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One of the most exciting and frightening outcomes of technological advancement is the potential to merge our minds with machines. If achieved, this would profoundly boost our cognitive capabilities. More importantly, however, it could be a revolution in human identity, emotion, spirituality, and self-awareness.
Brain-machine interface technology is already being developed by pioneers and researchers around the globe. It’s still early and today’s tech is fairly rudimentary, but it’s a fast-moving field, and some believe it will advance faster than generally expected. Futurist Ray Kurzweil has predicted that by the 2030s we will be able to connect our brains to the internet via nanobots that will “provide full-immersion virtual reality from within the nervous system, provide direct brain-to-brain communication over the internet, and otherwise greatly expand human intelligence.” Even if the advances are less dramatic, however, they’ll have significant implications.
How might this technology affect human consciousness? What about its implications on our sentience, self-awareness, or subjective experience of our illusion of self?
Consciousness can be hard to define, but a holistic definition often encompasses many of our most fundamental capacities, such as wakefulness, self-awareness, meta-cognition, and sense of agency. Beyond that, consciousness represents a spectrum of awareness, as seen across various species of animals. Even humans experience different levels of existential awareness.
From psychedelics to meditation, there are many tools we already use to alter and heighten our conscious experience, both temporarily and permanently. These tools have been said to contribute to a richer life, with the potential to bring experiences of beauty, love, inner peace, and transcendence. Relatively non-invasive, these tools show us what a seemingly minor imbalance of neurochemistry and conscious internal effort can do to the subjective experience of being human.
Taking this into account, what implications might emerging brain-machine interface technologies have on the “self”?
The Tools for Self-Transcendence
At the basic level, we are currently seeing the rise of “consciousness hackers” using techniques like non-invasive brain stimulation through EEG, nutrition, virtual reality, and ecstatic experiences to create environments for heightened consciousness and self-awareness. In Stealing Fire, Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal explore this trillion-dollar altered-states economy and how innovators and thought leaders are “harnessing rare and controversial states of consciousness to solve critical challenges and outperform the competition.” Beyond enhanced productivity, these altered states expose our inner potential and give us a glimpse of a greater state of being.
Expanding consciousness through brain augmentation and implants could one day be just as accessible. Researchers are working on an array of neurotechnologies as simple and non-invasive as electrode-based EEGs to invasive implants and techniques like optogenetics, where neurons are genetically reprogrammed to respond to pulses of light. We’ve already connected two brains via the internet, allowing the two to communicate, and future-focused startups are researching the possibilities too. With an eye toward advanced brain-machine interfaces, last year Elon Musk unveiled Neuralink, a company whose ultimate goal is to merge the human mind with AI through a “neural lace.”
Many technologists predict we will one day merge with and, more speculatively, upload our minds onto machines. Neuroscientist Kenneth Hayworth writes in Skeptic magazine, “All of today’s neuroscience models are fundamentally computational by nature, supporting the theoretical possibility of mind-uploading.” This might include connecting with other minds using digital networks or even uploading minds onto quantum computers, which can be in multiple states of computation at a given time.
In their book Evolving Ourselves, Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans describe a world where evolution is no longer driven by natural processes. Instead, it is driven by human choices, through what they call unnatural selection and non-random mutation. With advancements in genetic engineering, we are indeed seeing evolution become an increasingly conscious process with an accelerated pace. This could one day apply to the evolution of our consciousness as well; we would be using our consciousness to expand our consciousness.
What Will It Feel Like?
We may be able to come up with predictions of the impact of these technologies on society, but we can only wonder what they will feel like subjectively.
It’s hard to imagine, for example, what our stream of consciousness will feel like when we can process thoughts and feelings 1,000 times faster, or how artificially intelligent brain implants will impact our capacity to love and hate. What will the illusion of “I” feel like when our consciousness is directly plugged into the internet? Overall, what impact will the process of merging with technology have on the subjective experience of being human?
The Evolution of Consciousness
In The Future Evolution of Consciousness, Thomas Lombardo points out, “We are a journey rather than a destination—a chapter in the evolutionary saga rather than a culmination. Just as probable, there will also be a diversification of species and types of conscious minds. It is also very likely that new psychological capacities, incomprehensible to us, will emerge as well.”
Humans are notorious for fearing the unknown. For any individual who has never experienced an altered state, be it spiritual or psychedelic-induced, it is difficult to comprehend the subjective experience of that state. It is why many refer to their first altered-state experience as “waking up,” wherein they didn’t even realize they were asleep.
Similarly, exponential neurotechnology represents the potential of a higher state of consciousness and a range of experiences that are unimaginable to our current default state.
Our capacity to think and feel is set by the boundaries of our biological brains. To transform and expand these boundaries is to transform and expand the first-hand experience of consciousness. Emerging neurotechnology may end up providing the awakening our species needs.
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The best storytellers react to their audience. They look for smiles, signs of awe, or boredom; they simultaneously and skillfully read both the story and their sitters. Kevin Brooks, a seasoned storyteller working for Motorola’s Human Interface Labs, explains, “As the storyteller begins, they must tune in to… the audience’s energy. Based on this energy, the storyteller will adjust their timing, their posture, their characterizations, and sometimes even the events of the story. There is a dialog between audience and storyteller.”
Shortly after I read the script to Melita, the latest virtual reality experience from Madrid-based immersive storytelling company Future Lighthouse, CEO Nicolas Alcalá explained to me that the piece is an example of “reactive content,” a concept he’s been working on since his days at Singularity University.
For the first time in history, we have access to technology that can merge the reactive and affective elements of oral storytelling with the affordances of digital media, weaving stunning visuals, rich soundtracks, and complex meta-narratives in a story arena that has the capability to know you more intimately than any conventional storyteller could.
It’s no understatement to say that the storytelling potential here is phenomenal.
In short, we can refer to content as reactive if it reads and reacts to users based on their body rhythms, emotions, preferences, and data points. Artificial intelligence is used to analyze users’ behavior or preferences to sculpt unique storylines and narratives, essentially allowing for a story that changes in real time based on who you are and how you feel.
The development of reactive content will allow those working in the industry to go one step further than simply translating the essence of oral storytelling into VR. Rather than having a narrative experience with a digital storyteller who can read you, reactive content has the potential to create an experience with a storyteller who knows you.
This means being able to subtly insert minor personal details that have a specific meaning to the viewer. When we talk to our friends we often use experiences we’ve shared in the past or knowledge of our audience to give our story as much resonance as possible. Targeting personal memories and aspects of our lives is a highly effective way to elicit emotions and aid in visualizing narratives. When you can do this with the addition of visuals, music, and characters—all lifted from someone’s past—you have the potential for overwhelmingly engaging and emotionally-charged content.
Future Lighthouse inform me that for now, reactive content will rely primarily on biometric feedback technology such as breathing, heartbeat, and eye tracking sensors. A simple example would be a story in which parts of the environment or soundscape change in sync with the user’s heartbeat and breathing, or characters who call you out for not paying attention.
The next step would be characters and situations that react to the user’s emotions, wherein algorithms analyze biometric information to make inferences about states of emotional arousal (“why are you so nervous?” etc.). Another example would be implementing the use of “arousal parameters,” where the audience can choose what level of “fear” they want from a VR horror story before algorithms modulate the experience using information from biometric feedback devices.
The company’s long-term goal is to gather research on storytelling conventions and produce a catalogue of story “wireframes.” This entails distilling the basic formula to different genres so they can then be fleshed out with visuals, character traits, and soundtracks that are tailored for individual users based on their deep data, preferences, and biometric information.
The development of reactive content will go hand in hand with a renewed exploration of diverging, dynamic storylines, and multi-narratives, a concept that hasn’t had much impact in the movie world thus far. In theory, the idea of having a story that changes and mutates is captivating largely because of our love affair with serendipity and unpredictability, a cultural condition theorist Arthur Kroker refers to as the “hypertextual imagination.” This feeling of stepping into the unknown with the possibility of deviation from the habitual translates as a comforting reminder that our own lives can take exciting and unexpected turns at any moment.
The inception of the concept into mainstream culture dates to the classic Choose Your Own Adventure book series that launched in the late 70s, which in its literary form had great success. However, filmic takes on the theme have made somewhat less of an impression. DVDs like I’m Your Man (1998) and Switching (2003) both use scene selection tools to determine the direction of the storyline.
A more recent example comes from Kino Industries, who claim to have developed the technology to allow filmmakers to produce interactive films in which viewers can use smartphones to quickly vote on which direction the narrative takes at numerous decision points throughout the film.
The main problem with diverging narrative films has been the stop-start nature of the interactive element: when I’m immersed in a story I don’t want to have to pick up a controller or remote to select what’s going to happen next. Every time the audience is given the option to take a new path (“press this button”, “vote on X, Y, Z”) the narrative— and immersion within that narrative—is temporarily halted, and it takes the mind a while to get back into this state of immersion.
Reactive content has the potential to resolve these issues by enabling passive interactivity—that is, input and output without having to pause and actively make decisions or engage with the hardware. This will result in diverging, dynamic narratives that will unfold seamlessly while being dependent on and unique to the specific user and their emotions. Passive interactivity will also remove the game feel that can often be a symptom of interactive experiences and put a viewer somewhere in the middle: still firmly ensconced in an interactive dynamic narrative, but in a much subtler way.
While reading the Melita script I was particularly struck by a scene in which the characters start to engage with the user and there’s a synchronicity between the user’s heartbeat and objects in the virtual world. As the narrative unwinds and the words of Melita’s character get more profound, parts of the landscape, which seemed to be flashing and pulsating at random, come together and start to mimic the user’s heartbeat.
In 2013, Jane Aspell of Anglia Ruskin University (UK) and Lukas Heydrich of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology proved that a user’s sense of presence and identification with a virtual avatar could be dramatically increased by syncing the on-screen character with the heartbeat of the user. The relationship between bio-digital synchronicity, immersion, and emotional engagement is something that will surely have revolutionary narrative and storytelling potential.
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Many people get frustrated with technology when it malfunctions or is counterintuitive. The last thing people might expect is for that same technology to pick up on their emotions and engage with them differently as a result.
All of that is now changing. Computers are increasingly able to figure out what we’re feeling—and it’s big business.
A recent report predicts that the global affective computing market will grow from $12.2 billion in 2016 to $53.98 billion by 2021. The report by research and consultancy firm MarketsandMarkets observed that enabling technologies have already been adopted in a wide range of industries and noted a rising demand for facial feature extraction software.
Affective computing is also referred to as emotion AI or artificial emotional intelligence. Although many people are still unfamiliar with the category, researchers in academia have already discovered a multitude of uses for it.
At the University of Tokyo, Professor Toshihiko Yamasaki decided to develop a machine learning system that evaluates the quality of TED Talk videos. Of course, a TED Talk is only considered to be good if it resonates with a human audience. On the surface, this would seem too qualitatively abstract for computer analysis. But Yamasaki wanted his system to watch videos of presentations and predict user impressions. Could a machine learning system accurately evaluate the emotional persuasiveness of a speaker?
Yamasaki and his colleagues came up with a method that analyzed correlations and “multimodal features including linguistic as well as acoustic features” in a dataset of 1,646 TED Talk videos. The experiment was successful. The method obtained “a statistically significant macro-average accuracy of 93.3 percent, outperforming several competitive baseline methods.”
A machine was able to predict whether or not a person would emotionally connect with other people. In their report, the authors noted that these findings could be used for recommendation purposes and also as feedback to the presenters, in order to improve the quality of their public presentation. However, the usefulness of affective computing goes far beyond the way people present content. It may also transform the way they learn it.
Researchers from North Carolina State University explored the connection between students’ affective states and their ability to learn. Their software was able to accurately predict the effectiveness of online tutoring sessions by analyzing the facial expressions of participating students. The software tracked fine-grained facial movements such as eyebrow raising, eyelid tightening, and mouth dimpling to determine engagement, frustration, and learning. The authors concluded that “analysis of facial expressions has great potential for educational data mining.”
This type of technology is increasingly being used within the private sector. Affectiva is a Boston-based company that makes emotion recognition software. When asked to comment on this emerging technology, Gabi Zijderveld, chief marketing officer at Affectiva, explained in an interview for this article, “Our software measures facial expressions of emotion. So basically all you need is our software running and then access to a camera so you can basically record a face and analyze it. We can do that in real time or we can do this by looking at a video and then analyzing data and sending it back to folks.”
The technology has particular relevance for the advertising industry.
Zijderveld said, “We have products that allow you to measure how consumers or viewers respond to digital content…you could have a number of people looking at an ad, you measure their emotional response so you aggregate the data and it gives you insight into how well your content is performing. And then you can adapt and adjust accordingly.”
Zijderveld explained that this is the first market where the company got traction. However, they have since packaged up their core technology in software development kits or SDKs. This allows other companies to integrate emotion detection into whatever they are building.
By licensing its technology to others, Affectiva is now rapidly expanding into a wide variety of markets, including gaming, education, robotics, and healthcare. The core technology is also used in human resources for the purposes of video recruitment. The software analyzes the emotional responses of interviewees, and that data is factored into hiring decisions.
Richard Yonck is founder and president of Intelligent Future Consulting and the author of a book about our relationship with technology. “One area I discuss in Heart of the Machine is the idea of an emotional economy that will arise as an ecosystem of emotionally aware businesses, systems, and services are developed. This will rapidly expand into a multi-billion-dollar industry, leading to an infrastructure that will be both emotionally responsive and potentially exploitive at personal, commercial, and political levels,” said Yonck, in an interview for this article.
According to Yonck, these emotionally-aware systems will “better anticipate needs, improve efficiency, and reduce stress and misunderstandings.”
Affectiva is uniquely positioned to profit from this “emotional economy.” The company has already created the world’s largest emotion database. “We’ve analyzed a little bit over 4.7 million faces in 75 countries,” said Zijderveld. “This is data first and foremost, it’s data gathered with consent. So everyone has opted in to have their faces analyzed.”
The vastness of that database is essential for deep learning approaches. The software would be inaccurate if the data was inadequate. According to Zijderveld, “If you don’t have massive amounts of data of people of all ages, genders, and ethnicities, then your algorithms are going to be pretty biased.”
This massive database has already revealed cultural insights into how people express emotion. Zijderveld explained, “Obviously everyone knows that women are more expressive than men. But our data confirms that, but not only that, it can also show that women smile longer. They tend to smile more often. There’s also regional differences.”
Yonck believes that affective computing will inspire unimaginable forms of innovation and that change will happen at a fast pace.
He explained, “As businesses, software, systems, and services develop, they’ll support and make possible all sorts of other emotionally aware technologies that couldn’t previously exist. This leads to a spiral of increasingly sophisticated products, just as happened in the early days of computing.”
Those who are curious about affective technology will soon be able to interact with it.
Hubble Connected unveiled the Hubble Hugo at multiple trade shows this year. Hugo is billed as “the world’s first smart camera,” with emotion AI video analytics powered by Affectiva. The product can identify individuals, figure out how they’re feeling, receive voice commands, video monitor your home, and act as a photographer and videographer of events. Media can then be transmitted to the cloud. The company’s website describes Hugo as “a fun pal to have in the house.”
Although he sees the potential for improved efficiencies and expanding markets, Richard Yonck cautions that AI technology is not without its pitfalls.
“It’s critical that we understand we are headed into very unknown territory as we develop these systems, creating problems unlike any we’ve faced before,” said Yonck. “We should put our focus on ensuring AI develops in a way that represents our human values and ideals.”
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It is one of the top 10 deadliest diseases in the United States, and it cannot be cured or prevented. But new studies are finding ways to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease in its earliest stages, while some of the latest research says technologies like artificial intelligence can detect dementia years before the first symptoms occur.
These advances, in turn, will help bolster clinical trials seeking a cure or therapies to slow or prevent the disease. Catching Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia early in their progression can help ease symptoms in some cases.
“Often neurodegeneration is diagnosed late when massive brain damage has already occurred,” says professor Francis L Martin at the University of Central Lancashire in the UK, in an email to Singularity Hub. “As we know more about the molecular basis of the disease, there is the possibility of clinical interventions that might slow or halt the progress of the disease, i.e., before brain damage. Extending cognitive ability for even a number of years would have huge benefit.”
Martin is the principal investigator on a project that has developed a technique to analyze blood samples to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease and distinguish between other forms of dementia.
The researchers used sensor-based technology with a diamond core to analyze about 550 blood samples. They identified specific chemical bonds within the blood after passing light through the diamond core and recording its interaction with the sample. The results were then compared against blood samples from cases of Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative diseases, along with those from healthy individuals.
“From a small drop of blood, we derive a fingerprint spectrum. That fingerprint spectrum contains numerical data, which can be inputted into a computational algorithm we have developed,” Martin explains. “This algorithm is validated for prediction of unknown samples. From this we determine sensitivity and specificity. Although not perfect, my clinical colleagues reliably tell me our results are far better than anything else they have seen.”
Martin says the breakthrough is the result of more than 10 years developing sensor-based technologies for routine screening, monitoring, or diagnosing neurodegenerative diseases and cancers.
“My vision was to develop something low-cost that could be readily applied in a typical clinical setting to handle thousands of samples potentially per day or per week,” he says, adding that the technology also has applications in environmental science and food security.
The new test can also distinguish accurately between Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of neurodegeneration, such as Lewy body dementia, which is one of the most common causes of dementia after Alzheimer’s.
“To this point, other than at post-mortem, there has been no single approach towards classifying these pathologies,” Martin notes. “MRI scanning is often used but is labor-intensive, costly, difficult to apply to dementia patients, and not a routine point-of-care test.”
Canadian researchers at McGill University believe they can predict Alzheimer’s disease up to two years before its onset using big data and artificial intelligence. They developed an algorithm capable of recognizing the signatures of dementia using a single amyloid PET scan of the brain of patients at risk of developing the disease.
Alzheimer’s is caused by the accumulation of two proteins—amyloid beta and tau. The latest research suggests that amyloid beta leads to the buildup of tau, which is responsible for damaging nerve cells and connections between cells called synapses.
The work was recently published in the journal Neurobiology of Aging.
“Despite the availability of biomarkers capable of identifying the proteins causative of Alzheimer’s disease in living individuals, the current technologies cannot predict whether carriers of AD pathology in the brain will progress to dementia,” Sulantha Mathotaarachchi, lead author on the paper and an expert in artificial neural networks, tells Singularity Hub by email.
The algorithm, trained on a population with amnestic mild cognitive impairment observed over 24 months, proved accurate 84.5 percent of the time. Mathotaarachchi says the algorithm can be trained on different populations for different observational periods, meaning the system can grow more comprehensive with more data.
“The more biomarkers we incorporate, the more accurate the prediction could be,” Mathotaarachchi adds. “However, right now, acquiring [the] required amount of training data is the biggest challenge. … In Alzheimer’s disease, it is known that the amyloid protein deposition occurs decades before symptoms onset.”
Unfortunately, the same process occurs in normal aging as well. “The challenge is to identify the abnormal patterns of deposition that lead to the disease later on,” he says
One of the key goals of the project is to improve the research in Alzheimer’s disease by ensuring those patients with the highest probability to develop dementia are enrolled in clinical trials. That will increase the efficiency of clinical programs, according to Mathotaarachchi.
“One of the most important outcomes from our study was the pilot, online, real-time prediction tool,” he says. “This can be used as a framework for patient screening before recruiting for clinical trials. … If a disease-modifying therapy becomes available for patients, a predictive tool might have clinical applications as well, by providing to the physician information regarding clinical progression.”
Pixel by Pixel Prediction
Private industry is also working toward improving science’s predictive powers when it comes to detecting dementia early. One startup called Darmiyan out of San Francisco claims its proprietary software can pick up signals before the onset of Alzheimer’s disease by up to 15 years.
Darmiyan didn’t respond to a request for comment for this article. Venture Beat reported that the company’s MRI-analyzing software “detects cell abnormalities at a microscopic level to reveal what a standard MRI scan cannot” and that the “software measures and highlights subtle microscopic changes in the brain tissue represented in every pixel of the MRI image long before any symptoms arise.”
Darmiyan claims to have a 90 percent accuracy rate and says its software has been vetted by top academic institutions like New York University, Rockefeller University, and Stanford, according to Venture Beat. The startup is awaiting FDA approval to proceed further but is reportedly working with pharmaceutical companies like Amgen, Johnson & Johnson, and Pfizer on pilot programs.
“Our technology enables smarter drug selection in preclinical animal studies, better patient selection for clinical trials, and much better drug-effect monitoring,” Darmiyan cofounder and CEO Padideh Kamali-Zare told Venture Beat.
An estimated 5.5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s, and one in 10 people over age 65 have been diagnosed with the disease. By mid-century, the number of Alzheimer’s patients could rise to 16 million. Health care costs in 2017 alone are estimated to be $259 billion, and by 2050 the annual price tag could be more than $1 trillion.
In sum, it’s a disease that cripples people and the economy.
Researchers are always after more data as they look to improve outcomes, with the hope of one day developing a cure or preventing the onset of neurodegeneration altogether. If interested in seeing this medical research progress, you can help by signing up on the Brain Health Registry to improve the quality of clinical trials.
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