Can the Human Brain One Day be Fully Digitized and Uploaded?

"Human Brain Illustrated with Millions of Small Nerves", Image by Ars Electronica

“Human Brain Illustrated with Millions of Small Nerves”, Image by Ars Electronica

Can the human brain somehow be digitized? Can someone’s mind  be bitmapped and uploaded to a computer? Even if this ever becomes possible, is it something anyone would actually want to have done?

A Senior Scientist at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Farm Research Campus named Kenneth Hayworth is currently working on this possibility. He is also the President and Co-Founder of the Brain Preservation Foundation. His work in this field is the subject of a most interesting profile in the May 2015 edition of Smithsonian Magazine entitled The Quest to Upload Your Mind Into the Digital Space by Jerry Adler.

I will sum up, annotate and ask a few questions about this piece. I  also recommend clicking through and reading it for more of the details.

Hayworth’s plan is to digitize and upload his “memory, skills and personality” to a computer. In turn, this system can be programmed to “emulate” the operations of his brain. As well, this system could perhaps enable him live on indefinitely in this electronic form.

This kind of adds a whole new meaning to keeping someone in mind.

If Hayworth does achieve this goal of producing human-level or above intelligence embedded in silicon, it will be considered to be one of the  technological manifestations of The Singularity, an anticipated point in the next few decades where machine intelligence equals and then surpasses human intelligence. The prediction of this event was the subject of a fascinating book by the renowned inventor and computer scientist Ray Kurzweil entitled The Singularity is Near (Penguin Books, 2006). I suggest reading this if you are ever looking for a truly original and challenging science and technology book.

Carboncopies.org is another organization working towards a similar goal of producing a “substrate independent mind” (SIM). Dr. Randall Koene is the founder.

In their best case scenarios, Hayworth and Koene believe this will cost billions and take about 50 years to accomplish. Hayworth’s plans are to devise a chemical or cryonic means to preserve the full human being at death and then scan its structure into a database in order to then achieve the mind’s emulation. However, this remains based upon an as yet unproven hypothesis that all of the “subtleties of the human mind and memory” are held within the brains “anatomical structure”.

Furthermore, these projects will require significant leaps in technological development. One of these, among others, is the building of the connectome, a long-term initiative to fully map the billions of neurons and, in turn, their trillions of connecting synapses in the human brain. As also previously discussed in the December 27, 2014 Subway Fold Post entitled Three New Perspectives on Whether Artificial Intelligence Threatens or Benefits the World :

For an absolutely fascinating deep and wide analysis of current and future projects to map out all of the billions of connections among the neurons in the human brain, I suggest reading Connectome: How the Brain’s Wiring Makes Us Who We Are (Houghton Mifflin, 2012), by Sebastian Seung.  See also a most interesting column about the work of Dr. Seung and others by James Gorman in the November 10, 2014 edition of The New York Times entitled Learning How Little We Know About the Brain. (For the sake of all humanity, let’s hope these scientists don’t decide to use Homer J. Simpson, at fn.3 above, as a test subject for their work.)

Furthermore, a program announced by the US government in 2013  to build a comprehensive map of human brain activity. It is intended to operate on the scale of the Human Genome Project. (For detailed coverage of this see Obama Seeking to Boost Coverage of Human Brain, by John Markoff, in the February 17, 2013 edition of The New York Times.)

Among “mainstream researchers”, opinion is split as to whether Hayworth’s objective is even possible. Moreover, will such machine brains experience comparable human emotions, needs and desires? Will they be truly sentient?

My own questions are as follows:

  • Is this story really about machine capabilities or the ages old human dream of becoming immortal?
  • What protocols and laws, if any, should be drafted and enacted to make certain that this area of development does not lead to any unintended or dangerous consequences? Are Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics a logical place to begin studying these issues?
  • In addition to neuroscience and artificial intelligence, what other scientific fields and commercial marketplaces might these projects influence and benefit?
  • What entrepreneurial opportunities might exist now and in the future to facilitate and support these initiatives?
  • What would be the long-term economic and social consequences if this form of singularity is ever achieved?
  • Will the prospect of this achievement be so unsettling that it might result in some form of scientific and/or public backlash?

Finally, the notion of transferring an individual’s consciousness from one person to another has long been a popular plot device in science fiction. My own recommendation for one of the best sci-fi novels I have ever read to ever use this is Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan (Del Ray, 2003). It presents a truly, well, mind-bending plot and crackling prose about a future world where brains can be downloaded and implanted multiple times from a form of central server. (September 12, 2016 Update: Altered Carbon is being adapted for a new TV series. The details were reported in a post on Deadline.com today in an article entitled ‘Altered Carbon’: Marlene Forte & Trieu Tran Join Cast of Netflix Series, by Denise Petski. I am definitely looking forward to seeing how the production, writing and acting crew do with this very rich source material.)

Tech Day New York 2015’s Great Success Was Clearly App-arent

IMAG0059Even though the weather was cold and windy in New York yesterday, the environment inside Tech Day New York 2015 (and on @TechDayHQ and #NYTD) was sunny and warm. Thousands of guests attended and were able to survey the exhibits and speak with the representatives of more than 400 startups from the NYC area. (Thanks and kudos, btw, to the designers and coders responsible this event’s website because it’s a very snappy and original piece of work.)

There is a thriving entrepreneurial community across this great city and its pride and spirit were well represented here. I found the hours that I spent wandering around the exhibits to be exhilarating because of the energy, creativity and determination displayed by all of these budding companies. Indeed, I found a massive group of people doing a lot of way cool things today. I took the photos above and below to try to capture some sense of the scale of TDNY.

Of course, such vivid concentrations of tech entrepreneurship exist elsewhere in a multitude of locations across the globe. But, forgive me, this is my hometown.

The startups at the event displayed a deep and wide range of online goods and services. Among many others, these included programming and app development tools, big data and analytics offerings, medical information collection and analytical platforms, cloud management and security systems, employment and benefits sites, social networking and organization apps, food preparation and delivery services, fashion industry services, music and media apps and services, education support offerings, and 3-D printing systems. There was even someone dressed up like a slice of pizza putting on some pretty cool dance moves in the middle of it all.

I stopped and talked with the reps at a number of the startups. I was very impressed with everyone’s sincerity, desire to succeed and wide-ranging knowledge of their businesses and markets. Despite the vast number of people attending, they all appeared to be making their best efforts to speak with everyone who was interested in speaking with them. I found that all of own my questions were answered in full and any of my inquiries for further clarifications were gladly provided. I also saw none of them doing hard sales pitches. Rather, they seemed more determined to make sure that the attendees to understand each venture’s goals, methods and services.

I believe that the attendees and these entrepreneurs both got much value out of participating in this tremendously exciting event. While not all of these startups will survive, they all deserve a grade of A+ for their visions, hard work and willingness to take big risks. Some will have the insight and fortitude to pivot and adapt their businesses plans to changes in the marketplace.

My very best wishes for all of them to succeed and continue to thrive.

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New Analytics Process Uses Patent Data to Predict Advancements in Specific Technologies

"Crystal Ball", Image by Christian Schnettelker

“Crystal Ball”, Image by Christian Schnettelker

John Oliver did a brilliant and hilarious takedown of patent trolls on his April 19, 2015 edition of his Last Week Tonight show. He raved about the absurdity of such companies who buy up patents and yet produce nothing much themselves other than lawsuits to enforce theses patents. As he said, this is a form of “extortion” that impedes progress and ends up costing the defendants in these actions a great deal of money. If you did not see the show or have not seen the video yet, please have a look and a laugh.

Then compare and contrast that economic fear and needless cost of using patent data in such a negative manner with the publication of a paper last week about how US patent filings are now being used in an entirely opposite, innovative and productive manner. The contrast could not be more dramatic. Indeed, as presented in a new paper published online on April 15, 2015 on PLoS One entitled Quantitative Determination of Technological Improvement from Patent Data, by MIT researchers Christopher L. Benson and Christopher L. Magee, mining recent filings in the US Patent and Trademark Office’s (USPTO) massive database using their new methodology, can determine which technologies are genuinely advancing and at what relative rate.

This very exciting news was reported and analyzed in an article posted on Phys.org on April 15, 2015 entitled New Method Uses Patent Data to Estimate a Technology’s Future Rate of Improvement. I will sum up, annotate and add a few questions to this. I highly recommend clicking through on both this article for the details of how this prediction tool was developed and the full-text of the PLoS One paper for the granular details of how it actually works.

(For cross-reference purposes, this advancement follows on and partially mixes together the topics of two previous Subway Fold posts, one on April 9, 2014 entitled Comprehensive Visualization of Future Paths of Technological Innovations and another on August 8, 2014 entitled New Visualization Service for US Patent and Trademark Data.)

Benson and Magee have devised an analytical means to sift through the USPTO database for precisely choosing the latest patents that “best represent” 28 specific technological domains. These include, among others,  “solar photovoltaics, 3-D printing, fuel-cell technology, and genome sequencing”. Then, applying their methodology, based upon the number of subsequent citations in other new patent filings, they were able to determine those some of the relevant patents displayed an increased likelihood in predicting “a technology’s improvement rate”. In effect, the higher the rate of subsequent citation of Patent X, the higher the rate of innovation. The equations in their predictive tool also include some other patent characteristics.

Among the 28 technologies, those showing the highest rates of advancement were “optical¹ and wireless communications, 3-D printing, and MRI technology²“, while others with slower rates of advance included “batteries, wind turbines, and combustion engines”.

Benson believes that his prediction method could possibly be useful to venture capitalists, startups³. Magee hopes that it may be applied as a form of “rating system” for investors searching out potential “breakthroughs”. Both developers also foresee the possibility that public and private laboratories could use it to investigate potential new areas for research. Furthermore, Magee believes that their approach can be applied to lower the level of uncertainty about the future of a particular technology to “a more manageable number”.

My questions are as follows:

  • Would the accuracy of the predictions from this new system be enhanced by applying its underlying equations to add in other data sources such as online news, social media mentions, and citations to other relevant industry news publications? (X-ref to the December 2, 2014 Subway Fold post entitled Startup is Visualizing and Interpreting Massive Quantities of Daily Online News Content.)
  • Could the underlying equations be applied to other fields such as law to predict the possible outcomes of cases based upon the densities and propensities of cases cited in similar matters and jurisdictions? What about possible applications in medical research or the financial markets?
  • Can levels of probability be quantified with this new system? For example, can it derive a 70% probability that driverless cars will continue to gather technological momentum and then commercially succeed in the marketplace? If so, how might such probabilities be used by the public, governments, researchers and investors?

 


1Could references to patents for optical technologies also be considered, well, cites for sore eyes?

2.  X-ref a September 3, 2014 Subway Fold post entitled Applying MRI Technology to Determine the Effects of Movies and Music on Our Brains.

3.  There are currently 22 Subway Fold posts on a broad range of startups in many industries.

 

Flashpoint Presents Its “Demo Day” in New York on April 16, 2015

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“Fishbowl Jump”, Image by Kay Kim

Flashpoint is a startup accelerator at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, Georgia. Using a well-defined program, they apply engineering-based methods to nurture new and scalable companies with the intention of addressing unmet demands in the marketplace.

I had the great pleasure of attending their Demo Day presentation in New York, yesterday on April 16, 2015, at the outstanding SUNY Global Center. It was indeed inspiring to see such smart and creative new companies providing innovative products and services. A metric ton of thanks to everyone involved in this special event.

This was part of a series of Flashpoint Demo Days currently touring a number of cities across the US. They are showcasing eight of their current startups, each of whom is seeking additional funding from investors. At this event, one representative from each gave a concise five-to-ten minute speech to the audience about the particulars of their ventures.

The proceeding began with a talk by Professor Merrick Furst of the Georgia Tech College of Computing. He gave a compelling explanation of Flashpoint’s guiding principles, methodologies and results. Among other things, he shared his perspectives about starting up a new firm, including two imperative elements: “Authentic demand” needed in the market and “authentic innovation” provided by startups to meet it. I believe that the audience, many of whom are involved in startup financing, learned much from him.

Next, in the order that they appeared, one speaker for each of the following Flashpoint startups addressed the audience:

  • GalliumGroup (and on @datawhipper):   A data-driven service to assist in warranty analysis, claims efficiency and payment optimization for heavy equipment manufacturers in construction, transportation and farming.
  • DecisionIQ (and on @DecisionIQ):  A data management, analytics and decision-support firm whose software platform spots potential equipment failure well in advance of its occurrence in the health, energy and transportation industries. The application presented was for industrial turbine engines.
  • Generation DyNAmics (@generationDNA): A firm working on creating an environment where everyone (ideally 90%), in a specific geographical area receives genomic screening in order to halt the spread of preventable genetic diseases.
  • Visit:  A firm establishing a platform to enable customers to meet with actual creators of limited edition handmade goods such as food and clothing. For example, a small producer of gin attached labels to his bottles encouraging his buyers to meet with him for a tasting.
  • Acivilate (and on @acivilate): A firm seeking to change the management and coordination of the delivery of public and social services. For example, parolees need help with their documents, housing and employment. Acivilate prepares a master case file for these purposes which is owned by the client.
  • Vault (and on @VaultStemCell): A firm that provides “a medical concierge service” to gather and store a client’s own stem cells if and when they might be needed for regular medical procedures or else in the future to treat illnesses. An example of a target market is professional and amateur athletes.
  • GetLawyer (and on @getlawyer):  A firm aiming to assist in “clearing the legal markets” by using its software to match and deliver clemency eligibility cases to the appropriate attorneys in order to provide support for such filings for  prisoners (often first-timers), being held non-violent charges.
  • Florence Healthcare (and on @FlorenceHCare): A firm providing a data management software solution (including  collection, processing and sharing), for clinical trials of pharmaceuticals under development.

All of the presenters greatly impressed me with their visions, passions and sincerity for the objectives and potentials of their startups. I highly recommend clicking through on the above links to view at the full details of their endeavors.

Bravo! and the very  best of good luck and good fortune to all of them as they move forward.

Smart Dust: Specialized Computers Fabricated to Be Smaller Than a Single Grain of Rice

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“Sabotage #4: Mixing Noodles with Rice”, Image by Stefan

Back in 1977, Steve Martin put out a live album of his stand-up comedy performances called Let’s Get Small. Included was one of his signature routines called Well, Excuse Me. It went on to sell more than a millions copies. Much of it was laugh-out-loud hilarious.

Now, 48 years later, when the Internet of Things (IoT) has becoming a burgeoning global phenomenon, some very imaginative people have taken this notion (in name only), and  in a way that could have never been foreseen in any manner back then.

Certainly no excuses needed here. Rather, let’s have a look at this exciting new development.

Researchers at the University of Michigan, led by Professor David Blaauw, have recently fabricated a functional and autonomous computer measuring only 1 millimeter on each side. This device, dubbed the Michigan Micro Mote (M^3), was the subject of a most interesting article by Rex Sakamoto on CNET.com entitled This Working Computer is Smaller Than a Grain of Rice, posted on April 6, 2015. I will summarize it, add some links and annotations, and pose a few questions. (The CNET article also contains an embedded video of a very informative recent report about this project on CBS News.)

This team’s work has been ongoing for more than ten years. With regards to the IoT, they believe that all of devices connected to it will require more “intelligence” and networking capabilities integrated into them whereby the M^3 could be the means to accomplish this.

The M^3’s current capabilities are photography and as temperature and pressure sensors. The researchers are now exploring a range of potential applications “ranging from medical to industrial” including:

  • Medical: How it can be “injected into the body” to take such temperature and pressure readings, as well as an electrocardiogram (EKG).
  • Energy: Assessing whether an existing oil well still contains any extractable reserves.
  • Consumer Goods: Attaching M^3s to everyday items such as keys and wallets to insure they are never lost inside or outside of the home.
  • Other potential apps on the project’s website include a platform containing “low-resolution imager, signal processing and memory, temperature sensor, on-board CMOS timer, wireless communication, battery, and solar energy harvesting that are all packaged in a 1mm3 volume through low-cost die stacking and encapsulation.”

In order to program and power up the M^3, the researchers created a means to accomplish this by using “strobing light at high frequency”. In turn, the M^3’s output is transmitted to an external computer by “conventional radio frequencies”.

The team’s current efforts involve reducing the size of the M^3 even further to a point where it may become the basis for a form of “smart dust“.

Just a few days ago in the April 10, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled The Next Wave in High Tech Material Science about metamaterials that can bend sound, light, radar and seismic waves, I speculated about some other potential applications for this emerging technology. With the M^3 so similar insofar as its originality and  potential to generate a myriad of applications not even considered yet,  my questions include:

  • Are there apps where the M^3 and metamaterials can be combined? What about in optical networks where metamaterials are using in the production of fiber cables where the M^3s could be used as sensors?
  • Would the M^3 make a via sensor for transportation infrastructure (roads, bridges, rails and so on), as well as the bodies, engines and electronics in cars, planes and trains? How about embedding them into buildings for additional safety technologies?
  • What safety and privacy protocols and policies will need to be developed and by whom? How can they be enforced?

The Next Wave in High Tech Materials Science

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Optical Profilometer Metamaterials, Image by Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Metamaterials are not something used by the United Federation of Planets’ engineers to build the next iteration of the Starship Enterprise (which, btw, would be designated the NCC-1701-F, although some may differ).  Rather, they are materials fabricated in such a manner that they can bend light, sound, radar, radio and seismic waves. The technological implication of applying these materials in antennas, radar, cosmetics and soundproofing may prove to be transformative according to a fascinating article in the March 23, 2015 edition of The New York Times entitled The Waves of the Future May Bend Around Metamaterials, by John Markoff.  I will summarize this, add some links and annotations, and pose some questions.

These substances achieve their remarkable effect by being composed of microscopic “subcomponents” that are smaller than the wavelengths of the types of waves they are engineered to bend in certain ways. That is, they can be used to “manipulate” the waves in designated manners “that do not normally occur”.

Researchers have been developing a variety of metamaterials for the past 15 years. Their work has recently begun yielding some genuine innovations in systems that incorporate these advances in original and innovative ways. Some of these latest developments include:

  • Airbus*and Lamda Guard are about to test a coating on airline windows to deter attempts to blind them with laser pointing devices by someone on the ground. (See NYC Man Charged With Pointing Laser at Aircraft, in the March 15, 2015 edition of The New York Times for a recent case of this here in New York.)
  • Echodyne is working on several types of antennas, radar-based navigation systems and other devices.
  • Evolv Technology is developing airport security systems.
  • Kymeta has partnered with Intelsat to engineer “land-based and satellite-based intelligent antennas”.
  • Dr. Xiang Zhang at the University of California at Berkeley, is working on, among other metamaterials projects, “superlenses” for microscopes that might increase their magnification powers beyond today’s capabilities. He has received inquiries from “military contractors and commercial companies” and even cosmetics companies concerning metamaterials. As well, he and other developers are creating apps for optical computer networks.
  • Professor Vinod Menon and his research team at the City College of New York, in their Laboratory for Nano and Micro Photonics, have demo-ed “light emission from ultrafast-switching LEDs” made from metamaterials. Using this and other related developments may also lead to significantly faster optical computers networks.
  • Menard Construction published a paper in 2013 entitled Seismic Metamaterial: How to Shake Friends and Influence Waves? by S. Brûlé, E.H. Javelaud, S. Enoch and S. Guenneau, where the company successfully tested “a metamaterial grid of empty cylindrical columns bored into soil” in an effort to reduce the effects of a “simulated earthquake”. (The phases in quotes in the last sentence were from the NYTimes article, not the research paper itself.)

The article concludes on a note of great optimism from Professor Zhang about the future of metamaterials. I completely agree. Once these apps and development projects make their way into commercial markets and other scientists and companies from different fields and industries take greater notice, I strongly believe that new forms of metamaterials and their applications will emerge that have not even been imagined yet. Like any dramatically new technology, this will find its applications perhaps in some very unlikely and surprising sectors.

Just to start off, what about medical devices, optical computing and storage devices, visual displays, sound and video recording, and automotive safety technology? Let’s keep watching and see what springs from people’s needs and creativity.

Finally, just a quick mention of a recently published book that received many excellent reviews for a lively and engaging series of stories about the key developments of basic materials and materials science through history entitled Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World by Mark Midownik (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014).

[While I hope that this blog post will be enlightening, please be assured that no light waves were bent or harmed during the drafting process.]

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Another innovative project by Airbus to develop a drone for bringing Net access to remote and under-served regions was covered in the November 26, 2014 Subway Fold post entitled Robots and Diamonds and Drones, Aha! Innovations on the Horizon for 2015.

 

Mapping the Distribution of Mobile Device Operating Systems in New York

“Busy Times Square”, Image by Jim Larrison

Scott Galloway, a Clinical Professor of Marketing at NYU Stern School of Business, consultant and entrepreneur, recently gave a remarkable and captivating 15-minute presentation at this year’s Digital Life Design 15 (DLD15) Conference. This event was held in Munich on January 18 through 20, 2015. He examined the four most dominant global companies in the digital world and predicted those among them whose market values might  rise or fall. These included Amazon, Google, Apple and Facebook. Combined, their current market value is more than $1 trillion (yes, that’s trillion with a “t“).

The content and delivery of Professor’s Galloway’s talk is something that I think you will not soon forget. Whether his insights are in whole or in part correct, his talk will motivate you to think about  these four companies who, individually and as a group, exert such monumental economic, technical, commercial, and cultural influence across the entirety of the web. I highly recommend that you click-through and fully view this video.

Towards the end of his presentation, Professor Galloway clicked onto a rather astonishing slide of a heat map of New York City encoded with data points indicating mobile devices using Apple’s IoS, Android or Blackberry operating systems. This particular part of the presentation was covered in a most interesting article entitled Fun Maps: Heat Map of Mobile Operating Systems in NYC by Michelle Young on UntappedCities.com on March 31, 2015. The article adds three very informative additional graphics individually illuminated the spread of each OS. I will briefly recap this report, provide some links and annotations, and add a few comments of my own.

Professor Galloway interprets the results as indicating a correlation between each OS and the relative wealth of different neighborhoods in NYC: IoS devices are more prevalent in areas of higher incomes while Android appears more concentrated in lower income areas and suburbia.

However, Ms. Young believes this mapping is “misleading” and cites another article on UntappedCities.com entitled Beautiful Maps and the Lies They Tell, posted on February 20, 2014. This carefully refuted a series of data-mapped visualizations that were first published and interpreted as showing that only wealthier people used fitness apps.

Furthermore, there have been a series of Twitter posts in response to this heat map stating that the colors used for the heat map (red for IoS, green for Android and purple for Blackberry), might be misleading due to some optical blurring in the colors and geotagged tweets from 2011 to 2013. (X-ref to the March 20, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled Studies Link Social Media Data with Personality and Health Indicators, for other examples of geotagging.) In effect, there may be a structural bias whereby “If Twitter users tend to be on Apple products”.

The data and heat maps notwithstanding, as a New York City native and life-long resident, my own completely unscientific observations tell me that IoS and Android are more evenly split both in terms of absolute numbers and any correlation to the relative wealth of any given neighbor hood. The most obvious thing that jumped out at me was that each day millions of people commute all around the city, mostly into and around Manhattan. However,  this does not seem to have been taken into account. Thus, while User X’s mobile device may show him or her in a wealthier area of Manhattan, he or she might well live in, and commute from, another more working class neighborhood from a considerable distance away.

Rather than using such static heat maps, I would propose that a time-series of readings and data be taken continuously over a week or so. Next, I suggest applying some customized algorithms and analytics to smooth out, normalize and intuit the data. My instincts tell me that the results would indicate a much more homogenous mix of mobile OSes across all or most of the neighborhoods here.