding? The neurons will naturally make networked connections with each other along the scaffold, but an added bonus may be the ability to interface the neurons with the silicon-germanium substrate of the scaffold itself.
Graduate students at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, led by Minrui Yu, have published an ACS Nano paper, "Semiconductor Nanomembrane Tubes: Three-Dimensional Confinement for Controlled Neurite Outgrowth," in which they show that they have been able to successfully coax nerve cell tendrils to grow through tiny tubes made of the semi-conductor materials silicon and germanium. While this ground-breaking research may not portend cyborgs or even human brains enmeshed with computer parts, it does open the door to the possibility of regenerating nerve cells damaged due to disease or injury.

Yu and his team, led by Justin Williams, a biomedical engineer, created tubes of varying sizes and shapes, small enough for a nerve cell to glam on to, but not so big that it could fit all the way inside. The tubes were then coated with nerve cells from mice and then watched to see how they would react. Instead of sitting idly, the nerve cells began to send tendrils through the tunnels, as if searching for a path to something or somewhere else. In some instances they actually followed the contours of the tubes, which means, in theory, that the nerves could be grown into structures. _PO
Indeed. The nerves could be grown into structures along prescribed pathways. But the possibility of a functional and powerful brain-machine interface is also being considered.
The hope of course, in this type of research, is that a way can be found to connect a computer of some sort to a group of nerve cells to reestablish communication that has been disrupted. The computer in this case could serve as a relay of sorts, allowing those who can no longer walk, for example, due to spinal injury or disease, regain their former abilities. In that regard, this particular research is even more revealing than it might at first seem, due to the fact that the tiny tubes that have been created, very closely resemble myelin, the outer insulating sheath that covers parts of normal nerve cells. _PO
This is the actual goal of the researchers in Wisconsin: to grow a nerve:computer interface. But emergent phenomena are likely to grow from the humble beginnings of such an approach. If one can design a scaffolding according to the most advanced brain imaging, seed it with the appropriate proto-cells, and nourish it into an intricate, functioning, autopoietic neural:nano hybrid network, what fascinating phenomena may manifest themselves along the way?

Cyborg or Grobyc? You be the judge.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Overlapping Climate Cycles Lead to Natural Climate Chaos

Earth's climate is driven by multiple ongoing cycles on many levels. When natural resonant cycles overlap -- at whatever level -- they can contribute to a chaotic pattern.
When the overlap starts, many higher-order resonances are also involved so fairly large areas of phase space have their tori destroyed and the ensuing chaos is "widespread" since trajectories are now free to wander between regions that previously were separated by nonresonant tori. _Wolfram
We begin with a pictorial overview of the natural components of climate -- sun, ocean, land, atmosphere, volcanoes, ice & snow, living organisms -- all of which appear to be subject to periodic cycling of various types, with potentially chaotic overlap.
Volcanoes can exert very strong influences on climate. It appears as if volcanic activity can occur at widely separated locations almost simultaneously, due to underlying geologic activity. Whether or not such tectonic movements occur "cyclically," the impact of such large scale volcanic activity can easily contribute to a naturally chaotic climate.
Natural ocean oscillations are thought to be driven by periodic solar variation, pictured below. These ocean oscillations such as El Nino (PDF) drive cycles of atmospheric heating and cooling, cycles of ice & snow, and strongly influence populations of living organisms worldwide.
Solar variation influences the size of the heliosphere, and determine the extent of galactic cosmic ray infiltration into the solar system and Earth's climatic system. This cyclic variation of cosmic ray bombardment on Earth's atsmosphere is thought to influence the amount of cloud formation in the atmosphere, which influences planetary ensolation and radiative heat balance.
The Milankovich orbital cycles occur with different periodicity in the tens of thousands of years, creating overlapping resonances with potential chaotic results on climate.
Another multi-thousand year orbital cycle which could easily influence global climate, is the slightly varying angle of Earth's solar orbit to the ecliptic. As the planet falls slightly below the plane and risis slightly above the plane of the ecliptic -- over tens of thousands of years -- the thickness of intervening dust between Earth and Sun varies. This periodically alters the ensolation of the Earth's system. Such cycles may have subtle effects, but in combination with other overlapping resonances, these overlapping effects may push the system into a chaotic result.
The image above illustrates the heliosphere, which can expand and contract according to the Sun's periodic activity. The fluctuating heliosphere is an important line of defense against galactic cosmic rays -- which are very likely to influence Earth's climate.
The Solar system is passing through an enormous interstellar cloud, which may or may not have an influence on climate. But it is a rather fascinating topic all the same.

Understanding natural chaos in climate is a crucial matter for policy-makers, who must determine the fate of US$trillions of future spending of tax dollars.

For science to provide the greatest benefit to those who fund it, it must focus upon genuine problems which need to be solved. As long as scientists have open, sceptical minds, they are more able to look at problems from varying perspectives -- from the close-in small picture, to the far-out big picture.

The last thing that tax-paying humans need is for their tax-paid scientists to fly off on a narrow tangent which ignores the larger picture. That would be a very wasteful tragedy.

Taken from an earlier article published at Al Fin

Brian Wang Hit by a Firestorm of Uninformed Criticism

In a recent NextBigFuture article, Brian Wang takes a cautious look at the IQ of nations and possible relationship between a nation's wealth and its average population IQ. Brian's modest observations were greeted by a veritable firestorm of politically correct monkeys lobbing handfuls of shite in comments. This is par for the course, whenever contemporary university "educated" people are confronted with uncomfortable observations.

The facts, of course, remain the same, regardless of wounded sensibilities or ideological indignation. The problem for society is that their brightest youth are increasingly unable to deal with minimally digested data. Instead, these "brightest lights" must have their data thoroughly processed and filtered, and slanted in the correct orientation. Given the convergence of significant problems facing the youth of today and tomorrow, this trend toward an Idiocracy -- even among the brightest humans -- is becoming a serious problem.

If not for their "Smart Fraction," most nations would be in much more difficulty than at present.
For example, in Brazil, it is the Japanese who are the highest-achieving group. They were brought in as indentured labourers to work the plantations after slavery was abolished in 1888. Yet, today, the Japanese outscore Whites on IQ tests, earn more, and are over-represented in university places. Although they are less than one percent of the total population, they comprise 17 percent of the students at the elite University of Sao Paulo.

In Caribbean countries such as Cuba, Trinidad, and Guyana, it was the Chinese and South Asians who were brought in after the end of slavery. Subsequently, they too began to do well, with the Chinese excelling and the South Asians placing intermediate to Whites and Blacks.

...seven studies of Jews in Britain yield a median IQ of 110. In educational achievement, East Asians in Britain also outperform the indigenous Whites.

Similarly in Australia, East Asians (mostly Chinese and Vietnamese) average higher than Whites in IQ, educational achievement, and earnings. Lynn describes pockets of ethnic Chinese elsewhere in the world such as in Mexico, Argentina, and especially Hawaii, where they also do well.

In Canada too, there is an IQ hierarchy: Jews (109), East Asians (101), Whites (100), Amerindians (89), and Blacks (84).

These results are remarkably consistent over time, place, and situation, irrespective of the original status of the people, or the language, history, and political organization of the country concerned. _Global Bell Curve Review
Racial stratification of multiethnic and multicultural societies is a well-known -- if generally left unsaid -- fact of everyday life. The smarter groups are the "smart fraction" who typically run the high tech and most demanding segments of society. The political "inside group", on the other hand, tends to occupy most civil service positions and other "placeholder" or "feather-bedding" jobs.

In other words, the smart fraction gets things done, while favoured groups receive a free ride. But since the obvious truth is uncomfortable to favoured groups and politically correct insiders, no one ever comes out and expresses it -- at least not in polite company.

Brian Wang provides a rare and valuable service on the internet, by exposing a general audience to much of the cutting edge of technology and science -- in easily understood language. His website has become quite popular for its considerable value. But well-indoctrinated quasi-zombies of the psychologically neotenous and academically lobotomised variety, do not take well to having their deepest prejudices contradicted. The empire of indoctrination fights back in comments.

And yet, where else are readers going to find such a wealth of high quality early exposure to important advances? A conundrum for the politically correct: learning from the real world -- as opposed to indoctrination centers -- is painful and difficult. What to do, what to do?