Tag Archives: tool

#435196 Avatar Love? New ‘Black Mirror’ ...

This week, the widely-anticipated fifth season of the dystopian series Black Mirror was released on Netflix. The storylines this season are less focused on far-out scenarios and increasingly aligned with current issues. With only three episodes, this season raises more questions than it answers, often leaving audiences bewildered.

The episode Smithereens explores our society’s crippling addiction to social media platforms and the monopoly they hold over our data. In Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too, we see the disruptive impact of technologies on the music and entertainment industry, and the price of fame for artists in the digital world. Like most Black Mirror episodes, these explore the sometimes disturbing implications of tech advancements on humanity.

But once again, in the midst of all the doom and gloom, the creators of the series leave us with a glimmer of hope. Aligned with Pride month, the episode Striking Vipers explores the impact of virtual reality on love, relationships, and sexual fluidity.

*The review contains a few spoilers.*

Striking Vipers
The first episode of the season, Striking Vipers may be one of the most thought-provoking episodes in Black Mirror history. Reminiscent of previous episodes San Junipero and Hang the DJ, the writers explore the potential for technology to transform human intimacy.

The episode tells the story of two old friends, Danny and Karl, whose friendship is reignited in an unconventional way. Karl unexpectedly appears at Danny’s 38th birthday and reintroduces him to the VR version of a game they used to play years before. In the game Striking Vipers X, each of the players is represented by an avatar of their choice in an uncanny digital reality. Following old tradition, Karl chooses to become the female fighter, Roxanne, and Danny takes on the role of the male fighter, Lance. The state-of-the-art VR headsets appear to use an advanced form of brain-machine interface to allow each player to be fully immersed in the virtual world, emulating all physical sensations.

To their surprise (and confusion), Danny and Karl find themselves transitioning from fist-fighting to kissing. Over the course of many games, they continue to explore a sexual and romantic relationship in the virtual world, leaving them confused and distant in the real world. The virtual and physical realities begin to blur, and so do the identities of the players with their avatars. Danny, who is married (in a heterosexual relationship) and is a father, begins to carry guilt and confusion in the real world. They both wonder if there would be any spark between them in real life.

The brain-machine interface (BMI) depicted in the episode is still science fiction, but that hasn’t stopped innovators from pushing the technology forward. Experts today are designing more intricate BMI systems while programming better algorithms to interpret the neural signals they capture. Scientists have already succeeded in enabling paralyzed patients to type with their minds, and are even allowing people to communicate with one another purely through brainwaves.

The convergence of BMIs with virtual reality and artificial intelligence could make the experience of such immersive digital realities possible. Virtual reality, too, is decreasing exponentially in cost and increasing in quality.

The narrative provides meaningful commentary on another tech area—gaming. It highlights video games not necessarily as addictive distractions, but rather as a platform for connecting with others in a deeper way. This is already very relevant. Video games like Final Fantasy are often a tool for meaningful digital connections for their players.

The Implications of Virtual Reality on Love and Relationships
The narrative of Striking Vipers raises many novel questions about the implications of immersive technologies on relationships: could the virtual world allow us a safe space to explore suppressed desires? Can virtual avatars make it easier for us to show affection to those we care about? Can a sexual or romantic encounter in the digital world be considered infidelity?

Above all, the episode explores the therapeutic possibilities of such technologies. While many fears about virtual reality had been raised in previous seasons of Black Mirror, this episode was focused on its potential. This includes the potential of immersive technology to be a source of liberation, meaningful connections, and self-exploration, as well as a tool for realizing our true identities and desires.

Once again, this is aligned with emerging trends in VR. We are seeing the rise of social VR applications and platforms that allow you to hang out with your friends and family as avatars in the virtual space. The technology is allowing for animation movies, such as Coco VR, to become an increasingly social and interactive experience. Considering that meaningful social interaction can alleviate depression and anxiety, such applications could contribute to well-being.

Techno-philosopher and National Geographic host Jason Silva points out that immersive media technologies can be “engines of empathy.” VR allows us to enter virtual spaces that mimic someone else’s state of mind, allowing us to empathize with the way they view the world. Silva said, “Imagine the intimacy that becomes possible when people meet and they say, ‘Hey, do you want to come visit my world? Do you want to see what it’s like to be inside my head?’”

What is most fascinating about Striking Vipers is that it explores how we may redefine love with virtual reality; we are introduced to love between virtual avatars. While this kind of love may seem confusing to audiences, it may be one of the complex implications of virtual reality on human relationships.

In many ways, the title Black Mirror couldn’t be more appropriate, as each episode serves as a mirror to the most disturbing aspects of our psyches as they get amplified through technology. However, what we see in uplifting and thought-provoking plots like Striking Vipers, San Junipero, and Hang The DJ is that technology could also amplify the most positive aspects of our humanity. This includes our powerful capacity to love.

Image Credit: Arsgera / Shutterstock.com Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435172 DARPA’s New Project Is Investing ...

When Elon Musk and DARPA both hop aboard the cyborg hypetrain, you know brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) are about to achieve the impossible.

BMIs, already the stuff of science fiction, facilitate crosstalk between biological wetware with external computers, turning human users into literal cyborgs. Yet mind-controlled robotic arms, microelectrode “nerve patches”, or “memory Band-Aids” are still purely experimental medical treatments for those with nervous system impairments.

With the Next-Generation Nonsurgical Neurotechnology (N3) program, DARPA is looking to expand BMIs to the military. This month, the project tapped six academic teams to engineer radically different BMIs to hook up machines to the brains of able-bodied soldiers. The goal is to ditch surgery altogether—while minimizing any biological interventions—to link up brain and machine.

Rather than microelectrodes, which are currently surgically inserted into the brain to hijack neural communication, the project is looking to acoustic signals, electromagnetic waves, nanotechnology, genetically-enhanced neurons, and infrared beams for their next-gen BMIs.

It’s a radical departure from current protocol, with potentially thrilling—or devastating—impact. Wireless BMIs could dramatically boost bodily functions of veterans with neural damage or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or allow a single soldier to control swarms of AI-enabled drones with his or her mind. Or, similar to the Black Mirror episode Men Against Fire, it could cloud the perception of soldiers, distancing them from the emotional guilt of warfare.

When trickled down to civilian use, these new technologies are poised to revolutionize medical treatment. Or they could galvanize the transhumanist movement with an inconceivably powerful tool that fundamentally alters society—for better or worse.

Here’s what you need to know.

Radical Upgrades
The four-year N3 program focuses on two main aspects: noninvasive and “minutely” invasive neural interfaces to both read and write into the brain.

Because noninvasive technologies sit on the scalp, their sensors and stimulators will likely measure entire networks of neurons, such as those controlling movement. These systems could then allow soldiers to remotely pilot robots in the field—drones, rescue bots, or carriers like Boston Dynamics’ BigDog. The system could even boost multitasking prowess—mind-controlling multiple weapons at once—similar to how able-bodied humans can operate a third robotic arm in addition to their own two.

In contrast, minutely invasive technologies allow scientists to deliver nanotransducers without surgery: for example, an injection of a virus carrying light-sensitive sensors, or other chemical, biotech, or self-assembled nanobots that can reach individual neurons and control their activity independently without damaging sensitive tissue. The proposed use for these technologies isn’t yet well-specified, but as animal experiments have shown, controlling the activity of single neurons at multiple points is sufficient to program artificial memories of fear, desire, and experiences directly into the brain.

“A neural interface that enables fast, effective, and intuitive hands-free interaction with military systems by able-bodied warfighters is the ultimate program goal,” DARPA wrote in its funding brief, released early last year.

The only technologies that will be considered must have a viable path toward eventual use in healthy human subjects.

“Final N3 deliverables will include a complete integrated bidirectional brain-machine interface system,” the project description states. This doesn’t just include hardware, but also new algorithms tailored to these system, demonstrated in a “Department of Defense-relevant application.”

The Tools
Right off the bat, the usual tools of the BMI trade, including microelectrodes, MRI, or transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) are off the table. These popular technologies rely on surgery, heavy machinery, or personnel to sit very still—conditions unlikely in the real world.

The six teams will tap into three different kinds of natural phenomena for communication: magnetism, light beams, and acoustic waves.

Dr. Jacob Robinson at Rice University, for example, is combining genetic engineering, infrared laser beams, and nanomagnets for a bidirectional system. The $18 million project, MOANA (Magnetic, Optical and Acoustic Neural Access device) uses viruses to deliver two extra genes into the brain. One encodes a protein that sits on top of neurons and emits infrared light when the cell activates. Red and infrared light can penetrate through the skull. This lets a skull cap, embedded with light emitters and detectors, pick up these signals for subsequent decoding. Ultra-fast and utra-sensitvie photodetectors will further allow the cap to ignore scattered light and tease out relevant signals emanating from targeted portions of the brain, the team explained.

The other new gene helps write commands into the brain. This protein tethers iron nanoparticles to the neurons’ activation mechanism. Using magnetic coils on the headset, the team can then remotely stimulate magnetic super-neurons to fire while leaving others alone. Although the team plans to start in cell cultures and animals, their goal is to eventually transmit a visual image from one person to another. “In four years we hope to demonstrate direct, brain-to-brain communication at the speed of thought and without brain surgery,” said Robinson.

Other projects in N3 are just are ambitious.

The Carnegie Mellon team, for example, plans to use ultrasound waves to pinpoint light interaction in targeted brain regions, which can then be measured through a wearable “hat.” To write into the brain, they propose a flexible, wearable electrical mini-generator that counterbalances the noisy effect of the skull and scalp to target specific neural groups.

Similarly, a group at Johns Hopkins is also measuring light path changes in the brain to correlate them with regional brain activity to “read” wetware commands.

The Teledyne Scientific & Imaging group, in contrast, is turning to tiny light-powered “magnetometers” to detect small, localized magnetic fields that neurons generate when they fire, and match these signals to brain output.

The nonprofit Battelle team gets even fancier with their ”BrainSTORMS” nanotransducers: magnetic nanoparticles wrapped in a piezoelectric shell. The shell can convert electrical signals from neurons into magnetic ones and vice-versa. This allows external transceivers to wirelessly pick up the transformed signals and stimulate the brain through a bidirectional highway.

The magnetometers can be delivered into the brain through a nasal spray or other non-invasive methods, and magnetically guided towards targeted brain regions. When no longer needed, they can once again be steered out of the brain and into the bloodstream, where the body can excrete them without harm.

Four-Year Miracle
Mind-blown? Yeah, same. However, the challenges facing the teams are enormous.

DARPA’s stated goal is to hook up at least 16 sites in the brain with the BMI, with a lag of less than 50 milliseconds—on the scale of average human visual perception. That’s crazy high resolution for devices sitting outside the brain, both in space and time. Brain tissue, blood vessels, and the scalp and skull are all barriers that scatter and dissipate neural signals. All six teams will need to figure out the least computationally-intensive ways to fish out relevant brain signals from background noise, and triangulate them to the appropriate brain region to decipher intent.

In the long run, four years and an average $20 million per project isn’t much to potentially transform our relationship with machines—for better or worse. DARPA, to its credit, is keenly aware of potential misuse of remote brain control. The program is under the guidance of a panel of external advisors with expertise in bioethical issues. And although DARPA’s focus is on enabling able-bodied soldiers to better tackle combat challenges, it’s hard to argue that wireless, non-invasive BMIs will also benefit those most in need: veterans and other people with debilitating nerve damage. To this end, the program is heavily engaging the FDA to ensure it meets safety and efficacy regulations for human use.

Will we be there in just four years? I’m skeptical. But these electrical, optical, acoustic, magnetic, and genetic BMIs, as crazy as they sound, seem inevitable.

“DARPA is preparing for a future in which a combination of unmanned systems, AI, and cyber operations may cause conflicts to play out on timelines that are too short for humans to effectively manage with current technology alone,” said Al Emondi, the N3 program manager.

The question is, now that we know what’s in store, how should the rest of us prepare?

Image Credit: With permission from DARPA N3 project. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435167 A Closer Look at the Robots Helping Us ...

Buck Rogers had Twiki. Luke Skywalker palled around with C-3PO and R2-D2. And astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) now have their own robotic companions in space—Astrobee.

A pair of the cube-shaped robots were launched to the ISS during an April re-supply mission and are currently being commissioned for use on the space station. The free-flying space robots, dubbed Bumble and Honey, are the latest generation of robotic machines to join the human crew on the ISS.

Exploration of the solar system and beyond will require autonomous machines that can assist humans with numerous tasks—or go where we cannot. NASA has said repeatedly that robots will be instrumental in future space missions to the moon, Mars, and even to the icy moon Europa.

The Astrobee robots will specifically test robotic capabilities in zero gravity, replacing the SPHERES (Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellite) robots that have been on the ISS for more than a decade to test various technologies ranging from communications to navigation.

The 18-sided robots, each about the size of a volleyball or an oversized Dungeons and Dragons die, use CO2-based cold-gas thrusters for movement and a series of ultrasonic beacons for orientation. The Astrobee robots, on the other hand, can propel themselves autonomously around the interior of the ISS using electric fans and six cameras.

The modular design of the Astrobee robots means they are highly plug-and-play, capable of being reconfigured with different hardware modules. The robots’ software is also open-source, encouraging scientists and programmers to develop and test new algorithms and features.

And, yes, the Astrobee robots will be busy as bees once they are fully commissioned this fall, with experiments planned to begin next year. Scientists hope to learn more about how robots can assist space crews and perform caretaking duties on spacecraft.

Robots Working Together
The Astrobee robots are expected to be joined by a familiar “face” on the ISS later this year—the humanoid robot Robonaut.

Robonaut, also known as R2, was the first US-built robot on the ISS. It joined the crew back in 2011 without legs, which were added in 2014. However, the installation never entirely worked, as R2 experienced power failures that eventually led to its return to Earth last year to fix the problem. If all goes as planned, the space station’s first humanoid robot will return to the ISS to lend a hand to the astronauts and the new robotic arrivals.

In particular, NASA is interested in how the two different robotic platforms can complement each other, with an eye toward outfitting the agency’s proposed lunar orbital space station with various robots that can supplement a human crew.

“We don’t have definite plans for what would happen on the Gateway yet, but there’s a general recognition that intra-vehicular robots are important for space stations,” Astrobee technical lead Trey Smith in the NASA Intelligent Robotics Group told IEEE Spectrum. “And so, it would not be surprising to see a mobile manipulator like Robonaut, and a free flyer like Astrobee, on the Gateway.”

While the focus on R2 has been to test its capabilities in zero gravity and to use it for mundane or dangerous tasks in space, the technology enabling the humanoid robot has proven to be equally useful on Earth.

For example, R2 has amazing dexterity for a robot, with sensors, actuators, and tendons comparable to the nerves, muscles, and tendons in a human hand. Based on that design, engineers are working on a robotic glove that can help factory workers, for instance, do their jobs better while reducing the risk of repetitive injuries. R2 has also inspired development of a robotic exoskeleton for both astronauts in space and paraplegics on Earth.

Working Hard on Soft Robotics
While innovative and technologically sophisticated, Astrobee and Robonaut are typical robots in that neither one would do well in a limbo contest. In other words, most robots are limited in their flexibility and agility based on current hardware and materials.

A subfield of robotics known as soft robotics involves developing robots with highly pliant materials that mimic biological organisms in how they move. Scientists at NASA’s Langley Research Center are investigating how soft robots could help with future space exploration.

Specifically, the researchers are looking at a series of properties to understand how actuators—components responsible for moving a robotic part, such as Robonaut’s hand—can be built and used in space.

The team first 3D prints a mold and then pours a flexible material like silicone into the mold. Air bladders or chambers in the actuator expand and compress using just air.

Some of the first applications of soft robotics sound more tool-like than R2-D2-like. For example, two soft robots could connect to produce a temporary shelter for astronauts on the moon or serve as an impromptu wind shield during one of Mars’ infamous dust storms.

The idea is to use soft robots in situations that are “dangerous, dirty, or dull,” according to Jack Fitzpatrick, a NASA intern working on the soft robotics project at Langley.

Working on Mars
Of course, space robots aren’t only designed to assist humans. In many instances, they are the only option to explore even relatively close celestial bodies like Mars. Four American-made robotic rovers have been used to investigate the fourth planet from the sun since 1997.

Opportunity is perhaps the most famous, covering about 25 miles of terrain across Mars over 15 years. A dust storm knocked it out of commission last year, with NASA officially ending the mission in February.

However, the biggest and baddest of the Mars rovers, Curiosity, is still crawling across the Martian surface, sending back valuable data since 2012. The car-size robot carries 17 cameras, a laser to vaporize rocks for study, and a drill to collect samples. It is on the hunt for signs of biological life.

The next year or two could see a virtual traffic jam of robots to Mars. NASA’s Mars 2020 Rover is next in line to visit the Red Planet, sporting scientific gadgets like an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer for chemical analyses and ground-penetrating radar to see below the Martian surface.

This diagram shows the instrument payload for the Mars 2020 mission. Image Credit: NASA.
Meanwhile, the Europeans have teamed with the Russians on a rover called Rosalind Franklin, named after a famed British chemist, that will drill down into the Martian ground for evidence of past or present life as soon as 2021.

The Chinese are also preparing to begin searching for life on Mars using robots as soon as next year, as part of the country’s Mars Global Remote Sensing Orbiter and Small Rover program. The mission is scheduled to be the first in a series of launches that would culminate with bringing samples back from Mars to Earth.

Perhaps there is no more famous utterance in the universe of science fiction as “to boldly go where no one has gone before.” However, the fact is that human exploration of the solar system and beyond will only be possible with robots of different sizes, shapes, and sophistication.

Image Credit: NASA. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435080 12 Ways Big Tech Can Take Big Action on ...

Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg have invested $1 billion in Breakthrough Energy to fund next-generation solutions to tackle climate. But there is a huge risk that any successful innovation will only reach the market as the world approaches 2030 at the earliest.

We now know that reducing the risk of dangerous climate change means halving global greenhouse gas emissions by that date—in just 11 years. Perhaps Gates, Zuckerberg, and all the tech giants should invest equally in innovations to do with how their own platforms —search, social media, eCommerce—can support societal behavior changes to drive down emissions.

After all, the tech giants influence the decisions of four billion consumers every day. It is time for a social contract between tech and society.

Recently myself and collaborator Johan Falk published a report during the World Economic Forum in Davos outlining 12 ways the tech sector can contribute to supporting societal goals to stabilize Earth’s climate.

Become genuine climate guardians

Tech giants go to great lengths to show how serious they are about reducing their emissions. But I smell cognitive dissonance. Google and Microsoft are working in partnership with oil companies to develop AI tools to help maximize oil recovery. This is not the behavior of companies working flat-out to stabilize Earth’s climate. Indeed, few major tech firms have visions that indicate a stable and resilient planet might be a good goal, yet AI alone has the potential to slash greenhouse gas emissions by four percent by 2030—equivalent to the emissions of Australia, Canada, and Japan combined.

We are now developing a playbook, which we plan to publish later this year at the UN climate summit, about making it as simple as possible for a CEO to become a climate guardian.

Hey Alexa, do you care about the stability of Earth’s climate?

Increasingly, consumers are delegating their decisions to narrow artificial intelligence like Alexa and Siri. Welcome to a world of zero-click purchases.

Should algorithms and information architecture be designed to nudge consumer behavior towards low-carbon choices, for example by making these options the default? We think so. People don’t mind being nudged; in fact, they welcome efforts to make their lives better. For instance, if I want to lose weight, I know I will need all the help I can get. Let’s ‘nudge for good’ and experiment with supporting societal goals.

Use social media for good

Facebook’s goal is to bring the world closer together. With 2.2 billion users on the platform, CEO Mark Zuckerberg can reasonably claim this goal is possible. But social media has changed the flow of information in the world, creating a lucrative industry around a toxic brown-cloud of confusion and anger, with frankly terrifying implications for democracy. This has been linked to the rise of nationalism and populism, and to the election of leaders who shun international cooperation, dismiss scientific knowledge, and reverse climate action at a moment when we need it more than ever.

Social media tools need re-engineering to help people make sense of the world, support democratic processes, and build communities around societal goals. Make this your mission.

Design for a future on Earth

Almost everything is designed with computer software, from buildings to mobile phones to consumer packaging. It is time to make zero-carbon design the new default and design products for sharing, re-use and disassembly.

The future is circular

Halving emissions in a decade will require all companies to adopt circular business models to reduce material use. Some tech companies are leading the charge. Apple has committed to becoming 100 percent circular as soon as possible. Great.

While big tech companies strive to be market leaders here, many other companies lack essential knowledge. Tech companies can support rapid adoption in different economic sectors, not least because they have the know-how to scale innovations exponentially. It makes business sense. If economies of scale drive the price of recycled steel and aluminium down, everyone wins.

Reward low-carbon consumption

eCommerce platforms can create incentives for low-carbon consumption. The world’s largest experiment in greening consumer behavior is Ant Forest, set up by Chinese fintech giant Ant Financial.

An estimated 300 million customers—similar to the population of the United States—gain points for making low-carbon choices such as walking to work, using public transport, or paying bills online. Virtual points are eventually converted into real trees. Sure, big questions remain about its true influence on emissions, but this is a space for rapid experimentation for big impact.

Make information more useful

Science is our tool for defining reality. Scientific consensus is how we attain reliable knowledge. Even after the information revolution, reliable knowledge about the world remains fragmented and unstructured. Build the next generation of search engines to genuinely make the world’s knowledge useful for supporting societal goals.

We need to put these tools towards supporting shared world views of the state of the planet based on the best science. New AI tools being developed by startups like Iris.ai can help see through the fog. From Alexa to Google Home and Siri, the future is “Voice”, but who chooses the information source? The highest bidder? Again, the implications for climate are huge.

Create new standards for digital advertising and marketing

Half of global ad revenue will soon be online, and largely going to a small handful of companies. How about creating a novel ethical standard on what is advertised and where? Companies could consider promoting sustainable choices and healthy lifestyles and limiting advertising of high-emissions products such as cheap flights.

We are what we eat

It is no secret that tech is about to disrupt grocery. The supermarkets of the future will be built on personal consumer data. With about two billion people either obese or overweight, revolutions in choice architecture could support positive diet choices, reduce meat consumption, halve food waste and, into the bargain, slash greenhouse gas emissions.

The future of transport is not cars, it’s data

The 2020s look set to be the biggest disruption of the automobile industry since Henry Ford unveiled the Model T. Two seismic shifts are on their way.

First, electric cars now compete favorably with petrol engines on range. Growth will reach an inflection point within a year or two once prices reach parity. The death of the internal combustion engine in Europe and Asia is assured with end dates announced by China, India, France, the UK, and most of Scandinavia. Dates range from 2025 (Norway) to 2040 (UK and China).

Tech giants can accelerate the demise. Uber recently announced a passenger surcharge to help London drivers save around $1,500 a year towards the cost of an electric car.

Second, driverless cars can shift the transport economic model from ownership to service and ride sharing. A complete shift away from privately-owned vehicles is around the corner, with large implications for emissions.

Clean-energy living and working

Most buildings are barely used and inefficiently heated and cooled. Digitization can slash this waste and its corresponding emissions through measurement, monitoring, and new business models to use office space. While, just a few unicorns are currently in this space, the potential is enormous. Buildings are one of the five biggest sources of emissions, yet have the potential to become clean energy producers in a distributed energy network.

Creating liveable cities

More cities are setting ambitious climate targets to halve emissions in a decade or even less. Tech companies can support this transition by driving demand for low-carbon services for their workforces and offices, but also by providing tools to help monitor emissions and act to reduce them. Google, for example, is collecting travel and other data from across cities to estimate emissions in real time. This is possible through technologies like artificial intelligence and the internet of things. But beware of smart cities that turn out to be not so smart. Efficiencies can reduce resilience when cities face crises.

It’s a Start
Of course, it will take more than tech to solve the climate crisis. But tech is a wildcard. The actions of the current tech giants and their acolytes could serve to destabilize the climate further or bring it under control.

We need a new social contract between tech companies and society to achieve societal goals. The alternative is unthinkable. Without drastic action now, climate chaos threatens to engulf us all. As this future approaches, regulators will be forced to take ever more draconian action to rein in the problem. Acting now will reduce that risk.

Note: A version of this article was originally published on World Economic Forum

Image Credit: Bruce Rolff / Shutterstock.com Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435056 How Researchers Used AI to Better ...

A few years back, DeepMind’s Demis Hassabis famously prophesized that AI and neuroscience will positively feed into each other in a “virtuous circle.” If realized, this would fundamentally expand our insight into intelligence, both machine and human.

We’ve already seen some proofs of concept, at least in the brain-to-AI direction. For example, memory replay, a biological mechanism that fortifies our memories during sleep, also boosted AI learning when abstractly appropriated into deep learning models. Reinforcement learning, loosely based on our motivation circuits, is now behind some of AI’s most powerful tools.

Hassabis is about to be proven right again.

Last week, two studies independently tapped into the power of ANNs to solve a 70-year-old neuroscience mystery: how does our visual system perceive reality?

The first, published in Cell, used generative networks to evolve DeepDream-like images that hyper-activate complex visual neurons in monkeys. These machine artworks are pure nightmare fuel to the human eye; but together, they revealed a fundamental “visual hieroglyph” that may form a basic rule for how we piece together visual stimuli to process sight into perception.

In the second study, a team used a deep ANN model—one thought to mimic biological vision—to synthesize new patterns tailored to control certain networks of visual neurons in the monkey brain. When directly shown to monkeys, the team found that the machine-generated artworks could reliably activate predicted populations of neurons. Future improved ANN models could allow even better control, giving neuroscientists a powerful noninvasive tool to study the brain. The work was published in Science.

The individual results, though fascinating, aren’t necessarily the point. Rather, they illustrate how scientists are now striving to complete the virtuous circle: tapping AI to probe natural intelligence. Vision is only the beginning—the tools can potentially be expanded into other sensory domains. And the more we understand about natural brains, the better we can engineer artificial ones.

It’s a “great example of leveraging artificial intelligence to study organic intelligence,” commented Dr. Roman Sandler at Kernel.co on Twitter.

Why Vision?
ANNs and biological vision have quite the history.

In the late 1950s, the legendary neuroscientist duo David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel became some of the first to use mathematical equations to understand how neurons in the brain work together.

In a series of experiments—many using cats—the team carefully dissected the structure and function of the visual cortex. Using myriads of images, they revealed that vision is processed in a hierarchy: neurons in “earlier” brain regions, those closer to the eyes, tend to activate when they “see” simple patterns such as lines. As we move deeper into the brain, from the early V1 to a nub located slightly behind our ears, the IT cortex, neurons increasingly respond to more complex or abstract patterns, including faces, animals, and objects. The discovery led some scientists to call certain IT neurons “Jennifer Aniston cells,” which fire in response to pictures of the actress regardless of lighting, angle, or haircut. That is, IT neurons somehow extract visual information into the “gist” of things.

That’s not trivial. The complex neural connections that lead to increasing abstraction of what we see into what we think we see—what we perceive—is a central question in machine vision: how can we teach machines to transform numbers encoding stimuli into dots, lines, and angles that eventually form “perceptions” and “gists”? The answer could transform self-driving cars, facial recognition, and other computer vision applications as they learn to better generalize.

Hubel and Wiesel’s Nobel-prize-winning studies heavily influenced the birth of ANNs and deep learning. Much of earlier ANN “feed-forward” model structures are based on our visual system; even today, the idea of increasing layers of abstraction—for perception or reasoning—guide computer scientists to build AI that can better generalize. The early romance between vision and deep learning is perhaps the bond that kicked off our current AI revolution.

It only seems fair that AI would feed back into vision neuroscience.

Hieroglyphs and Controllers
In the Cell study, a team led by Dr. Margaret Livingstone at Harvard Medical School tapped into generative networks to unravel IT neurons’ complex visual alphabet.

Scientists have long known that neurons in earlier visual regions (V1) tend to fire in response to “grating patches” oriented in certain ways. Using a limited set of these patches like letters, V1 neurons can “express a visual sentence” and represent any image, said Dr. Arash Afraz at the National Institute of Health, who was not involved in the study.

But how IT neurons operate remained a mystery. Here, the team used a combination of genetic algorithms and deep generative networks to “evolve” computer art for every studied neuron. In seven monkeys, the team implanted electrodes into various parts of the visual IT region so that they could monitor the activity of a single neuron.

The team showed each monkey an initial set of 40 images. They then picked the top 10 images that stimulated the highest neural activity, and married them to 30 new images to “evolve” the next generation of images. After 250 generations, the technique, XDREAM, generated a slew of images that mashed up contorted face-like shapes with lines, gratings, and abstract shapes.

This image shows the evolution of an optimum image for stimulating a visual neuron in a monkey. Image Credit: Ponce, Xiao, and Schade et al. – Cell.
“The evolved images look quite counter-intuitive,” explained Afraz. Some clearly show detailed structures that resemble natural images, while others show complex structures that can’t be characterized by our puny human brains.

This figure shows natural images (right) and images evolved by neurons in the inferotemporal cortex of a monkey (left). Image Credit: Ponce, Xiao, and Schade et al. – Cell.
“What started to emerge during each experiment were pictures that were reminiscent of shapes in the world but were not actual objects in the world,” said study author Carlos Ponce. “We were seeing something that was more like the language cells use with each other.”

This image was evolved by a neuron in the inferotemporal cortex of a monkey using AI. Image Credit: Ponce, Xiao, and Schade et al. – Cell.
Although IT neurons don’t seem to use a simple letter alphabet, it does rely on a vast array of characters like hieroglyphs or Chinese characters, “each loaded with more information,” said Afraz.

The adaptive nature of XDREAM turns it into a powerful tool to probe the inner workings of our brains—particularly for revealing discrepancies between biology and models.

The Science study, led by Dr. James DiCarlo at MIT, takes a similar approach. Using ANNs to generate new patterns and images, the team was able to selectively predict and independently control neuron populations in a high-level visual region called V4.

“So far, what has been done with these models is predicting what the neural responses would be to other stimuli that they have not seen before,” said study author Dr. Pouya Bashivan. “The main difference here is that we are going one step further and using the models to drive the neurons into desired states.”

It suggests that our current ANN models for visual computation “implicitly capture a great deal of visual knowledge” which we can’t really describe, but which the brain uses to turn vision information into perception, the authors said. By testing AI-generated images on biological vision, however, the team concluded that today’s ANNs have a degree of understanding and generalization. The results could potentially help engineer even more accurate ANN models of biological vision, which in turn could feed back into machine vision.

“One thing is clear already: Improved ANN models … have led to control of a high-level neural population that was previously out of reach,” the authors said. “The results presented here have likely only scratched the surface of what is possible with such implemented characterizations of the brain’s neural networks.”

To Afraz, the power of AI here is to find cracks in human perception—both our computational models of sensory processes, as well as our evolved biological software itself. AI can be used “as a perfect adversarial tool to discover design cracks” of IT, said Afraz, such as finding computer art that “fools” a neuron into thinking the object is something else.

“As artificial intelligence researchers develop models that work as well as the brain does—or even better—we will still need to understand which networks are more likely to behave safely and further human goals,” said Ponce. “More efficient AI can be grounded by knowledge of how the brain works.”

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