Tag Archives: Jamais Cascio

Brains, prostheses, nanotechnology, and human enhancement: summary (part five of five)

The Brain research, ethics, and nanotechnology (part one of five) May 19, 2014 post kicked off a series titled ‘Brains, prostheses, nanotechnology, and human enhancement’ which brings together a number of developments in the worlds of neuroscience, prosthetics, and, incidentally, nanotechnology in the field of interest called human enhancement. Parts one through four are an attempt to draw together a number of new developments, mostly in the US and in Europe. Due to my language skills which extend to English and, more tenuously, French, I can’t provide a more ‘global perspective’.

Now for the summary. Ranging from research meant to divulge more about how the brain operates in hopes of healing conditions such as Parkinson’s and Alzeheimer’s diseases to utilizing public engagement exercises (first developed for nanotechnology) for public education and acceptance of brain research to the development of prostheses for the nervous system such as the Walk Again robotic suit for individuals with paraplegia (and, I expect quadriplegia [aka tetraplegia] in the future), brain research is huge in terms of its impact socially and economically across the globe.

Until now, I have not included information about neuromorphic engineering (creating computers with the processing capabilities of human brains). My May 16, 2014 posting (Wacky oxide. biological synchronicity, and human brainlike computing) features one of the latest developments along with this paragraph providing links to overview materials of the field,

As noted earlier, there are other approaches to creating an artificial brain, i.e., neuromorphic engineering. My April 7, 2014 posting is the most recent synopsis posted here; it includes excerpts from a Nanowerk Spotlight article overview along with a mention of the ‘brain jelly’ approach and a discussion of my somewhat extensive coverage of memristors and a mention of work on nanoionic devices. There is also a published roadmap to neuromorphic engineering featuring both analog and digital devices, mentioned in my April 18, 2014 posting.

There is an international brain (artificial and organic) enterprise underway. Meanwhile, work understanding the brain will lead to new therapies and, inevitably, attempts to enhance intelligence. There are already drugs and magic potions (e.g. oxygenated water in Mental clarity, stamina, endurance — is it in the bottle? Celebrity athletes tout the benefits of oxygenated water, but scientists have their doubts, a May 16,2014 article by Pamela Fayerman for the Vancouver Sun). In a June 19, 2009 posting featured Jamais Cascio’s  speculations about augmenting intelligence in an Atlantic magazine article.

While researchers such Miguel Nicolelis work on exoskeletons (externally worn robotic suits) controlled by the wearer’s thoughts and giving individuals with paraplegia the ability to walk, researchers from one of Germany’s Fraunhofer Institutes reveal a different technology for achieving the same ends. From a May 16, 2014 news item on Nanowerk,

People with severe injuries to their spinal cord currently have no prospect of recovery and remain confined to their wheelchairs. Now, all that could change with a new treatment that stimulates the spinal cord using electric impulses. The hope is that the technique will help paraplegic patients learn to walk again. From June 3 – 5 [2-14], Fraunhofer researchers will be at the Sensor + Test measurement fair in Nürnberg to showcase the implantable microelectrode sensors they have developed in the course of pre-clinical development work (Hall 12, Booth 12-537).

A May 14, 2014 Fraunhofer Institute news release, which originated the news item, provides more details about this technology along with an image of the implantable microelectrode sensors,

The implantable microelectrode sensors are flexible and wafer-thin. © Fraunhofer IMM

The implantable microelectrode sensors are flexible and wafer-thin.
© Fraunhofer IMM

Now a consortium of European research institutions and companies want to get affected patients quite literally back on their feet. In the EU’s [European Union's] NEUWalk project, which has been awarded funding of some nine million euros, researchers are working on a new method of treatment designed to restore motor function in patients who have suffered severe injuries to their spinal cord. The technique relies on electrically stimulating the nerve pathways in the spinal cord. “In the injured area, the nerve cells have been damaged to such an extent that they no longer receive usable information from the brain, so the stimulation needs to be delivered beneath that,” explains Dr. Peter Detemple, head of department at the Fraunhofer Institute for Chemical Technology’s Mainz branch (IMM) and NEUWalk project coordinator. To do this, Detemple and his team are developing flexible, wafer-thin microelectrodes that are implanted within the spinal canal on the spinal cord. These multichannel electrode arrays stimulate the nerve pathways with electric impulses that are generated by the accompanying by microprocessor-controlled neurostimulator. “The various electrodes of the array are located around the nerve roots responsible for locomotion. By delivering a series of pulses, we can trigger those nerve roots in the correct order to provoke motion sequences of movements and support the motor function,” says Detemple.

Researchers from the consortium have already successfully conducted tests on rats in which the spinal cord had not been completely severed. As well as stimulating the spinal cord, the rats were given a combination of medicine and rehabilitation training. Afterwards the animals were able not only to walk but also to run, climb stairs and surmount obstacles. “We were able to trigger specific movements by delivering certain sequences of pulses to the various electrodes implanted on the spinal cord,” says Detemple. The research scientist and his team believe that the same approach could help people to walk again, too. “We hope that we will be able to transfer the results of our animal testing to people. Of course, people who have suffered injuries to their spinal cord will still be limited when it comes to sport or walking long distances. The first priority is to give them a certain level of independence so that they can move around their apartment and look after themselves, for instance, or walk for short distances without requiring assistance,” says Detemple.

Researchers from the NEUWalk project intend to try out their system on two patients this summer. In this case, the patients are not completely paraplegic, which means there is still some limited communication between the brain and the legs. The scientists are currently working on tailored implants for the intervention. “However, even if both trials are a success, it will still be a few years before the system is ready for the general market. First, the method has to undergo clinical studies and demonstrate its effectiveness among a wider group of patients,” says Detemple.

Patients with Parkinson’s disease could also benefit from the neural prostheses. The most well-known symptoms of the disease are trembling, extreme muscle tremors and a short, [emphasis mine] stooped gait that has a profound effect on patients’ mobility. Until now this neurodegenerative disorder has mostly been treated with dopamine agonists – drugs that chemically imitate the effects of dopamine but that often lead to severe side effects when taken over a longer period of time. Once the disease has reached an advanced stage, doctors often turn to deep brain stimulation. This involves a complex operation to implant electrodes in specific parts of the brain so that the nerve cells in the region can be stimulated or suppressed as required. In the NEUWalk project, researchers are working on electric spinal cord simulation – an altogether less dangerous intervention that should however ease the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease just as effectively. “Initial animal testing has yielded some very promising results,” says Detemple.

(For anyone interested in the NEUWalk project, you can find more here,) Note the reference to Parkinson’s in the context of work designed for people with paraplegia. Brain research and prosthetics (specifically neuroprosthetics or neural prosthetics), are interconnected. As for the nanotechnology connection, in its role as an enabling technology it has provided some of the tools that make these efforts possible. It has also made some of the work in neuromorphic engineering (attempts to create an artificial brain that mimics the human brain) possible. It is a given that research on the human brain will inform efforts in neuromorphic engineering and that attempts will be made to create prostheses for the brain (cyborg brain) and other enhancements.

One final comment, I’m not so sure that transferring approaches and techniques developed to gain public acceptance of nanotechnology are necessarily going to be effective. (Harthorn seemed to be suggesting in her presentation to the Presidential Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues that these ‘nano’ approaches could be adopted. Other researchers [Caulfield with the genome and Racine with previous neuroscience efforts] also suggested their experience could be transferred. While some of that is likely true,, it should be noted that some self-interest may be involved as brain research is likely to be a fresh source of funding for social science researchers with experience in nanotechnology and genomics who may be finding their usual funding sources less generous than previously.)

The likelihood there will be a substantive public panic over brain research is higher than it ever was for a nanotechnology panic (I am speaking with the benefit of hindsight re: nano panics). Everyone understands the word, ‘brain’, far fewer understand the word ‘nanotechnology’ which means that the level of interest is lower and people are less likely to get disturbed by an obscure technology. (The GMO panic gained serious traction with the ‘Frankenfood’ branding and when it fused rather unexpectedly with another research story,  stem cell research. In the UK, one can also add the panic over ‘mad cow’ disease or Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), as it’s also known, to the mix. It was the GMO and other assorted panics which provided the impetus for much of the public engagement funding for nanotechnology.)

All one has to do in this instance is start discussions about changing someone’s brain and cyborgs and these researchers may find they have a much more volatile situation on their hands. As well, everyone (the general public and civil society groups/activists, not just the social science and science researchers) involved in the nanotechnology public engagement exercises has learned from the experience. In the meantime, pop culture concerns itself with zombies and we all know what they like to eat.

Links to other posts in the Brains, prostheses, nanotechnology, and human enhancement five-part series

Part one: Brain research, ethics, and nanotechnology (May 19, 2014 post)

Part two: BRAIN and ethics in the US with some Canucks (not the hockey team) participating (May 19, 2014)

Part three: Gray Matters: Integrative Approaches for Neuroscience, Ethics, and Society issued May 2014 by US Presidential Bioethics Commission (May 20, 2014)

Part four: Brazil, the 2014 World Cup kickoff, and a mind-controlled exoskeleton (May 20, 2014)

Intel’s Tomorrow Project

Seeing into the future and making prognostications is an ancient human pastime dating from before the oracle at De;phi*. Brief tangent: for anyone needing a refresher on Delphi and the oracle (from the Wikipedia essay),

Delphi is perhaps best known for the oracle at the sanctuary that was dedicated to Apollo during the classical period. According to Aeschylus in the prologue of the Eumenides, it had origins in prehistoric times and the worship of Gaia. In the last quarter of the 8th century BC there is a steady increase in artifacts found at the settlement site in Delphi, which was a new, post-Mycenaean settlement of the late 9th century.

Not everyone wants to rely on supernatural means or the movement of the planets (astrology) to predict the future. Intel for example has developed something called, The Tomorrow Project (from the project home page),

What kind of future do you want to live in?  What are you excited about and what concerns you? What is your request of the future?  Brian David Johnson Intel’s Futurist asks these questions and more with The Tomorrow Project, a fascinating initiative to investigate not only the future of computing but the broader implications on our lives and planet.
This is a unique time in history. Science and technology has progressed to the point where what we build is only constrained by the limits of our own imaginations. The future is not a fixed point in front of us that we are all hurdling helplessly towards. The future is built everyday by the actions of people. It’s up to all of us to be active participants in the future and these conversations can do just that.
The Tomorrow Project engages in ongoing discussions with superstars, science fiction authors and scientists to get their visions for the world that’s coming and the world they’d like to build. [emphasis mine]

Here’s a video of Brian David Johnson, Intel’s futurist, talking about The Tomorrow Project (watch for the title on the screen at the beginning),

Did you spot the typo? I laugh and groan in sympathy as I’ve had similar things happen. For some reason, this type of mistake is always in the most obvious spot. BTW, the Intel website features the video with a corrected title.

BBC News online featured an August 19,2011 news item about one of the project’s outputs,

Chip maker Intel has commissioned leading science fiction authors to pen short stories that imagine future uses for the firm’s technology.

The collection, called “The Tomorrow Project”, aims to capture the public’s imagination regarding the company’s current research.

The project features work from UK sci-fi author Ray Hammond, who took research in development at Intel’s labs and used it as the basis for “The Mercy Dash” – the story of a couple battling futuristic traffic technology in a race to save a mother’s life.

“I was more nervous approaching this than I have been with any of my full-length novels. I’ve never written short stories, so the form was new to me,” Mr Hammond told BBC News.

The author’s work has been made freely available for download from Intel’s site and Mr Hammond has been delighted by the reaction.

You can go here to download the full anthology or select one or more of the stories. The other three authors included in this anthology are Douglas Rushkoff, Markus Heitz, and Scarlett Thomas.

Johnson doesn’t explain clearly enough (for me) what makes his futurecasting unique. The Canadian Army hired a novelist (Karl Schroeder) in 2005 to write a futuristic book about nanotechnology as I noted in my February 16, 2009 posting, which also mentions that they had commissioned another such novel (I haven’t come across any news about it since).

Jamais Cascio seems to do something similar to Johnson’s futurecasting (from the Bio page on Cascio’s website),

Selected by Foreign Policy magazine as one of their Top 100 Global Thinkers, Jamais Cascio writes about the intersection of emerging technologies, environmental dilemmas, and cultural transformation, specializing in the design and creation of plausible scenarios of the future. [emphasis mine] His work focuses on the importance of long-term, systemic thinking, emphasizing the power of openness, transparency and flexibility as catalysts for building a more resilient society.

I look forward to hearing more about The Tomorrow Project as it unfolds. Perhaps they’ll expand their conversation past “superstars, science fiction authors and scientists” and engage some of the rest of us.

How to become a futurist; organic technology; clean water with carbon nanotubes

I’ve always wondered how futurists look into the future (and how do they get their jobs?). At last I’ve found the answer to my first question in an article by Jamais Cascio in Fast Company.

In this entry in the occasional series, we’ll take a look at gathering useful data.Like the first step, Asking the Question, Scanning the World seems like it would be easier than it really is. In my opinion, it may actually be the hardest step of all, because you have to navigate two seemingly contradictory demands:

  • You need to expand the horizons of your exploration, because the factors shaping how the future of the dilemma in question will manifest go far beyond the narrow confines of that issue.
  • You need to focus your attention on the elements critical to the dilemma, and not get lost in the overwhelming amount of information out there.

You should recognize up front that the first few times you do this, you’ll miss quite a few of the key drivers; even experienced futurists end up missing a some important aspects of a dilemma. It’s the nature of the endeavor: We can’t predict the future, but we can try to spot important signifiers of changes that will affect the future. We won’t spot them all, but the more we catch, the more useful our forecasts.

The process of opening up and narrowing simultaneously sounds similar to how any kind of research is done, that is, if it’s going to be groundbreaking.

There’s an announcement from India about a new energy-efficient single treatment water purification process. From the news item on Nanowerk,

Minister of Rural Water Supply, Hon. Minister Viswarup and other leaders in Hyderabad, India today. Initial tests, performed at Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kanpur, confirmed that the majority of the drinking water available in India contains toxins that can be extremely hazardous to human health. The technology developed in collaboration with IIT Kanpur and North Carolina-based Cnanoz can remove harmful pathogens and toxic ingredients, such as Arsenic, Fluoride, Lead, Cadmium, DDT, hydrocarbon wastes and nitrates in an eco-friendly and economical way. Drinking water contaminated with toxic chemicals over an extended period of time can promote harmful gene mutations that can cause neurological disorders, mental and physical disabilities. The preventive aspect of the filtration system can have a significant positive impact to improve public health survival and reduce health care costs.

No word on health and safety or environmental issues or any details about the technology can be found in the announcement so I looked on the website for the company (Cnanoz) that developed the product. Nothing much there either but it is slick and easily navigable.

I’ve gotten more interested in the interplay between organic and  inorganic materials and this research is quite intriguing to me. From the news item on Nanowerk,

Single crystals of the mineral calcite — the chief material in limestone — are predictable, homogeneous and, well, a little boring. But scientists have long marveled at how biological crystals of calcite grow together with other organic materials to form, for example, shells and sea urchin spines. Biologists and materials scientists would love to know exactly how to re-create such natural composites in the lab.

“We knew the organics were in there, but what no one had been able to do up until now was actually see what that organic-inorganic interface looked like,” said [Lara] Estroff [assistant professor of materials science and engineering], whose lab focuses on the synthesis and characterization of bio-inspired materials.

That’s it for today.

Autonomous algorithms; intelligent windows; pretty nano pictures

I was reminded of watching a printer pumping out page after page after page after page of garbage output because I had activated a process I couldn’t stop when reading Jamais Cascio’s article Autonomy without intelligence? in Fast Company last week.  Cascio describes autonomous software systems operating without human intervention in the finance sector. Called, High-frequency trading (HFT), it relies on networked computers making billions of micro transactions to determine and eventually set the prices. From the Cascio article (an example referenced from a NY Times article by Charles Duhigg here),

Soon, thousands of orders began flooding the markets as high-frequency software went into high gear. Automatic programs began issuing and canceling tiny orders within milliseconds to determine how much the slower traders were willing to pay. The high-frequency computers quickly determined that some investors’ upper limit was $26.40. The price shot to $26.39, and high-frequency programs began offering to sell hundreds of thousands of shares.

The potential for abuse is huge as Cascio points out, exploiting legal loopholes left from “pre-computerized stock trading rules, illegal activities, and systems operating too fast for any human to oversee, let alone counter.” ( For more details about High-frequency trading, read the Cascio and Duhigg articles.)

Cascio then goes on to hypothesize the use of similar networked automatic programs for military purposes. Imagine programs (algorithms) being set into motion and our inability to oversee or counteract them in a military situation? The question hit home again when I found this article (Call for Debate on Killer Robots) by Jason Raimer on the BBC News. Describing one of the impacts of using drone planes that are piloted remotely (sometimes from thousands of miles away),

The rise in technology has not helped in terms of limiting collateral damage, [Professor Noel Sharkey, University of Sheffield] said, because the military intelligence behind attacks was not keeping pace.

Between January 2006 and April 2009, he estimated, 60 such “drone” attacks were carried out in Pakistan. While 14 al-Qaeda were killed, some 687 civilian deaths also occurred, he  said.

That physical distance from the actual theatre of war, he said, led naturally to a far greater concern: the push toward unmanned planes and ground robots that make their decisions without the help of human operators at all.

In fact, the article goes on to reveal that Israel is currently deploying the Harpy, an unmanned aerial vehicle that divebombs radar systems without any human intervention whatsoever. I gather everything is in the algorithms.

I recently came across the word intelligent as applied to windows. It’s a use for the word that contrasts strongly with Cascio’s where he implies that intelligence (in the context of the article cited previously) resides in humans. From the media release on Nanowerk News,

RavenBrick’s patent-pending products use nanotechnology to create an intelligent window filter that automatically blocks solar heat when the outside temperature is too hot, while delivering solar heat inside when the outside temperature is cold. RavenBrick smart-window filters use no electricity, wiring or control systems. They can cut building owners’ energy costs and consumption by as much as 50 percent. What’s more, RavenBrick’s smart-window filters make any interior space more comfortable by managing overheating on hot days, and significantly reduce drafts and cold spots on cold days.

What strikes me most about using the word intelligent to describe these new windows is that I would never have questioned it prior to juxtaposing comments from the Cascio, Duhigg, and Raimer articles. Many times I’ve heard the word intelligent or smart applied to systems or objects without every seriously questioning it. If words are important, than what does applying the word smart or intelligent to a window imply? I’m going to be playing with that one for a while.

To finish off, here’s a link to some pretty nano pictures from the SPmages09 competition which were posted on Nanowerk News. Here’s a sample of what you’ll find,

Human malaria infected red blood cells. Li Ang, National University of Singapore

Human malaria infected red blood cells. Li Ang, National University of Singapore

Cascio thoughts on augmenting intelligence and some other odds and sods

It’s Jamais Cascio time … again! He’s got an article here in the Atlantic (July/August 2009 issue) about humans surviving because we get smarter. In the past this has been a passive, reactive response to changing environmental conditions but now we’re evolving ourselves in a proactive fashion. From the article,

Yet in one sense, the age of the cyborg and the super-genius has already arrived. It just involves external information and communication devices instead of implants and genetic modification. The bioethicist James Hughes of Trinity College refers to all of this as “exo­cortical technology,” but you can just think of it as “stuff you already own.” Increasingly, we buttress our cognitive functions with our computing systems, no matter that the connections are mediated by simple typing and pointing. These tools enable our brains to do things that would once have been almost unimaginable:

Cascio goes on to describe curent and potential augmentations and possibilities. My biggest reservations centre around his enthusiasm for using drugs to augment intelligence. Specifically, he extolls the virtues of modafinil (trade name Provigil) which, according to Cascio, is widely used in the tech community for its intelligence enhancing capabilities and for the fact that you will need to sleep less. Have you ever looked at a Compendium of Pharmaceuticals? It’s a comprehensive listing of drugs that doctors and pharamacists use to see what kinds of side effects and problems a drug can cause? I haven’t looked up this drug but I have done it for others and I’m willing to bet that there are any number of unpleasant side effects possible. As to what impact, long term (decades long?) regular use might have … who knows?

Interestingly some of the enhancements that Cascio attributes to the drug are also described by sages as a consquence of something called awakening,

… I noticed a much greater capacity for clarity and simplicity. My mind became a more subtle tool, a more powerful tool; it coud be used in a very precise way, like a laser. Before this transformation happened, I wouldn’t say my mind operated on that level, so there was some sort of a transformation that led to a new sense of clarity and focus. (pp. 121-2) The End of Your World; uncensored straight talk on the nature of enlightenment by Adyashanti.

For another take on Cascio’s article, go to the Foresight Institute here.

If you are interested in a roundup of Nanotechnology News this week, you can visit the blog ‘This Week in Nanotechnologyhere. Also, I received an invitation from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars to an event at the Smithsonian. It doesn’t look like there will be a webcast but if you’re in Washington, DC (Wednesday, July 8, 2009, 10 am to 11 am at the Woodrow Wilson Center),

Secretary [of the Smithsonian] Wayne Clough explains how the Smithsonian Institution can make major contributions on issues of national and international concern, particularly global warming and biodiversity, education, and issues of national identity. He discusses how the Institution is connecting in new ways with new audiences.

If you can attend, contact: [email protected].

Have a nice weekend!

Geo engineering and climate change

I just finished reading an article by Jamais Cascio in the Wall Street Journal on geoengineering. I was directed there from Andrew Maynard’s 2020 Science blog and while this isn’t my usual thing it’s one of those ideas that’s both intriguing and deeply disturbing to me.

I’ve read other pieces by Cascio and find him to be a very thoughtful writer so I’m inclined to pay attention when he writes about something. From what I can gather after reading his article, geoengineering needs to be seriously considered now that climate change is rapidly approaching a crisis/tipping point. (Others may disagree with whether or not we are having a crisis but that’s another discussion.) We have not sufficiently decreased the amount of carbon being pumped into the atmosphere thereby allowing us to reverse the changes currently taking place. Cascio is proposing that we consider geoengineering not as a solution to too much carbon being released but as a stopgap (breathing space) while we seriously address the issues. You can read Cascio’s article here and you can read Andrew Maynard’s comments about it here.

The most feasible solutions as described by Cascio make me very nervous (either pump sulfates or seawater up into the atmosphere) but he presents a persuasive case for a geoengineering solution coupled with serious efforts to reduce carbon emissions.