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Elon Musk grabbed a lot of attention with his July 16 announcement that his company Neuralink plans to implant electrodes into the brains of people with paralysis by next year. Their first goal is to create assistive technology to help people who can’t move or are unable to communicate.
If you haven’t been paying attention, brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) that allow people to control robotic arms with their thoughts might sound like science fiction. But science and engineering efforts have already turned it into reality.
In a few research labs around the world, scientists and physicians have been implanting devices into the brains of people who have lost the ability to control their arms or hands for over a decade. In our own research group at the University of Pittsburgh, we’ve enabled people with paralyzed arms and hands to control robotic arms that allow them to grasp and move objects with relative ease. They can even experience touch-like sensations from their own hand when the robot grasps objects.
At its core, a BMI is pretty straightforward. In your brain, microscopic cells called neurons are sending signals back and forth to each other all the time. Everything you think, do and feel as you interact with the world around you is the result of the activity of these 80 billion or so neurons.
If you implant a tiny wire very close to one of these neurons, you can record the electrical activity it generates and send it to a computer. Record enough of these signals from the right area of the brain and it becomes possible to control computers, robots, or anything else you might want, simply by thinking about moving. But doing this comes with tremendous technical challenges, especially if you want to record from hundreds or thousands of neurons.
What Neuralink Is Bringing to the Table
Elon Musk founded Neuralink in 2017, aiming to address these challenges and raise the bar for implanted neural interfaces.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Neuralink’s system is the breadth and depth of their approach. Building a BMI is inherently interdisciplinary, requiring expertise in electrode design and microfabrication, implantable materials, surgical methods, electronics, packaging, neuroscience, algorithms, medicine, regulatory issues, and more. Neuralink has created a team that spans most, if not all, of these areas.
With all of this expertise, Neuralink is undoubtedly moving the field forward, and improving their technology rapidly. Individually, many of the components of their system represent significant progress along predictable paths. For example, their electrodes, that they call threads, are very small and flexible; many researchers have tried to harness those properties to minimize the chance the brain’s immune response would reject the electrodes after insertion. Neuralink has also developed high-performance miniature electronics, another focus area for labs working on BMIs.
Often overlooked in academic settings, however, is how an entire system would be efficiently implanted in a brain.
Neuralink’s BMI requires brain surgery. This is because implanted electrodes that are in intimate contact with neurons will always outperform non-invasive electrodes where neurons are far away from the electrodes sitting outside the skull. So, a critical question becomes how to minimize the surgical challenges around getting the device into a brain.
Maybe the most impressive aspect of Neuralink’s announcement was that they created a 3,000-electrode neural interface where electrodes could be implanted at a rate of between 30 and 200 per minute. Each thread of electrodes is implanted by a sophisticated surgical robot that essentially acts like a sewing machine. This all happens while specifically avoiding blood vessels that blanket the surface of the brain. The robotics and imaging that enable this feat, with tight integration to the entire device, is striking.
Neuralink has thought through the challenge of developing a clinically viable BMI from beginning to end in a way that few groups have done, though they acknowledge that many challenges remain as they work towards getting this technology into human patients in the clinic.
Figuring Out What More Electrodes Gets You
The quest for implantable devices with thousands of electrodes is not only the domain of private companies. DARPA, the NIH BRAIN Initiative, and international consortiums are working on neurotechnologies for recording and stimulating in the brain with goals of tens of thousands of electrodes. But what might scientists do with the information from 1,000, 3,000, or maybe even 100,000 neurons?
At some level, devices with more electrodes might not actually be necessary to have a meaningful impact in people’s lives. Effective control of computers for access and communication, of robotic limbs to grasp and move objects as well as of paralyzed muscles is already happening—in people. And it has been for a number of years.
Since the 1990s, the Utah Array, which has just 100 electrodes and is manufactured by Blackrock Microsystems, has been a critical device in neuroscience and clinical research. This electrode array is FDA-cleared for temporary neural recording. Several research groups, including our own, have implanted Utah Arrays in people that lasted multiple years.
Currently, the biggest constraints are related to connectors, electronics, and system-level engineering, not the implanted electrode itself—although increasing the electrodes’ lifespan to more than five years would represent a significant advance. As those technical capabilities improve, it might turn out that the ability to accurately control computers and robots is limited more by scientists’ understanding of what the neurons are saying—that is, the neural code—than by the number of electrodes on the device.
Even the most capable implanted system, and maybe the most capable devices researchers can reasonably imagine, might fall short of the goal of actually augmenting skilled human performance. Nevertheless, Neuralink’s goal of creating better BMIs has the potential to improve the lives of people who can’t move or are unable to communicate. Right now, Musk’s vision of using BMIs to meld physical brains and intelligence with artificial ones is no more than a dream.
So, what does the future look like for Neuralink and other groups creating implantable BMIs? Devices with more electrodes that last longer and are connected to smaller and more powerful wireless electronics are essential. Better devices themselves, however, are insufficient. Continued public and private investment in companies and academic research labs, as well as innovative ways for these groups to work together to share technologies and data, will be necessary to truly advance scientists’ understanding of the brain and deliver on the promise of BMIs to improve peoples’ lives.
While researchers need to keep the future societal implications of advanced neurotechnologies in mind—there’s an essential role for ethicists and regulation—BMIs could be truly transformative as they help more people overcome limitations caused by injury or disease in the brain and body.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
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A Brain-Boosting Prosthesis Moves From Rats to Humans
Robbie Gonzalez | WIRED
“Today, their proof-of-concept prosthetic lives outside a patient’s head and connects to the brain via wires. But in the future, Hampson hopes, surgeons could implant a similar apparatus entirely within a person’s skull, like a neural pacemaker. It could augment all manner of brain functions—not just in victims of dementia and brain injury, but healthy individuals, as well.”
Here’s How the US Needs to Prepare for the Age of Artificial Intelligence
Will Knight | MIT Technology Review
“The Trump administration has abandoned this vision and has no intention of devising its own AI plan, say those working there. They say there is no need for an AI moonshot, and that minimizing government interference is the best way to make sure the technology flourishes… That looks like a huge mistake. If it essentially ignores such a technological transformation, the US might never make the most of an opportunity to reboot its economy and kick-start both wage growth and job creation. Failure to plan could also cause the birthplace of AI to lose ground to international rivals.”
Underwater GPS Inspired by Shrimp Eyes
Jeremy Hsu | IEEE Spectrum
“A few years ago, U.S. and Australian researchers developed a special camera inspired by the eyes of mantis shrimp that can see the polarization patterns of light waves, which resemble those in a rope being waved up and down. That means the bio-inspired camera can detect how light polarization patterns change once the light enters the water and gets deflected or scattered.”
POLITICS & TECHNOLOGY
‘The Business of War’: Google Employees Protest Work for the Pentagon
Scott Shane and Daisuke Wakabayashi | The New York Times
“Thousands of Google employees, including dozens of senior engineers, have signed a letter protesting the company’s involvement in a Pentagon program that uses artificial intelligence to interpret video imagery and could be used to improve the targeting of drone strikes.
The letter, which is circulating inside Google and has garnered more than 3,100 signatures, reflects a culture clash between Silicon Valley and the federal government that is likely to intensify as cutting-edge artificial intelligence is increasingly employed for military purposes. ‘We believe that Google should not be in the business of war,’ says the letter, addressed to Sundar Pichai, the company’s chief executive. It asks that Google pull out of Project Maven, a Pentagon pilot program, and announce a policy that it will not ‘ever build warfare technology.’ (Read the text of the letter.)”
MIT’s New Headset Reads the ‘Words in Your Head’
Brian Heater | TechCrunch
“A team at MIT has been working on just such a device, though the hardware design, admittedly, doesn’t go too far toward removing that whole self-consciousness bit from the equation. AlterEgo is a headmounted—or, more properly, jaw-mounted—device that’s capable of reading neuromuscular signals through built-in electrodes. The hardware, as MIT puts it, is capable of reading ‘words in your head.’”
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For every new piece of technology that gets developed, you can usually find people saying it will never be useful. The president of the Michigan Savings Bank in 1903, for example, said, “The horse is here to stay but the automobile is only a novelty—a fad.” It’s equally easy to find people raving about whichever new technology is at the peak of the Gartner Hype Cycle, which tracks the buzz around these newest developments and attempts to temper predictions. When technologies emerge, there are all kinds of uncertainties, from the actual capacity of the technology to its use cases in real life to the price tag.
Eventually the dust settles, and some technologies get widely adopted, to the extent that they can become “invisible”; people take them for granted. Others fall by the wayside as gimmicky fads or impractical ideas. Picking which horses to back is the difference between Silicon Valley millions and Betamax pub-quiz-question obscurity. For a while, it seemed that Google had—for once—backed the wrong horse.
Google Glass emerged from Google X, the ubiquitous tech giant’s much-hyped moonshot factory, where highly secretive researchers work on the sci-fi technologies of the future. Self-driving cars and artificial intelligence are the more mundane end for an organization that apparently once looked into jetpacks and teleportation.
The original smart glasses, Google began selling Google Glass in 2013 for $1,500 as prototypes for their acolytes, around 8,000 early adopters. Users could control the glasses with a touchpad, or, activated by tilting the head back, with voice commands. Audio relay—as with several wearable products—is via bone conduction, which transmits sound by vibrating the skull bones of the user. This was going to usher in the age of augmented reality, the next best thing to having a chip implanted directly into your brain.
On the surface, it seemed to be a reasonable proposition. People had dreamed about augmented reality for a long time—an onboard, JARVIS-style computer giving you extra information and instant access to communications without even having to touch a button. After smartphone ubiquity, it looked like a natural step forward.
Instead, there was a backlash. People may be willing to give their data up to corporations, but they’re less pleased with the idea that someone might be filming them in public. The worst aspect of smartphones is trying to talk to people who are distractedly scrolling through their phones. There’s a famous analogy in Revolutionary Road about an old couple’s loveless marriage: the husband tunes out his wife’s conversation by turning his hearing aid down to zero. To many, Google Glass seemed to provide us with a whole new way to ignore each other in favor of our Twitter feeds.
Then there’s the fact that, regardless of whether it’s because we’re not used to them, or if it’s a more permanent feature, people wearing AR tech often look very silly. Put all this together with a lack of early functionality, the high price (do you really feel comfortable wearing a $1,500 computer?), and a killer pun for the users—Glassholes—and the final recipe wasn’t great for Google.
Google Glass was quietly dropped from sale in 2015 with the ominous slogan posted on Google’s website “Thanks for exploring with us.” Reminding the Glass users that they had always been referred to as “explorers”—beta-testing a product, in many ways—it perhaps signaled less enthusiasm for wearables than the original, Google Glass skydive might have suggested.
In reality, Google went back to the drawing board. Not with the technology per se, although it has improved in the intervening years, but with the uses behind the technology.
Under what circumstances would you actually need a Google Glass? When would it genuinely be preferable to a smartphone that can do many of the same things and more? Beyond simply being a fashion item, which Google Glass decidedly was not, even the most tech-evangelical of us need a convincing reason to splash $1,500 on a wearable computer that’s less socially acceptable and less easy to use than the machine you’re probably reading this on right now.
Enter the Google Glass Enterprise Edition.
Piloted in factories during the years that Google Glass was dormant, and now roaring back to life and commercially available, the Google Glass relaunch got under way in earnest in July of 2017. The difference here was the specific audience: workers in factories who need hands-free computing because they need to use their hands at the same time.
In this niche application, wearable computers can become invaluable. A new employee can be trained with pre-programmed material that explains how to perform actions in real time, while instructions can be relayed straight into a worker’s eyeline without them needing to check a phone or switch to email.
Medical devices have long been a dream application for Google Glass. You can imagine a situation where people receive real-time information during surgery, or are augmented by artificial intelligence that provides additional diagnostic information or questions in response to a patient’s symptoms. The quest to develop a healthcare AI, which can provide recommendations in response to natural language queries, is on. The famously untidy doctor’s handwriting—and the associated death toll—could be avoided if the glasses could take dictation straight into a patient’s medical records. All of this is far more useful than allowing people to check Facebook hands-free while they’re riding the subway.
Google’s “Lens” application indicates another use for Google Glass that hadn’t quite matured when the original was launched: the Lens processes images and provides information about them. You can look at text and have it translated in real time, or look at a building or sign and receive additional information. Image processing, either through neural networks hooked up to a cloud database or some other means, is the frontier that enables driverless cars and similar technology to exist. Hook this up to a voice-activated assistant relaying information to the user, and you have your killer application: real-time annotation of the world around you. It’s this functionality that just wasn’t ready yet when Google launched Glass.
Amazon’s recent announcement that they want to integrate Alexa into a range of smart glasses indicates that the tech giants aren’t ready to give up on wearables yet. Perhaps, in time, people will become used to voice activation and interaction with their machines, at which point smart glasses with bone conduction will genuinely be more convenient than a smartphone.
But in many ways, the real lesson from the initial failure—and promising second life—of Google Glass is a simple question that developers of any smart technology, from the Internet of Things through to wearable computers, must answer. “What can this do that my smartphone can’t?” Find your answer, as the Enterprise Edition did, as Lens might, and you find your product.
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For Dr. Hiroshi Ishiguro, one of the most interesting things about androids is the changing questions they pose us, their creators, as they evolve. Does it, for example, do something to the concept of being human if a human-made creation starts telling you about what kind of boys ‘she’ likes?
If you want to know the answer to the boys question, you need to ask ERICA, one of Dr. Ishiguro’s advanced androids. Beneath her plastic skull and silicone skin, wires connect to AI software systems that bring her to life. Her ability to respond goes far beyond standard inquiries. Spend a little time with her, and the feeling of a distinct personality starts to emerge. From time to time, she works as a receptionist at Dr. Ishiguro and his team’s Osaka University labs. One of her android sisters is an actor who has starred in plays and a film.
ERICA’s ‘brother’ is an android version of Dr. Ishiguro himself, which has represented its creator at various events while the biological Ishiguro can remain in his offices in Japan. Microphones and cameras capture Ishiguro’s voice and face movements, which are relayed to the android. Apart from mimicking its creator, the Geminoid™ android is also capable of lifelike blinking, fidgeting, and breathing movements.
Say hello to relaxation
As technological development continues to accelerate, so do the possibilities for androids. From a position as receptionist, ERICA may well branch out into many other professions in the coming years. Companion for the elderly, comic book storyteller (an ancient profession in Japan), pop star, conversational foreign language partner, and newscaster are some of the roles and responsibilities Dr. Ishiguro sees androids taking on in the near future.
“Androids are not uncanny anymore. Most people adapt to interacting with Erica very quickly. Actually, I think that in interacting with androids, which are still different from us, we get a better appreciation of interacting with other cultures. In both cases, we are talking with someone who is different from us and learn to overcome those differences,” he says.
A lot has been written about how robots will take our jobs. Dr. Ishiguro believes these fears are blown somewhat out of proportion.
“Robots and androids will take over many simple jobs. Initially there might be some job-related issues, but new schemes, like for example a robot tax similar to the one described by Bill Gates, should help,” he says.
“Androids will make it possible for humans to relax and keep evolving. If we compare the time we spend studying now compared to 100 years ago, it has grown a lot. I think it needs to keep growing if we are to keep expanding our scientific and technological knowledge. In the future, we might end up spending 20 percent of our lifetime on work and 80 percent of the time on education and growing our skills.”
Android asks who you are
For Dr. Ishiguro, another aspect of robotics in general, and androids in particular, is how they question what it means to be human.
“Identity is a very difficult concept for humans sometimes. For example, I think clothes are part of our identity, in a way that is similar to our faces and bodies. We don’t change those from one day to the next, and that is why I have ten matching black outfits,” he says.
This link between physical appearance and perceived identity is one of the aspects Dr. Ishiguro is exploring. Another closely linked concept is the connection between body and feeling of self. The Ishiguro avatar was once giving a presentation in Austria. Its creator recalls how he felt distinctly like he was in Austria, even capable of feeling sensation of touch on his own body when people laid their hands on the android. If he was distracted, he felt almost ‘sucked’ back into his body in Japan.
“I am constantly thinking about my life in this way, and I believe that androids are a unique mirror that helps us formulate questions about why we are here and why we have been so successful. I do not necessarily think I have found the answers to these questions, so if you have, please share,” he says with a laugh.
His work and these questions, while extremely interesting on their own, become extra poignant when considering the predicted melding of mind and machine in the near future.
The ability to be present in several locations through avatars—virtual or robotic—raises many questions of both philosophical and practical nature. Then add the hypotheticals, like why send a human out onto the hostile surface of Mars if you could send a remote-controlled android, capable of relaying everything it sees, hears and feels?
The two ways of robotics will meet
Dr. Ishiguro sees the world of AI-human interaction as currently roughly split into two. One is the chat-bot approach that companies like Amazon, Microsoft, Google, and recently Apple, employ using stationary objects like speakers. Androids like ERICA represent another approach.
“It is about more than the form factor. I think that the android approach is generally more story-based. We are integrating new conversation features based on assumptions about the situation and running different scenarios that expand the android’s vocabulary and interactions. Another aspect we are working on is giving androids desire and intention. Like with people, androids should have desires and intentions in order for you to want to interact with them over time,” Dr. Ishiguro explains.
This could be said to be part of a wider trend for Japan, where many companies are developing human-like robots that often have some Internet of Things capabilities, making them able to handle some of the same tasks as an Amazon Echo. The difference in approach could be summed up in the words ‘assistant’ (Apple, Amazon, etc.) and ‘companion’ (Japan).
Dr. Ishiguro sees this as partly linked to how Japanese as a language—and market—is somewhat limited. This has a direct impact on viability and practicality of ‘pure’ voice recognition systems. At the same time, Japanese people have had greater exposure to positive images of robots, and have a different cultural / religious view of objects having a ‘soul’. However, it may also mean Japanese companies and android scientists are both stealing a lap on their western counterparts.
“If you speak to an Amazon Echo, that is not a natural way to interact for humans. This is part of why we are making human-like robot systems. The human brain is set up to recognize and interact with humans. So, it makes sense to focus on developing the body for the AI mind, as well as the AI. I believe that the final goal for both Japanese and other companies and scientists is to create human-like interaction. Technology has to adapt to us, because we cannot adapt fast enough to it, as it develops so quickly,” he says.
Banner image courtesy of Hiroshi Ishiguro Laboratories, ATR all rights reserved.
Dr. Ishiguro’s team has collaborated with partners and developed a number of android systems:
Geminoid™ HI-2 has been developed by Hiroshi Ishiguro Laboratories and Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International (ATR).
Geminoid™ F has been developed by Osaka University and Hiroshi Ishiguro Laboratories, Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International (ATR).
ERICA has been developed by ERATO ISHIGURO Symbiotic Human-Robot Interaction Project Continue reading