I hinted about some related work at the University of Waterloo earlier this week in my Nov. 26, 2012 posting (Existential risk) about a proposed centre at the University of Cambridge which would be tasked with examining possible risks associated with ‘ultra intelligent machines’. Today (Science (magazine) published an article about SPAUN (Semantic Pointer Architecture Unified Network) [behind a paywall])and its ability to solve simple arithmetic and perform other tasks as well.
Spaun sees a series of digits: 1 2 3; 5 6 7; 3 4 ?. Its neurons fire, and it calculates the next logical number in the sequence. It scrawls out a 5, in legible if messy writing.
This is an unremarkable feat for a human, but Spaun is actually a simulated brain. It contains2.5 millionvirtual neurons — many fewer than the 86 billion in the average human head, but enough to recognize lists of numbers, do simple arithmetic and solve reasoning problems.
… The model captures biological details of each neuron, including which neurotransmitters are used, how voltages are generated in the cell, and how they communicate. Spaun uses this network of neurons to process visual images in order to control an arm that draws Spaun’s answers to perceptual, cognitive and motor tasks. …
“This is the first model that begins to get at how our brains can perform a wide variety of tasks in a flexible manner—how the brain coordinates the flow of information between different areas to exhibit complex behaviour,” said Professor Chris Eliasmith, Director of the Centre for Theoretical Neuroscience at Waterloo. He is Canada Research Chair in Theoretical Neuroscience, and professor in Waterloo’s Department of Philosophy and Department of Systems Design Engineering.
Unlike other large brain models, Spaun can perform several tasks. Researchers can show patterns of digits and letters the model’s eye, which it then processes, causing it to write its responses to any of eight tasks. And, just like the human brain, it can shift from task to task, recognizing an object one moment and memorizing a list of numbers the next. [emphasis mine] Because of its biological underpinnings, Spaun can also be used to understand how changes to the brain affect changes to behaviour.
“In related work, we have shown how the loss of neurons with aging leads to decreased performance on cognitive tests,” said Eliasmith. “More generally, we can test our hypotheses about how the brain works, resulting in a better understanding of the effects of drugs or damage to the brain.”
In addition, the model provides new insights into the sorts of algorithms that might be useful for improving machine intelligence. [emphasis mine] For instance, it suggests new methods for controlling the flow of information through a large system attempting to solve challenging cognitive tasks.
Laura Sanders’ Nov. 29, 2012 article for ScienceNews suggests that there is some controversy as to whether or not SPAUN does resemble a human brain,
… Henry Markram, who leads a different project to reconstruct the human brain called the Blue Brain, questions whether Spaun really captures human brain behavior. Because Spaun’s design ignores some important neural properties, it’s unlikely to reveal anything about the brain’s mechanics, says Markram, of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne. “It is not a brain model.”
Personally, I have a little difficulty seeing lines of code as ever being able to truly simulate brain activity. I think the notion of moving to something simpler (using fewer neurons as the Eliasmith team does) is a move in the right direction but I’m still more interested in devices such as the memristor and the electrochemical atomic switch and their potential.
The ‘Medusoid’ is a reverse- tissue-engineered jellyfish designed by a collaborative team of researchers based, respectively, at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and Harvard University. From the July 22, 2012 news item on ScienceDaily,
When one observes a colorful jellyfish pulsating through the ocean, Greek mythology probably doesn’t immediately come to mind. But the animal once was known as the medusa, after the snake-haired mythological creature its tentacles resemble. The mythological Medusa’s gaze turned people into stone, and now, thanks to recent advances in bio-inspired engineering, a team led by researchers at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and Harvard University have flipped that fable on its head: turning a solid element—silicon—and muscle cells into a freely swimming “jellyfish.”
“A big goal of our study was to advance tissue engineering,” says Janna Nawroth, a doctoral student in biology at Caltech and lead author of the study. “In many ways, it is still a very qualitative art [emphasis mine], with people trying to copy a tissue or organ just based on what they think is important or what they see as the major components—without necessarily understanding if those components are relevant to the desired function or without analyzing first how different materials could be used.” Because a particular function—swimming, say—doesn’t necessarily emerge just from copying every single element of a swimming organism into a design, “our idea,” she says, “was that we would make jellyfish functions—swimming and creating feeding currents—as our target and then build a structure based on that information.”
Oops! I’m not sure why Nawroth uses the word ‘qualitative’ here. It’s certainly inappropriate given my understanding of the word. Here’s my rough definition, if anyone has anything better or can explain why Nawroth used ‘qualitative’ in that context, please do comment. I’m going to start by contrasting qualitative with quantitative, both of which I’m going to hugely oversimplify. Quantitative data offers numbers, e.g. 50,000 people committed suicide last year. Qualitative data helps offer insight into why. Researchers can obtain the quantitative data from police records, vital statistics, surveys, etc. where qualitative data is gathered from ‘story-oriented’ or highly detailed personal interviews. ( I would have used ‘hit or miss,’ ‘guesswork,’ or simply used the word art without qualifying it in this context.)
Jellyfish are believed to be the oldest multi-organ animals in the world, possibly existing on Earth for the past 500 million years. Because they use a muscle to pump their way through the water, their function—on a very basic level—is similar to that of a human heart, which makes the animal a good biological system to analyze for use in tissue engineering.
“It occurred to me in 2007 that we might have failed to understand the fundamental laws of muscular pumps,” says Kevin Kit Parker, Tarr Family Professor of Bioengineering and Applied Physics at Harvard and a coauthor of the study. “I started looking at marine organisms that pump to survive. Then I saw a jellyfish at the New England Aquarium, and I immediately noted both similarities and differences between how the jellyfish pumps and the human heart. The similarities help reveal what you need to do to design a bio-inspired pump.”
Parker contacted John Dabiri, professor of aeronautics and bioengineering at Caltech—and Nawroth’s advisor—and a partnership was born. Together, the two groups worked for years to understand the key factors that contribute to jellyfish propulsion, including the arrangement of their muscles, how their bodies contract and recoil, and how fluid-dynamic effects help or hinder their movements. Once these functions were well understood, the researchers began to design the artificial jellyfish.
To reverse engineer a medusa jellyfish, the investigators used analysis tools borrowed from the fields of law enforcement biometrics and crystallography to make maps of the alignment of subcellular protein networks within all of the muscle cells within the animal. They then conducted studies to understand the electrophysiological triggering of jellyfish propulsion and the biomechanics of the propulsive stroke itself.
Based on such understanding, it turned out that a sheet of cultured rat heart muscle tissue that would contract when electrically stimulated in a liquid environment was the perfect raw material to create an ersatz jellyfish. The team then incorporated a silicone polymer that fashions the body of the artificial creature into a thin membrane that resembles a small jellyfish, with eight arm-like appendages.
Using the same analysis tools, the investigators were able to quantitatively match the subcellular, cellular, and supracellular architecture of the jellyfish musculature with the rat heart muscle cells.
The artificial construct was placed in container of ocean-like salt water and shocked into swimming with synchronized muscle contractions that mimic those of real jellyfish. (In fact, the muscle cells started to contract a bit on their own even before the electrical current was applied.)
“I was surprised that with relatively few components—a silicone base and cells that we arranged—we were able to reproduce some pretty complex swimming and feeding behaviors that you see in biological jellyfish,” says Dabiri.
Their design strategy, they say, will be broadly applicable to the reverse engineering of muscular organs in humans.
For future research direction I’ve excerpted this from the Caltech news release,
The team’s next goal is to design a completely self-contained system that is able to sense and actuate on its own using internal signals, as human hearts do. Nawroth and Dabiri would also like for the Medusoid to be able to go out and gather food on its own. Then, researchers could think about systems that could live in the human body for years at a time without having to worry about batteries because the system would be able to fend for itself. For example, these systems could be the basis for a pacemaker made with biological elements.
“We’re reimagining how much we can do in terms of synthetic biology,” says Dabiri. “A lot of work these days is done to engineer molecules, but there is much less effort to engineer organisms. I think this is a good glimpse into the future of re-engineering entire organisms for the purposes of advancing biomedical technology. We may also be able to engineer applications where these biological systems give us the opportunity to do things more efficiently, with less energy usage.”
I think this excerpt from the Harvard news release provides some insight into at least some of the motivations behind this work,
In addition to advancing the field of tissue engineering, Parker adds that he took on the challenge of building a creature to challenge the traditional view of synthetic biology which is “focused on genetic manipulations of cells.” Instead of building just a cell, he sought to “build a beast.”
A little competitive, eh?
For anyone who’s interested in reading the research (which is behind a paywall), from the ScienceDaily news item,
Janna C Nawroth, Hyungsuk Lee, Adam W Feinberg, Crystal M Ripplinger, Megan L McCain, Anna Grosberg, John O Dabiri & Kevin Kit Parker. A tissue-engineered jellyfish with biomimetic propulsion. Nature Biotechnology, 22 July 2012 DOI: 10.1038/nbt.2269
Andrew Maynard weighs in on the matter with his July 22, 2012 posting titled, We took a rat apart and rebuilt it as a jellyfish, on the 2020Science blog (Note: I have removed links),
Sometimes you read a science article and it sends a tingle down your spine. That was my reaction this afternoon reading Ed Yong’s piece on a paper just published in Nature Biotechnology by Janna Nawroth, Kevin Kit Parker and colleagues.
The gist of the work is that Parker’s team have created a hybrid biological machine that “swims” like a jellyfish by growing rat heart muscle cells on a patterned sheet of polydimethylsiloxane. The researchers are using the technique to explore muscular pumps, but the result opens the door to new technologies built around biological-non biological hybrids.
Ed Yong’s July 22, 2012 article for Nature (as mentioned by Andrew) offers a wider perspective on the work than is immediately evident in either of the news releases (Note: I have removed a footnote),
Bioengineers have made an artificial jellyfish using silicone and muscle cells from a rat’s heart. The synthetic creature, dubbed a medusoid, looks like a flower with eight petals. When placed in an electric field, it pulses and swims exactly like its living counterpart.
“Morphologically, we’ve built a jellyfish. Functionally, we’ve built a jellyfish. Genetically, this thing is a rat,” says Kit Parker, a biophysicist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who led the work. The project is described today in Nature Biotechnology.
“I think that this is terrific,” says Joseph Vacanti, a tissue engineer at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. “It is a powerful demonstration of engineering chimaeric systems of living and non-living components.”
Here’s a video from the researchers demonstrating the artificial jellyfish in action,
There’s a lot of material for contemplation but what I’m going to note here is the difference in the messaging. The news releases from the ‘universities’ are very focused on the medical application where the discussion in the science community revolves primarily around the synthetic biology/bioengineering elements. It seems to me that this strategy can lead to future problems with a population that is largely unprepared to deal with the notion of mixing and recombining genetic material or demonstrations of “of engineering chimaeric systems of living and non-living components.”
Erin Schulte at Fast Company introduced me to B-Reel, a digital production company, via her Sept. 30, 2011 posting,
Though Swedish hybrid production company B-Reel has been around since 1999, merging film, interactive, games, and mobile to create new methods of storytelling, it exploded into the broader consciousness with 2010′s “The Wilderness Downtown.”
The interactive short film dreamed up by Chris Milk and the band Arcade Fire for its song “We Used To Wait” is a Gen-Y paean of childhood nostalgia, where the singer pines for a simpler, not-so-far away yesteryear where people wrote love letters on paper and anxiously awaited the arrival of an envelope in return.
Here’s a description (followed by B-Reel’s promotiional video) of the Wilderness Downtown project, which was initiated by Google, from the company website,
Featuring Arcade Fire’s new single “We Used To Wait” from their latest album The Suburbs, The Wilderness Downtown is an interactive music video built in HTML 5, using Google Maps and Street-view for Google Chrome Experiments. The film takes an intimate approach by prompting users to input an address from their childhood which then places them at the center of the film’s narrative. Viewers see themselves in the film as they run through the streets of their old neighborhood and finally reach their childhood home. This is tied very closely to the song’s lyrics to make for a powerful emotional experience.
A subtle form of advertising for Google, this showcases some of the more innovative approaches that B-Reel takes to its work.
I did watch the Fast Company video interview with Anders Wahlquist, B-Reel Chief Executive Officer, which is included with Schulte’s posting, and he mentions that he founded the company with the intention of combining filmmaking, storytelling, and interactivity. It’s interesting how often the words storytelling and story are used in the service of advertising and marketing but to replace those words, i.e., it’s no longer about advertising; it’s about telling your story or possibly it’s about mind control. From the July 21, 2011 posting on the B-Reel website,
From B-Reel’s secret laboratory comes a brain-bending experimental project utilising a number of cutting edge tech tools. B-Reel’s UK creative director Riccardo Giraldi led the development of the project, and you can view the explanatory video here, as well as some of the creative musings in a write up below.
The idea is quite simple.
What if you could run a slot car race using your brain?
We did a bit of research on this and it didn’t take long to realise we already have all we need to make these ideas come to life; we just needed to connect the dots and find an easier way to integrate different disciplines to make the magic happen.
These are the steps B-Reel went through:
- researched components and library we could have used
- procured a device that reads mind signals, a Scalextric, Arduino, some tools and electric components
- designed a small electronic circuit to connect Arduino to Scalextric
- wrote the Arduino script to control the Scalextric
- wrote a small Processing application to control the car with the computer mouse
- connected the brain reader device signal to the Scalextric
There are few commercial devices that claim to safely read your brain signals. We ended up choosing the Mindwave headset from Neurosky for this experiment because of its unobtrusive design and its affordable price.
Then we got a basic version Scalextric and started to play around with it. Slot cars are awesome. Digital is already the past – tangible is the future. The principle is straightforward: there are two cars on separate tracks that you can control with a handset. The more current you let pass through the handset, the faster the cars go.
I wrote about rats with robotic brains and monkeys (at Duke University in the US) that control robots in Japan with their thoughts in my Oct. 4, 2011 posting. I find the resemblance between these projects disconcertingly close and I have to admit I would not have considered advertising applications at this stage of the technology development.
This is where we are now: at Duke University, a monkey controls a virtual arm using only its thoughts. Miguel Nicolelis had fitted the animal with a headset of electrodes that translates its brain activity into movements. It can grab virtual objects without using its arms. It can also feel the objects without its hands, because the headset stimulates its brain to create the sense of different textures. Monkey think, monkey do, monkey feel – all without moving a muscle.
And this is where Nicolelis wants to be in three years: a young quadriplegic Brazilian man strolls confidently into a massive stadium. He controls his four prosthetic limbs with his thoughts, and they in turn send tactile information straight to his brain. The technology melds so fluidly with his mind that he confidently runs up and delivers the opening kick of the 2014 World Cup.
This sounds like a far-fetched dream, but Nicolelis – a big soccer fan – is talking to the Brazilian government to make it a reality. He has created an international consortium called the Walk Again Project, consisting of non-profit research institutions in the United States, Brazil, Germany and Switzerland. Their goal is to create a “high performance brain-controlled prosthetic device that enables patients to finally leave the wheelchair behind.”
I’m not sure what intention was in 1999 when the company name, B-Reel, was chosen but today the wordplay has a haunting quality. Especially when you consider that mind control doesn’t necessarily mean people are in control. After all there’s my Sept. 28, 2011 posting about full size vehicles titled Cars that read minds? If you notice, the researcher at B-Reel has to shift his brain function in order to exert control so who’s in charge the researcher or the model car? Extending that question, will you have to change your mind so the car can read it?
I’ve been informally collecting information about children’s science education for a few months when yesterday there was a sudden explosion of articles (well, there were three) on the subject.
First off, a science game was launched by the European Commission titled Power of Research. From the March 2, 2011 news item on Nanowerk,
A new strategy browser game – the “Power of research” – is officially launched. Supported by the European Commission, “Power of Research” has been developed to inspire young Europeans to pursue scientific careers and disseminate interesting up-to-date scientific information. Players assume the role of scientists working in a virtual research environment that replicates the situations that scientists have to deal with in the real world. The game, which can be played for free under www.powerofresearch.eu, is expected to create a large community of more than 100,000 players who will be able to communicate in real time via a state of the art interface.
They really do mean it when they say they’re replicating real life situations but the focus is on medical science research and I don’t think the game title makes that clear. Yes, there are many similarities between the situations that scientists of any stripe encounter in their labs but there are also some significant differences between them. In any event,
In “Power of Research” players can engage in “virtual” health research projects, by performing microscopy, protein isolation and DNA experiments, publishing research results, participating in conferences, managing high tech equipment and staff or request funding – all tasks of real researchers. The decisive game elements are communication, collaboration and competition: players can compete against each other in real time or collaborate to become a successful virtual researcher, win scientific awards or become the leader of a research institute.
The game connects the players to the real world. It is based on up-to-date science content and players work on real world research topics inspired by the FP7 health research programme that will be regularly updated. Popular science events, real research institutes, universities and European health research projects form part of the game. Players also have access to a knowledge platform, where they can search in a virtual library, zoom-into real scientific images and learn more about Nobel Prize laureates. European science institutions and hospitals will have the possibility to contribute to the game and provide details about their research.
I like the immersiveness and the game aspect of this project very much. I do wish they were a little more clear about exactly what kind of research the player will engage in. From the Power of Research About webpage,
* Become a famous researcher in “Power of Research”
* Research different topics through exciting research projects
* Play together with your friends and other players from all over the world
* Earn reputation, win science prizes and more …
* Gain special skills and knowledge in 9 different main research areas (like Brain, Paediatrics, …)
* Become a leader in your institute and lead it to international ranks
* The game is 100% free and needs no prior knowledge
Children who are taught how to think and act like scientists develop a clearer understanding of the subject, a study has shown.
The research project led by The University of Nottingham and The Open University has shown that school children who took the lead in investigating science topics of interest to them gained an understanding of good scientific practice.
The study shows that this method of ‘personal inquiry’ could be used to help children develop the skills needed to weigh up misinformation in the media, understand the impact of science and technology on everyday life and help them to make better personal decisions on issues including diet, health and their own effect on the environment.
The three-year project involved providing pupils aged 11 to 14 at Hadden Park High School in Bilborough, Nottingham, and Oakgrove School in Milton Keynes with a new computer toolkit named nQuire, now available as a free download for teachers and schools.
The pupils were given wide themes for their studies but were asked to decide on more specific topics that were of interest to them, including heart rate and fitness, micro climates, healthy eating, sustainability and the effect of noise pollution on birds.
The flexible nature of the toolkit meant that children could become “science investigators”, starting an inquiry in the classroom then collecting data in the playground, at a local nature reserve, or even at home, then sharing and analysing their findings back in class.
Immersive and engaging, yes? I have gone to the nQuire website and while I haven’t downloaded the software, I did successfully log in to the demonstration, in other words, the demonstration is not limited to a UK-based audience.
Meanwhile there’s this project but it seems to be different. It’s spelled differently, INQUIRE, and the focus is on the teachers. From a March 2, 2011 news item on Science Daily,
Thousands of schoolchildren will soon be asking the questions when inquiry-based learning comes to science classrooms across Europe, turning the traditional model of science teaching on its head. The pan-European INQUIRE programme is an exciting new teacher-training initiative delivered by a seventeen-strong consortium of botanic gardens, natural history museums, universities and NGOs.
Coordinated by Innsbruck University Botanic Garden, with support from London-based Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI), INQUIRE is a practical, one-year, continual professional development (CPD) course targeted at qualified teachers working in eleven European countries. Its focus on inquiry-based science education (IBSE) reflects a consensus in the science education community that IBSE methods are more effective than current teaching practices.
Designed to reflect how students actually learn, IBSE also engages them in the process of scientific inquiry. Increasingly it is seen as key to developing their scientific literacy, enhancing their understanding of scientific concepts and heightening their appreciation of how science works. Whereas traditional teaching methods have failed to engage many students, especially in developed countries, IBSE offers outstanding opportunities for effective and enjoyable teaching and learning.
Biodiversity loss and global climate change, among the major scientific as well as political challenges of our age, are core INQUIRE concerns.
That final sentence fragment is a little puzzling but I believe they’re describing their scientific focus.
My favourite of these projects is one I came across in December 2010 when children from a school in England had a research paper about bees published by the Royal Society’s Biology Letters. You still can access the paper (according to another blogger, Ed Yong, open access would only last to the new year in 2011 but they must have changed their minds). The paper is titled Blackawton bees and lists 30 authors.
1. P. S. Blackawton,
2. S. Airzee,
3. A. Allen,
4. S. Baker,
5. A. Berrow,
6. C. Blair,
7. M. Churchill,
8. J. Coles,
9. R. F.-J. Cumming,
10. L. Fraquelli,
11. C. Hackford,
12. A. Hinton Mellor,
13. M. Hutchcroft,
14. B. Ireland,
15. D. Jewsbury,
16. A. Littlejohns,
17. G. M. Littlejohns,
18. M. Lotto,
19. J. McKeown,
20. A. O’Toole,
21. H. Richards,
22. L. Robbins-Davey,
23. S. Roblyn,
24. H. Rodwell-Lynn,
25. D. Schenck,
26. J. Springer,
27. A. Wishy,
28. T. Rodwell-Lynn,
29. D. Strudwick and
30. R. B. Lotto
This is from the introduction to the paper,
(a) Once upon a time …
People think that humans are the smartest of animals, and most people do not think about other animals as being smart, or at least think that they are not as smart as humans. Knowing that other animals are as smart as us means we can appreciate them more, which could also help us to help them.
If you don’t ever read another science paper in your life, read this one. For the back story on this project, here’s Ed Yong on his Not Exactly Rocket Science blog (a Discover blog) in a December 21, 2010 posting,
“We also discovered that science is cool and fun because you get to do stuff that no one has ever done before.”
This is the conclusion of a new paper published in Biology Letters, a high-powered journal from the UK’s prestigious Royal Society. If its tone seems unusual, that’s because its authors are children from Blackawton Primary School in Devon, England. Aged between 8 and 10, the 25 children have just become the youngest scientists to ever be published in a Royal Society journal.
Their paper, based on fieldwork carried out in a local churchyard, describes how bumblebees can learn which flowers to forage from with more flexibility than anyone had thought. It’s the culmination of a project called ‘i, scientist’, designed to get students to actually carry out scientific research themselves. The kids received some support from Beau Lotto, a neuroscientist at UCL [University College London], and David Strudwick, Blackawton’s head teacher. But the work is all their own.
Yong’s posting features a video of the i, scientist project mentioned in the posting, images, and, of course, the rest of the back story.
As it turns out one of my favourite science education/engagement projects is taking place right now (this is based in the UK), I’m a scientist, Get me out of Here!, from their website home page,
I’m a Scientist, Get me out of Here! is an award-winning science enrichment and engagement activity, funded by the Wellcome Trust. It takes place online over a two week period. It’s an X Factor-style competition for scientists, where students are the judges. Scientists and students talk online on this website. They both break down barriers, have fun and learn. But only the students get to vote.
You can view the scientist/student conversations by picking a zone: Argon, Chlorine, Potassium, Forensic, Space, or Stem Cell. The questions the kids ask are fascinating, anything from What’s your favourite colour? to Do you think humans will evolve more? The conversations that ensue can be quite stimulating. This project has been mentioned here before in my June 15, 2010 posting, April 13, 2010 posting (scroll down) and March 26, 2010 posting (scroll down).
ETA Mar. 3, 2011: The scientists get quite involved and can go to some lengths to win. Here’s Tom Hartley’s video from last year’s (2010) event,
I find the contrast between these kinds of science education/engagement projects in the UK and in Europe and what seems to be a dearth of these in my home province British Columbia (Canada) to be striking. I’ve commented previously on BC’s Year of Science initiative currently taking place in a Dec. 30, 2010 posting where I was commenting on a lack of science culture in Canada. Again, I applaud the initiative while I would urge that in future a less traditional and top/down approach is taken. The Europeans and the British are making science fun by engaging in imaginative and substantive ways. Imagine what getting a paper published in a prestigious science journal does for you (regardless of your age)!