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The plethora of bacteria and other tiny organisms that live in your gut, often referred to as the gut microbiome, don’t just help you digest food and fight disease. As detailed in a new study, they also provide a very accurate biological clock that shows your physical age—a fact that may open up wide-ranging possibilities for health and longevity studies.
Combining Machine Learning and Your Gut
The link between the gut biome and age is described by longevity researcher Alex Zhavoronkov and a team of his colleagues at Insilico Medicine, an artificial intelligence startup focused on drug discovery, biomarker development, and aging research.
Relatively little is known about how our gut biomes transition from one stage to another as we age, or about links between our age and the state of our gut biomes. In their paper, which is awaiting peer review but can be found on the preprint server bioRxiv, the team describes how they examined 3,663 curated samples of gut bacteria from 1,165 healthy people, aged 20-90, from countries in Europe, Asia, and North America. Roughly a third of samples came from the 20-39 age group, a third from individuals between 40-59, and a third from people between 60-90 years old.
A deep learning algorithm was then trained on data on 1,673 different microbial species from 90 percent of the samples. The AI was then tasked with predicting the ages of the remaining 10 percent of participants solely from data on their gut bacteria.
The Accurate Bacterial Clock
The results, described as the first method to predict a human’s chronological age via gut microbiota analysis, showed that the system was able to predict age to within four years based on the gut bacteria data. Furthermore, the results seem to indicate that 39 of the microbial species analyzed are particularly important in relation to accurately predicting age.
The study also showed that our gut microbiomes change over time. While some microbes’ numbers dwindle as we age, others seem to become more abundant. Age is not the only factor that influences the prevalence of different types of bacteria in a person’s digestive system. What you eat, how you sleep, and how physically active you are are all thought to be contributing factors.
Science Magquotes Zhavoronkov as stating that the study could lay the foundation for a “microbiome aging clock” that could serve as a baseline in future research on how a person’s gut ages and how medicine, diet, and alcohol consumption affect longevity.
Living Longer, Better
Studies of our microbiome’s influence on longevity add another dimension to our understanding of how and why we age. Other avenues of study include looking at the length of telomeres, the tips of chromosomes that are believed to play an important role in the aging process, and our DNA.
The same can be said of the role microbiomes play in relation to illnesses and conditions including allergies, diabetes, some types of cancer, and psychological states such as depression. Scientists at Harvard are even developing genetically engineered ‘telephone’ bacteria that would be able to gather precise information about the state of the gut microbiome.
A positive side effect of many of the studies is that alongside dedicated microbiome data collection efforts, they add new data—the food of AI. While we are already gaining a better understanding of the gut biome, it is not a large leap of logic to predict that AI will feast on the new data and assist us in getting an even keener understanding of what is going on in our gut and what it means for our health.
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Scarcely a day goes by without another headline about neural networks: some new task that deep learning algorithms can excel at, approaching or even surpassing human competence. As the application of this approach to computer vision has continued to improve, with algorithms capable of specialized recognition tasks like those found in medicine, the software is getting closer to widespread commercial use—for example, in self-driving cars. Our ability to recognize patterns is a huge part of human intelligence: if this can be done faster by machines, the consequences will be profound.
Yet, as ever with algorithms, there are deep concerns about their reliability, especially when we don’t know precisely how they work. State-of-the-art neural networks will confidently—and incorrectly—classify images that look like television static or abstract art as real-world objects like school-buses or armadillos. Specific algorithms could be targeted by “adversarial examples,” where adding an imperceptible amount of noise to an image can cause an algorithm to completely mistake one object for another. Machine learning experts enjoy constructing these images to trick advanced software, but if a self-driving car could be fooled by a few stickers, it might not be so fun for the passengers.
These difficulties are hard to smooth out in large part because we don’t have a great intuition for how these neural networks “see” and “recognize” objects. The main insight analyzing a trained network itself can give us is a series of statistical weights, associating certain groups of points with certain objects: this can be very difficult to interpret.
Now, new research from UCLA, published in the journal PLOS Computational Biology, is testing neural networks to understand the limits of their vision and the differences between computer vision and human vision. Nicholas Baker, Hongjing Lu, and Philip J. Kellman of UCLA, alongside Gennady Erlikhman of the University of Nevada, tested a deep convolutional neural network called VGG-19. This is state-of-the-art technology that is already outperforming humans on standardized tests like the ImageNet Large Scale Visual Recognition Challenge.
They found that, while humans tend to classify objects based on their overall (global) shape, deep neural networks are far more sensitive to the textures of objects, including local color gradients and the distribution of points on the object. This result helps explain why neural networks in image recognition make mistakes that no human ever would—and could allow for better designs in the future.
In the first experiment, a neural network was trained to sort images into 1 of 1,000 different categories. It was then presented with silhouettes of these images: all of the local information was lost, while only the outline of the object remained. Ordinarily, the trained neural net was capable of recognizing these objects, assigning more than 90% probability to the correct classification. Studying silhouettes, this dropped to 10%. While human observers could nearly always produce correct shape labels, the neural networks appeared almost insensitive to the overall shape of the images. On average, the correct object was ranked as the 209th most likely solution by the neural network, even though the overall shapes were an exact match.
A particularly striking example arose when they tried to get the neural networks to classify glass figurines of objects they could already recognize. While you or I might find it easy to identify a glass model of an otter or a polar bear, the neural network classified them as “oxygen mask” and “can opener” respectively. By presenting glass figurines, where the texture information that neural networks relied on for classifying objects is lost, the neural network was unable to recognize the objects by shape alone. The neural network was similarly hopeless at classifying objects based on drawings of their outline.
If you got one of these right, you’re better than state-of-the-art image recognition software. Image Credit: Nicholas Baker, Hongjing Lu, Gennady Erlikhman, Philip J. Kelman. “Deep convolutional networks do not classify based on global object shape.” Plos Computational Biology. 12/7/18. / CC BY 4.0
When the neural network was explicitly trained to recognize object silhouettes—given no information in the training data aside from the object outlines—the researchers found that slight distortions or “ripples” to the contour of the image were again enough to fool the AI, while humans paid them no mind.
The fact that neural networks seem to be insensitive to the overall shape of an object—relying instead on statistical similarities between local distributions of points—suggests a further experiment. What if you scrambled the images so that the overall shape was lost but local features were preserved? It turns out that the neural networks are far better and faster at recognizing scrambled versions of objects than outlines, even when humans struggle. Students could classify only 37% of the scrambled objects, while the neural network succeeded 83% of the time.
Humans vastly outperform machines at classifying object (a) as a bear, while the machine learning algorithm has few problems classifying the bear in figure (b). Image Credit: Nicholas Baker, Hongjing Lu, Gennady Erlikhman, Philip J. Kelman. “Deep convolutional networks do not classify based on global object shape.” Plos Computational Biology. 12/7/18. / CC BY 4.0
“This study shows these systems get the right answer in the images they were trained on without considering shape,” Kellman said. “For humans, overall shape is primary for object recognition, and identifying images by overall shape doesn’t seem to be in these deep learning systems at all.”
Naively, one might expect that—as the many layers of a neural network are modeled on connections between neurons in the brain and resemble the visual cortex specifically—the way computer vision operates must necessarily be similar to human vision. But this kind of research shows that, while the fundamental architecture might resemble that of the human brain, the resulting “mind” operates very differently.
Researchers can, increasingly, observe how the “neurons” in neural networks light up when exposed to stimuli and compare it to how biological systems respond to the same stimuli. Perhaps someday it might be possible to use these comparisons to understand how neural networks are “thinking” and how those responses differ from humans.
But, as yet, it takes a more experimental psychology to probe how neural networks and artificial intelligence algorithms perceive the world. The tests employed against the neural network are closer to how scientists might try to understand the senses of an animal or the developing brain of a young child rather than a piece of software.
By combining this experimental psychology with new neural network designs or error-correction techniques, it may be possible to make them even more reliable. Yet this research illustrates just how much we still don’t understand about the algorithms we’re creating and using: how they tick, how they make decisions, and how they’re different from us. As they play an ever-greater role in society, understanding the psychology of neural networks will be crucial if we want to use them wisely and effectively—and not end up missing the woods for the trees.
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The human mind can be a confusing and overwhelming place. Despite incredible leaps in human progress, many of us still struggle to make our peace with our thoughts. The roots of this are complex and multifaceted. To find explanations for the global mental health epidemic, one can tap into neuroscience, psychology, evolutionary biology, or simply observe the meaningless systems that dominate our modern-day world.
This is not only the context of our reality but also that of the critically-acclaimed Netflix series, Maniac. Psychological dark comedy meets science fiction, Maniac is a retro, futuristic, and hallucinatory trip that is filled with hidden symbols. Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, the series tells the story of two strangers who decide to participate in the final stage of a “groundbreaking” pharmaceutical trial—one that combines novel pharmaceuticals with artificial intelligence, and promises to make their emotional pain go away.
Naturally, things don’t go according to plan.
From exams used for testing defense mechanisms to techniques such as cognitive behavioral therapy, the narrative infuses genuine psychological science. As perplexing as the series may be to some viewers, many of the tools depicted actually have a strong grounding in current technological advancements.
Catalysts for Alleviating Suffering
In the therapy of Maniac, participants undergo a three-day trial wherein they ingest three pills and appear to connect their consciousness to a superintelligent AI. Each participant is hurled into the traumatic experiences imprinted in their subconscious and forced to cope with them in a series of hallucinatory and dream-like experiences.
Perhaps the most recognizable parallel that can be drawn is with the latest advancements in psychedelic therapy. Psychedelics are a class of drugs that alter the experience of consciousness, and often cause radical changes in perception and cognitive processes.
Through a process known as transient hypofrontality, the executive “over-thinking” parts of our brains get a rest, and deeper areas become more active. This experience, combined with the breakdown of the ego, is often correlated with feelings of timelessness, peacefulness, presence, unity, and above all, transcendence.
Despite being not addictive and extremely difficult to overdose on, regulators looked down on the use of psychedelics for decades and many continue to dismiss them as “party drugs.” But in the last few years, all of this began to change.
Earlier this summer, the FDA granted breakthrough therapy designation to MDMA for the treatment of PTSD, after several phases of successful trails. Similar research has discovered that Psilocybin (also known as magic mushrooms) combined with therapy is far more effective than traditional forms of treatment to treat depression and anxiety. Today, there is a growing and overwhelming body of research that proves that not only are psychedelics such as LSD, MDMA, or Psylicybin effective catalysts to alleviate suffering and enhance the human condition, but they are potentially the most effective tools out there.
It’s important to realize that these substances are not solutions on their own, but rather catalysts for more effective therapy. They can be groundbreaking, but only in the right context and setting.
In Maniac, the medication-assisted therapy is guided by what appears to be a super-intelligent form of artificial intelligence called the GRTA, nicknamed Gertie. Gertie, who is a “guide” in machine form, accesses the minds of the participants through what appears to be a futuristic brain-scanning technology and curates customized hallucinatory experiences with the goal of accelerating the healing process.
Such a powerful form of brain-scanning technology is not unheard of. Current levels of scanning technology are already allowing us to decipher dreams and connect three human brains, and are only growing exponentially. Though they are nowhere as advanced as Gertie (we have a long way to go before we get to this kind of general AI), we are also seeing early signs of AI therapy bots, chatbots that listen, think, and communicate with users like a therapist would.
The parallels between current advancements in mental health therapy and the methods in Maniac can be startling, and are a testament to how science fiction and the arts can be used to explore the existential implications of technology.
Not Necessarily a Dystopia
While there are many ingenious similarities between the technology in Maniac and the state of mental health therapy, it’s important to recognize the stark differences. Like many other blockbuster science fiction productions, Maniac tells a fundamentally dystopian tale.
The series tells the story of the 73rd iteration of a controversial drug trial, one that has experienced many failures and even led to various participants being braindead. The scientists appear to be evil, secretive, and driven by their own superficial agendas and deep unresolved emotional issues.
In contrast, clinicians and researchers are not only required to file an “investigational new drug application” with the FDA (and get approval) but also update the agency with safety and progress reports throughout the trial.
Furthermore, many of today’s researchers are driven by a strong desire to contribute to the well-being and progress of our species. Even more, the results of decades of research by organizations like MAPS have been exceptionally promising and aligned with positive values. While Maniac is entertaining and thought-provoking, viewers must not forget the positive potential of such advancements in mental health therapy.
Science, technology, and psychology aside, Maniac is a deep commentary on the human condition and the often disorienting states that pain us all. Within any human lifetime, suffering is inevitable. It is the disproportionate, debilitating, and unjust levels of suffering that we ought to tackle as a society. Ultimately, Maniac explores whether advancements in science and technology can help us live not a life devoid of suffering, but one where it is balanced with fulfillment.
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