Monthly Archives: February 2024

Portable and non-invasive (?) mind-reading AI (artificial intelligence) turns thoughts into text and some thoughts about the near future

First, here’s some of the latest research and if by ‘non-invasive,’ you mean that electrodes are not being planted in your brain, then this December 12, 2023 University of Technology Sydney (UTS) press release (also on EurekAlert) highlights non-invasive mind-reading AI via a brain-computer interface (BCI), Note: Links have been removed,

In a world-first, researchers from the GrapheneX-UTS Human-centric Artificial Intelligence Centre at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) have developed a portable, non-invasive system that can decode silent thoughts and turn them into text. 

The technology could aid communication for people who are unable to speak due to illness or injury, including stroke or paralysis. It could also enable seamless communication between humans and machines, such as the operation of a bionic arm or robot.

The study has been selected as the spotlight paper at the NeurIPS conference, a top-tier annual meeting that showcases world-leading research on artificial intelligence and machine learning, held in New Orleans on 12 December 2023.

The research was led by Distinguished Professor CT Lin, Director of the GrapheneX-UTS HAI Centre, together with first author Yiqun Duan and fellow PhD candidate Jinzhou Zhou from the UTS Faculty of Engineering and IT.

In the study participants silently read passages of text while wearing a cap that recorded electrical brain activity through their scalp using an electroencephalogram (EEG). A demonstration of the technology can be seen in this video [See UTS press release].

The EEG wave is segmented into distinct units that capture specific characteristics and patterns from the human brain. This is done by an AI model called DeWave developed by the researchers. DeWave translates EEG signals into words and sentences by learning from large quantities of EEG data. 

“This research represents a pioneering effort in translating raw EEG waves directly into language, marking a significant breakthrough in the field,” said Distinguished Professor Lin.

“It is the first to incorporate discrete encoding techniques in the brain-to-text translation process, introducing an innovative approach to neural decoding. The integration with large language models is also opening new frontiers in neuroscience and AI,” he said.

Previous technology to translate brain signals to language has either required surgery to implant electrodes in the brain, such as Elon Musk’s Neuralink [emphasis mine], or scanning in an MRI machine, which is large, expensive, and difficult to use in daily life.

These methods also struggle to transform brain signals into word level segments without additional aids such as eye-tracking, which restrict the practical application of these systems. The new technology is able to be used either with or without eye-tracking.

The UTS research was carried out with 29 participants. This means it is likely to be more robust and adaptable than previous decoding technology that has only been tested on one or two individuals, because EEG waves differ between individuals. 

The use of EEG signals received through a cap, rather than from electrodes implanted in the brain, means that the signal is noisier. In terms of EEG translation however, the study reported state-of the art performance, surpassing previous benchmarks.

“The model is more adept at matching verbs than nouns. However, when it comes to nouns, we saw a tendency towards synonymous pairs rather than precise translations, such as ‘the man’ instead of ‘the author’,” said Duan. [emphases mine; synonymous, eh? what about ‘woman’ or ‘child’ instead of the ‘man’?]

“We think this is because when the brain processes these words, semantically similar words might produce similar brain wave patterns. Despite the challenges, our model yields meaningful results, aligning keywords and forming similar sentence structures,” he said.

The translation accuracy score is currently around 40% on BLEU-1. The BLEU score is a number between zero and one that measures the similarity of the machine-translated text to a set of high-quality reference translations. The researchers hope to see this improve to a level that is comparable to traditional language translation or speech recognition programs, which is closer to 90%.

The research follows on from previous brain-computer interface technology developed by UTS in association with the Australian Defence Force [ADF] that uses brainwaves to command a quadruped robot, which is demonstrated in this ADF video [See my June 13, 2023 posting, “Mind-controlled robots based on graphene: an Australian research story” for the story and embedded video].

About one month after the research announcement regarding the University of Technology Sydney’s ‘non-invasive’ brain-computer interface (BCI), I stumbled across an in-depth piece about the field of ‘non-invasive’ mind-reading research.

Neurotechnology and neurorights

Fletcher Reveley’s January 18, 2024 article on salon.com (originally published January 3, 2024 on Undark) shows how quickly the field is developing and raises concerns, Note: Links have been removed,

One afternoon in May 2020, Jerry Tang, a Ph.D. student in computer science at the University of Texas at Austin, sat staring at a cryptic string of words scrawled across his computer screen:

“I am not finished yet to start my career at twenty without having gotten my license I never have to pull out and run back to my parents to take me home.”

The sentence was jumbled and agrammatical. But to Tang, it represented a remarkable feat: A computer pulling a thought, however disjointed, from a person’s mind.

For weeks, ever since the pandemic had shuttered his university and forced his lab work online, Tang had been at home tweaking a semantic decoder — a brain-computer interface, or BCI, that generates text from brain scans. Prior to the university’s closure, study participants had been providing data to train the decoder for months, listening to hours of storytelling podcasts while a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine logged their brain responses. Then, the participants had listened to a new story — one that had not been used to train the algorithm — and those fMRI scans were fed into the decoder, which used GPT1, a predecessor to the ubiquitous AI chatbot ChatGPT, to spit out a text prediction of what it thought the participant had heard. For this snippet, Tang compared it to the original story:

“Although I’m twenty-three years old I don’t have my driver’s license yet and I just jumped out right when I needed to and she says well why don’t you come back to my house and I’ll give you a ride.”

The decoder was not only capturing the gist of the original, but also producing exact matches of specific words — twenty, license. When Tang shared the results with his adviser, a UT Austin neuroscientist named Alexander Huth who had been working towards building such a decoder for nearly a decade, Huth was floored. “Holy shit,” Huth recalled saying. “This is actually working.” By the fall of 2021, the scientists were testing the device with no external stimuli at all — participants simply imagined a story and the decoder spat out a recognizable, albeit somewhat hazy, description of it. “What both of those experiments kind of point to,” said Huth, “is the fact that what we’re able to read out here was really like the thoughts, like the idea.”

The scientists brimmed with excitement over the potentially life-altering medical applications of such a device — restoring communication to people with locked-in syndrome, for instance, whose near full-body paralysis made talking impossible. But just as the potential benefits of the decoder snapped into focus, so too did the thorny ethical questions posed by its use. Huth himself had been one of the three primary test subjects in the experiments, and the privacy implications of the device now seemed visceral: “Oh my god,” he recalled thinking. “We can look inside my brain.”

Huth’s reaction mirrored a longstanding concern in neuroscience and beyond: that machines might someday read people’s minds. And as BCI technology advances at a dizzying clip, that possibility and others like it — that computers of the future could alter human identities, for example, or hinder free will — have begun to seem less remote. “The loss of mental privacy, this is a fight we have to fight today,” said Rafael Yuste, a Columbia University neuroscientist. “That could be irreversible. If we lose our mental privacy, what else is there to lose? That’s it, we lose the essence of who we are.”

Spurred by these concerns, Yuste and several colleagues have launched an international movement advocating for “neurorights” — a set of five principles Yuste argues should be enshrined in law as a bulwark against potential misuse and abuse of neurotechnology. But he may be running out of time.

Reveley’s January 18, 2024 article provides fascinating context and is well worth reading if you have the time.

For my purposes, I’m focusing on ethics, Note: Links have been removed,

… as these and other advances propelled the field forward, and as his own research revealed the discomfiting vulnerability of the brain to external manipulation, Yuste found himself increasingly concerned by the scarce attention being paid to the ethics of these technologies. Even Obama’s multi-billion-dollar BRAIN Initiative, a government program designed to advance brain research, which Yuste had helped launch in 2013 and supported heartily, seemed to mostly ignore the ethical and societal consequences of the research it funded. “There was zero effort on the ethical side,” Yuste recalled.

Yuste was appointed to the rotating advisory group of the BRAIN Initiative in 2015, where he began to voice his concerns. That fall, he joined an informal working group to consider the issue. “We started to meet, and it became very evident to me that the situation was a complete disaster,” Yuste said. “There was no guidelines, no work done.” Yuste said he tried to get the group to generate a set of ethical guidelines for novel BCI technologies, but the effort soon became bogged down in bureaucracy. Frustrated, he stepped down from the committee and, together with a University of Washington bioethicist named Sara Goering, decided to independently pursue the issue. “Our aim here is not to contribute to or feed fear for doomsday scenarios,” the pair wrote in a 2016 article in Cell, “but to ensure that we are reflective and intentional as we prepare ourselves for the neurotechnological future.”

In the fall of 2017, Yuste and Goering called a meeting at the Morningside Campus of Columbia, inviting nearly 30 experts from all over the world in such fields as neurotechnology, artificial intelligence, medical ethics, and the law. By then, several other countries had launched their own versions of the BRAIN Initiative, and representatives from Australia, Canada [emphasis mine], China, Europe, Israel, South Korea, and Japan joined the Morningside gathering, along with veteran neuroethicists and prominent researchers. “We holed ourselves up for three days to study the ethical and societal consequences of neurotechnology,” Yuste said. “And we came to the conclusion that this is a human rights issue. These methods are going to be so powerful, that enable to access and manipulate mental activity, and they have to be regulated from the angle of human rights. That’s when we coined the term ‘neurorights.’”

The Morningside group, as it became known, identified four principal ethical priorities, which were later expanded by Yuste into five clearly defined neurorights: The right to mental privacy, which would ensure that brain data would be kept private and its use, sale, and commercial transfer would be strictly regulated; the right to personal identity, which would set boundaries on technologies that could disrupt one’s sense of self; the right to fair access to mental augmentation, which would ensure equality of access to mental enhancement neurotechnologies; the right of protection from bias in the development of neurotechnology algorithms; and the right to free will, which would protect an individual’s agency from manipulation by external neurotechnologies. The group published their findings in an often-cited paper in Nature.

But while Yuste and the others were focused on the ethical implications of these emerging technologies, the technologies themselves continued to barrel ahead at a feverish speed. In 2014, the first kick of the World Cup was made by a paraplegic man using a mind-controlled robotic exoskeleton. In 2016, a man fist bumped Obama using a robotic arm that allowed him to “feel” the gesture. The following year, scientists showed that electrical stimulation of the hippocampus could improve memory, paving the way for cognitive augmentation technologies. The military, long interested in BCI technologies, built a system that allowed operators to pilot three drones simultaneously, partially with their minds. Meanwhile, a confusing maelstrom of science, science-fiction, hype, innovation, and speculation swept the private sector. By 2020, over $33 billion had been invested in hundreds of neurotech companies — about seven times what the NIH [US National Institutes of Health] had envisioned for the 12-year span of the BRAIN Initiative itself.

Now back to Tang and Huth (from Reveley’s January 18, 2024 article), Note: Links have been removed,

Central to the ethical questions Huth and Tang grappled with was the fact that their decoder, unlike other language decoders developed around the same time, was non-invasive — it didn’t require its users to undergo surgery. Because of that, their technology was free from the strict regulatory oversight that governs the medical domain. (Yuste, for his part, said he believes non-invasive BCIs pose a far greater ethical challenge than invasive systems: “The non-invasive, the commercial, that’s where the battle is going to get fought.”) Huth and Tang’s decoder faced other hurdles to widespread use — namely that fMRI machines are enormous, expensive, and stationary. But perhaps, the researchers thought, there was a way to overcome that hurdle too.

The information measured by fMRI machines — blood oxygenation levels, which indicate where blood is flowing in the brain — can also be measured with another technology, functional Near-Infrared Spectroscopy, or fNIRS. Although lower resolution than fMRI, several expensive, research-grade, wearable fNIRS headsets do approach the resolution required to work with Huth and Tang’s decoder. In fact, the scientists were able to test whether their decoder would work with such devices by simply blurring their fMRI data to simulate the resolution of research-grade fNIRS. The decoded result “doesn’t get that much worse,” Huth said.

And while such research-grade devices are currently cost-prohibitive for the average consumer, more rudimentary fNIRS headsets have already hit the market. Although these devices provide far lower resolution than would be required for Huth and Tang’s decoder to work effectively, the technology is continually improving, and Huth believes it is likely that an affordable, wearable fNIRS device will someday provide high enough resolution to be used with the decoder. In fact, he is currently teaming up with scientists at Washington University to research the development of such a device.

Even comparatively primitive BCI headsets can raise pointed ethical questions when released to the public. Devices that rely on electroencephalography, or EEG, a commonplace method of measuring brain activity by detecting electrical signals, have now become widely available — and in some cases have raised alarm. In 2019, a school in Jinhua, China, drew criticism after trialing EEG headbands that monitored the concentration levels of its pupils. (The students were encouraged to compete to see who concentrated most effectively, and reports were sent to their parents.) Similarly, in 2018 the South China Morning Post reported that dozens of factories and businesses had begun using “brain surveillance devices” to monitor workers’ emotions, in the hopes of increasing productivity and improving safety. The devices “caused some discomfort and resistance in the beginning,” Jin Jia, then a brain scientist at Ningbo University, told the reporter. “After a while, they got used to the device.”

But the primary problem with even low-resolution devices is that scientists are only just beginning to understand how information is actually encoded in brain data. In the future, powerful new decoding algorithms could discover that even raw, low-resolution EEG data contains a wealth of information about a person’s mental state at the time of collection. Consequently, nobody can definitively know what they are giving away when they allow companies to collect information from their brains.

Huth and Tang concluded that brain data, therefore, should be closely guarded, especially in the realm of consumer products. In an article on Medium from last April, Tang wrote that “decoding technology is continually improving, and the information that could be decoded from a brain scan a year from now may be very different from what can be decoded today. It is crucial that companies are transparent about what they intend to do with brain data and take measures to ensure that brain data is carefully protected.” (Yuste said the Neurorights Foundation recently surveyed the user agreements of 30 neurotech companies and found that all of them claim ownership of users’ brain data — and most assert the right to sell that data to third parties. [emphases mine]) Despite these concerns, however, Huth and Tang maintained that the potential benefits of these technologies outweighed their risks, provided the proper guardrails [emphasis mine] were put in place.

It would seem the first guardrails are being set up in South America (from Reveley’s January 18, 2024 article), Note: Links have been removed,

On a hot summer night in 2019, Yuste sat in the courtyard of an adobe hotel in the north of Chile with his close friend, the prominent Chilean doctor and then-senator Guido Girardi, observing the vast, luminous skies of the Atacama Desert and discussing, as they often did, the world of tomorrow. Girardi, who every year organizes the Congreso Futuro, Latin America’s preeminent science and technology event, had long been intrigued by the accelerating advance of technology and its paradigm-shifting impact on society — “living in the world at the speed of light,” as he called it. Yuste had been a frequent speaker at the conference, and the two men shared a conviction that scientists were birthing technologies powerful enough to disrupt the very notion of what it meant to be human.

Around midnight, as Yuste finished his pisco sour, Girardi made an intriguing proposal: What if they worked together to pass an amendment to Chile’s constitution, one that would enshrine protections for mental privacy as an inviolable right of every Chilean? It was an ambitious idea, but Girardi had experience moving bold pieces of legislation through the senate; years earlier he had spearheaded Chile’s famous Food Labeling and Advertising Law, which required companies to affix health warning labels on junk food. (The law has since inspired dozens of countries to pursue similar legislation.) With BCI, here was another chance to be a trailblazer. “I said to Rafael, ‘Well, why don’t we create the first neuro data protection law?’” Girardi recalled. Yuste readily agreed.

… Girardi led the political push, promoting a piece of legislation that would amend Chile’s constitution to protect mental privacy. The effort found surprising purchase across the political spectrum, a remarkable feat in a country famous for its political polarization. In 2021, Chile’s congress unanimously passed the constitutional amendment, which Piñera [Sebastián Piñera] swiftly signed into law. (A second piece of legislation, which would establish a regulatory framework for neurotechnology, is currently under consideration by Chile’s congress.) “There was no divide between the left or right,” recalled Girardi. “This was maybe the only law in Chile that was approved by unanimous vote.” Chile, then, had become the first country in the world to enshrine “neurorights” in its legal code.

Even before the passage of the Chilean constitutional amendment, Yuste had begun meeting regularly with Jared Genser, an international human rights lawyer who had represented such high-profile clients as Desmond Tutu, Liu Xiaobo, and Aung San Suu Kyi. (The New York Times Magazine once referred to Genser as “the extractor” for his work with political prisoners.) Yuste was seeking guidance on how to develop an international legal framework to protect neurorights, and Genser, though he had just a cursory knowledge of neurotechnology, was immediately captivated by the topic. “It’s fair to say he blew my mind in the first hour of discussion,” recalled Genser. Soon thereafter, Yuste, Genser, and a private-sector entrepreneur named Jamie Daves launched the Neurorights Foundation, a nonprofit whose first goal, according to its website, is “to protect the human rights of all people from the potential misuse or abuse of neurotechnology.”

To accomplish this, the organization has sought to engage all levels of society, from the United Nations and regional governing bodies like the Organization of American States, down to national governments, the tech industry, scientists, and the public at large. Such a wide-ranging approach, said Genser, “is perhaps insanity on our part, or grandiosity. But nonetheless, you know, it’s definitely the Wild West as it comes to talking about these issues globally, because so few people know about where things are, where they’re heading, and what is necessary.”

This general lack of knowledge about neurotech, in all strata of society, has largely placed Yuste in the role of global educator — he has met several times with U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, for example, to discuss the potential dangers of emerging neurotech. And these efforts are starting to yield results. Guterres’s 2021 report, “Our Common Agenda,” which sets forth goals for future international cooperation, urges “updating or clarifying our application of human rights frameworks and standards to address frontier issues,” such as “neuro-technology.” Genser attributes the inclusion of this language in the report to Yuste’s advocacy efforts.

But updating international human rights law is difficult, and even within the Neurorights Foundation there are differences of opinion regarding the most effective approach. For Yuste, the ideal solution would be the creation of a new international agency, akin to the International Atomic Energy Agency — but for neurorights. “My dream would be to have an international convention about neurotechnology, just like we had one about atomic energy and about certain things, with its own treaty,” he said. “And maybe an agency that would essentially supervise the world’s efforts in neurotechnology.”

Genser, however, believes that a new treaty is unnecessary, and that neurorights can be codified most effectively by extending interpretation of existing international human rights law to include them. The International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, for example, already ensures the general right to privacy, and an updated interpretation of the law could conceivably clarify that that clause extends to mental privacy as well.

There is no need for immediate panic (from Reveley’s January 18, 2024 article),

… while Yuste and the others continue to grapple with the complexities of international and national law, Huth and Tang have found that, for their decoder at least, the greatest privacy guardrails come not from external institutions but rather from something much closer to home — the human mind itself. Following the initial success of their decoder, as the pair read widely about the ethical implications of such a technology, they began to think of ways to assess the boundaries of the decoder’s capabilities. “We wanted to test a couple kind of principles of mental privacy,” said Huth. Simply put, they wanted to know if the decoder could be resisted.

In late 2021, the scientists began to run new experiments. First, they were curious if an algorithm trained on one person could be used on another. They found that it could not — the decoder’s efficacy depended on many hours of individualized training. Next, they tested whether the decoder could be thrown off simply by refusing to cooperate with it. Instead of focusing on the story that was playing through their headphones while inside the fMRI machine, participants were asked to complete other mental tasks, such as naming random animals, or telling a different story in their head. “Both of those rendered it completely unusable,” Huth said. “We didn’t decode the story they were listening to, and we couldn’t decode anything about what they were thinking either.”

Given how quickly this field of research is progressing, it seems like a good idea to increase efforts to establish neurorights (from Reveley’s January 18, 2024 article),

For Yuste, however, technologies like Huth and Tang’s decoder may only mark the beginning of a mind-boggling new chapter in human history, one in which the line between human brains and computers will be radically redrawn — or erased completely. A future is conceivable, he said, where humans and computers fuse permanently, leading to the emergence of technologically augmented cyborgs. “When this tsunami hits us I would say it’s not likely it’s for sure that humans will end up transforming themselves — ourselves — into maybe a hybrid species,” Yuste said. He is now focused on preparing for this future.

In the last several years, Yuste has traveled to multiple countries, meeting with a wide assortment of politicians, supreme court justices, U.N. committee members, and heads of state. And his advocacy is beginning to yield results. In August, Mexico began considering a constitutional reform that would establish the right to mental privacy. Brazil is currently considering a similar proposal, while Spain, Argentina, and Uruguay have also expressed interest, as has the European Union. In September [2023], neurorights were officially incorporated into Mexico’s digital rights charter, while in Chile, a landmark Supreme Court ruling found that Emotiv Inc, a company that makes a wearable EEG headset, violated Chile’s newly minted mental privacy law. That suit was brought by Yuste’s friend and collaborator, Guido Girardi.

“This is something that we should take seriously,” he [Huth] said. “Because even if it’s rudimentary right now, where is that going to be in five years? What was possible five years ago? What’s possible now? Where’s it gonna be in five years? Where’s it gonna be in 10 years? I think the range of reasonable possibilities includes things that are — I don’t want to say like scary enough — but like dystopian enough that I think it’s certainly a time for us to think about this.”

You can find The Neurorights Foundation here and/or read Reveley’s January 18, 2024 article on salon.com or as originally published January 3, 2024 on Undark. Finally, thank you for the article, Fletcher Reveley!

Better vaccines for park producers?

From a February 27, 2024 Canadian Light Source (CLS) news release (also received via email) by Erin Matthews,

A long-term, international collaboration between researchers at the University of Manitoba and the Leiden University Medical Centre in the Netherlands has uncovered vital information about the porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus (PRRSV). This pathogen causes severe disease in pigs, leading to significant economic losses for pork producers across the globe.

“This disease in pigs is important worldwide and is economically fairly significant,” says Marjolein Kikkert, Associate Professor of Virology at Leiden University Medical Centre. “The aim of the project was to improve vaccines for this disease, and it turned out that it was very difficult.” It’s estimated that PRRS costs the Canadian pork industry $130M annually.

Kikkert and collaborator Brian Mark, Dean of the Faculty of Science at the University of Manitoba, looked at targeting a type of protein called a protease. PRRSV uses these proteins to suppress a host’s immune system, causing severe illness. By changing the structure, researchers can design altered viruses upon which to base new vaccines.

With the help of the Canadian Light Source (CLS) at the University of Saskatchewan (USask), Mark and Kikkert were able to visualize the unique structure of the PRRSV protease. What they learned in their study is valuable for developing new vaccines against PRRSV and also helps inform development of vaccines against emerging human viruses.

The team has conducted similar research on coronaviruses —which also use proteases to suppress human and animal immune systems — and has successfully designed new vaccines.

“The trick and hypothesis we had for improving the PRRSV vaccine didn’t quite work.” Says Kikkert. “However, we did learn a lot about how these viruses work. And it may certainly be a basis for further work into possibilities for improving vaccines against these viruses and coronaviruses.”

The team’s findings also unlock new doors to understanding how viruses like PRRSV use proteins to replicate, making this a significant academic discovery.

“The Canadian Light Source provided the technology we needed to determine the structures of these proteases, and this knowledge has provided tremendous insight into the biochemistry of these viruses, which is the cornerstone of modern vaccine development,” says Mark.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Demonstrating the importance of porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus papain-like protease 2 deubiquitinating activity in viral replication by structure-guided mutagenesis by Ben A. Bailey-Elkin, Robert C. M. Knaap, Anuradha De Silva, Ilse M. Boekhoud, Sandra Mous, Niek van Vught, Mazdak Khajehpour, Erwin van den Born, Marjolein Kikkert, Brian L. Mark. PLOS DOI: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1011872 Published: December 14, 2023

This paper is open access.

Overall winner of the 2024 global Dance Your PhD: Kangaroo Time (Club Edit)

I can’t resist the dance. First, the submission for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Dance Your Ph.D. competition on Youtube and then, the video,

Science and Artistic Rationale:

In our 2024 AAAS [American Association for the Advancement of Science]/Science Magazine Dance Your Ph.D. Contest submission, we explore kangaroo behavior through dance and promote diversity. The performance, titled “Kangaroo Time”, is based on my [Weliton Menário Costa] Ph.D. field research at Wilsons Promontory National Park, Australia, conducted at the Australian National University in collaboration with the University of Sherbrooke, Canada. My thesis, “Personality, Social Environment, and Maternal-Level Effects: Insights from a Wild Kangaroo Population”, is accessible here: https://openresearch-repository.anu.e…. I am honored to have worked under the expert supervision of Prof Loeske Kruuk and Prof Marco Festa-Bianchet. We delve into animal personality, defined as consistent behavior that distinguishes individuals, and social plasticity, the extent to which behavior changes in response to the social environment. We explain how both personality traits and social environment influence kangaroo behavior, including responses to stimuli like a remote-controlled car, and we demonstrate the role of personality on social dynamics. The diversity of the dancers, ranging from classical to urban styles, reflects the variations in kangaroo personality, e.g. bolder to shier. These dancers, unchoreographed, improvise their movements, responding to cues and interacting with each other. The dance thus serves as a visual narrative, capturing how kangaroos react based not only on their instincts but also on their social context. This approach demonstrates that kangaroo decisions are a complex interplay of intrinsic tendencies (personality) and social awareness leading to adjustment (plasticity). I hope this performance makes the scientific concepts both accessible and engaging for the audience. I completed my Ph.D. at the Australian National University, Canberra, in 2021, and worked as a Research Officer. Now, I’m pursuing music, having released my debut EP “Yours Academically, Dr. WELI” and the single “Kangaroo Time (Club Edit),” featured in the video. This project represents a fusion of my scientific work and my foray into performance and creative arts, combining animal behavior with artistic expression.

A February 26, 2024 Australian National University (ANU) press release on EurekAlert provides more detail about the researcher and about his work with kangaroos, Note: Links have been removed,

Dr Weliton Menário Costa, a PhD graduate from The Australian National University (ANU), has been announced the overall winner of the 2024 global Dance Your PhD contest after wowing judges with his wickedly creative and quirky dance submission, ‘Kangaroo Time (Club Edit)’.

One of the world’s leading researchers in kangaroo behaviour, he is the first person from ANU to win the Dance Your PhD competition, and just the fourth person from an Australian institution to do so since its inception in 2008. Better known as ‘WELI’, the singer-songwriter, creator and biologist weaves together a funky beat, original songwriting, drag queens and Brazilian funk dancers to create something that’s both entertaining and educational; the final product is something that looks like it’s been plucked straight out of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

WELI stars in and directs the music video, which draws on his Brazilian roots to illustrate the distinct and varying personality traits of kangaroos using the powerful mediums of song and dance. The original and club mixes have been played more than 7,000 times on Spotify, and the song has already featured in clubs, festivals, dance classes and radio stations.

“Winning this contest is the equivalent of winning Eurovision for me. I think it not only shows the incredible might of the research conducted here in Australia, but also how creative we are as a nation. Even us scientists!” he said.

Reflecting on the success of ‘Kangaroo Time’ and the global mark it’s made on the scientific community and further afield, WELI notes that at the core of his video is a message of inclusivity and diversity – something he hopes will be one of the main takeaways that viewers hold onto.

“As a queer immigrant from a linguistically diverse developing country, I understand the challenges of feeling disconnected in certain environments,” he said.

“One of the main messages I wanted to convey through this piece of work is that differences lead to diversity, and this is evident throughout the entire video. It’s evident with the different dancers that herald from various cultures and backgrounds.

“I think it’s extremely important that we celebrate diversity and creating a video explaining kangaroo personality was an excellent medium for me to do this.”

In 2017, WELI relocated from his home country of Brazil to Canberra to undertake a PhD in animal behaviour at the ANU Research School of Biology, which he finished in 2021.

Armed with a remote-controlled car, the ANU graduate spent more than three years studying the spectrum of behavioural differences of a group of more than 300 wild eastern grey kangaroos in Victoria.

“We found that kangaroos like to socialise in groups but prefer smaller social circles. Like humans, kangaroo personalities manifest early in life. Mothers and their offspring have similar personalities, and so do siblings,” he said.

“Kangaroos are very socially aware and will adjust their behaviour based off cues from other roos.

“The diversity of the dancers, from classical ballet to twerking, and the urban street dancers to the Brazilian dancing styles, reflect the variations in kangaroo personality across the full spectrum, from bolder types to shier roos.”

On the surface, ‘Kangaroo Time’ is an effective display of science communication that expertly utilises the creative arts medium. It’s engaging, quirky and niche. But WELI admits the decision to incorporate the words kangaroo time into the video’s title acts as a double entendre of sorts.

“The use of kangaroo time is not just to explain my research studying kangaroo personality – it’s also about my time living and studying in Australia as a whole,” he said.

“It’s been a time of exploration for me, a time where I’ve been able to reconnect with and grow my passion for music, dance and the creative arts.

“Working on this project was the spark I needed to encourage me to take that next step with my music. It’s made me realise I want to focus on my music for the next little while and put my scientific career on the backburner.

“Speaking of which, I’m about to release a new EP called ‘Yours Academically, Dr WELI’!”

WELI will continue working at ANU as a Visiting Fellow until early 2025.

The Dance Your PhD contest challenges researchers from across the globe to explain their PhD in a simple, effective and engaging way – bridging the gap between the scientific community and the general public.

There’s more about WELI in George Booth’s February 27, 2024 article (‘It’s like winning Eurovision’: an ANU graduate’s journey from kangaroo whisperer to global dance sensation) for ANU Reporter.

It was nice to stumble across a ‘Dance your PhD contest’ story. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen often. I have two previous postings (from 2011and 2018) about the contest. Strangely, both are Canadian-centric,

Enjoy!

Neural (brain) implants and hype (long read)

There was a big splash a few weeks ago when it was announced that Neuralink’s (Elon Musk company) brain implant had been surgically inserted into its first human patient.

Getting approval

David Tuffley, senior lecturer in Applied Ethics & CyberSecurity at Griffith University (Australia), provides a good overview of the road Neuralink took to getting FDA (US Food and Drug Administration) approval for human clinical trials in his May 29, 2023 essay for The Conversation, Note: Links have been removed,

Since its founding in 2016, Elon Musk’s neurotechnology company Neuralink has had the ambitious mission to build a next-generation brain implant with at least 100 times more brain connections than devices currently approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The company has now reached a significant milestone, having received FDA approval to begin human trials. So what were the issues keeping the technology in the pre-clinical trial phase for as long as it was? And have these concerns been addressed?

Neuralink is making a Class III medical device known as a brain-computer interface (BCI). The device connects the brain to an external computer via a Bluetooth signal, enabling continuous communication back and forth.

The device itself is a coin-sized unit called a Link. It’s implanted within a small disk-shaped cutout in the skull using a precision surgical robot. The robot splices a thousand tiny threads from the Link to certain neurons in the brain. [emphasis mine] Each thread is about a quarter the diameter of a human hair.

The company says the device could enable precise control of prosthetic limbs, giving amputees natural motor skills. It could revolutionise treatment for conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy and spinal cord injuries. It also shows some promise for potential treatment of obesity, autism, depression, schizophrenia and tinnitus.

Several other neurotechnology companies and researchers have already developed BCI technologies that have helped people with limited mobility regain movement and complete daily tasks.

In February 2021, Musk said Neuralink was working with the FDA to secure permission to start initial human trials later that year. But human trials didn’t commence in 2021.

Then, in March 2022, Neuralink made a further application to the FDA to establish its readiness to begin humans trials.

One year and three months later, on May 25 2023, Neuralink finally received FDA approval for its first human clinical trial. Given how hard Neuralink has pushed for permission to begin, we can assume it will begin very soon. [emphasis mine]

The approval has come less than six months after the US Office of the Inspector General launched an investigation into Neuralink over potential animal welfare violations. [emphasis mine]

In accessible language, Tuffley goes on to discuss the FDA’s specific technical issues with implants and how they were addressed in his May 29, 2023 essay.

More about how Neuralink’s implant works and some concerns

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) journalist Andrew Chang offers an almost 13 minute video, “Neuralink brain chip’s first human patient. How does it work?” Chang is a little overenthused for my taste but he offers some good information about neural implants, along with informative graphics in his presentation.

So, Tuffley was right about Neuralink getting ready quickly for human clinical trials as you can guess from the title of Chang’s CBC video.

Jennifer Korn announced that recruitment had started in her September 20, 2023 article for CNN (Cable News Network), Note: Links have been removed,

Elon Musk’s controversial biotechnology startup Neuralink opened up recruitment for its first human clinical trial Tuesday, according to a company blog.

After receiving approval from an independent review board, Neuralink is set to begin offering brain implants to paralysis patients as part of the PRIME Study, the company said. PRIME, short for Precise Robotically Implanted Brain-Computer Interface, is being carried out to evaluate both the safety and functionality of the implant.

Trial patients will have a chip surgically placed in the part of the brain that controls the intention to move. The chip, installed by a robot, will then record and send brain signals to an app, with the initial goal being “to grant people the ability to control a computer cursor or keyboard using their thoughts alone,” the company wrote.

Those with quadriplegia [sometimes known as tetraplegia] due to cervical spinal cord injury or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) may qualify for the six-year-long study – 18 months of at-home and clinic visits followed by follow-up visits over five years. Interested people can sign up in the patient registry on Neuralink’s website.

Musk has been working on Neuralink’s goal of using implants to connect the human brain to a computer for five years, but the company so far has only tested on animals. The company also faced scrutiny after a monkey died in project testing in 2022 as part of efforts to get the animal to play Pong, one of the first video games.

I mentioned three Reuters investigative journalists who were reporting on Neuralink’s animal abuse allegations (emphasized in Tuffley’s essay) in a July 7, 2023 posting, “Global dialogue on the ethics of neurotechnology on July 13, 2023 led by UNESCO.” Later that year, Neuralink was cleared by the US Department of Agriculture (see September 24,, 2023 article by Mahnoor Jehangir for BNN Breaking).

Plus, Neuralink was being investigated over more allegations according to a February 9, 2023 article by Rachel Levy for Reuters, this time regarding hazardous pathogens,

The U.S. Department of Transportation said on Thursday it is investigating Elon Musk’s brain-implant company Neuralink over the potentially illegal movement of hazardous pathogens.

A Department of Transportation spokesperson told Reuters about the probe after the Physicians Committee of Responsible Medicine (PCRM), an animal-welfare advocacy group,wrote to Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, opens new tab earlier on Thursday to alert it of records it obtained on the matter.

PCRM said it obtained emails and other documents that suggest unsafe packaging and movement of implants removed from the brains of monkeys. These implants may have carried infectious diseases in violation of federal law, PCRM said.

There’s an update about the hazardous materials in the next section. Spoiler alert, the company got fined.

Neuralink’s first human implant

A January 30, 2024 article (Associated Press with files from Reuters) on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) online news webspace heralded the latest about Neurlink’s human clinical trials,

The first human patient received an implant from Elon Musk’s computer-brain interface company Neuralink over the weekend, the billionaire says.

In a post Monday [January 29, 2024] on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, Musk said that the patient received the implant the day prior and was “recovering well.” He added that “initial results show promising neuron spike detection.”

Spikes are activity by neurons, which the National Institutes of Health describe as cells that use electrical and chemical signals to send information around the brain and to the body.

The billionaire, who owns X and co-founded Neuralink, did not provide additional details about the patient.

When Neuralink announced in September [2023] that it would begin recruiting people, the company said it was searching for individuals with quadriplegia due to cervical spinal cord injury or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Neuralink reposted Musk’s Monday [January 29, 2024] post on X, but did not publish any additional statements acknowledging the human implant. The company did not immediately respond to requests for comment from The Associated Press or Reuters on Tuesday [January 30, 2024].

In a separate Monday [January 29, 2024] post on X, Musk said that the first Neuralink product is called “Telepathy” — which, he said, will enable users to control their phones or computers “just by thinking.” He said initial users would be those who have lost use of their limbs.

The startup’s PRIME Study is a trial for its wireless brain-computer interface to evaluate the safety of the implant and surgical robot.

Now for the hazardous materials, January 30, 2024 article, Note: A link has been removed,

Earlier this month [January 2024], a Reuters investigation found that Neuralink was fined for violating U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) rules regarding the movement of hazardous materials. During inspections of the company’s facilities in Texas and California in February 2023, DOT investigators found the company had failed to register itself as a transporter of hazardous material.

They also found improper packaging of hazardous waste, including the flammable liquid Xylene. Xylene can cause headaches, dizziness, confusion, loss of muscle co-ordination and even death, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The records do not say why Neuralink would need to transport hazardous materials or whether any harm resulted from the violations.

Skeptical thoughts about Elon Musk and Neuralink

Earlier this month (February 2024), the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) published an article by health reporters, Jim Reed and Joe McFadden, that highlights the history of brain implants, the possibilities, and notes some of Elon Musk’s more outrageous claims for Neuralink’s brain implants,

Elon Musk is no stranger to bold claims – from his plans to colonise Mars to his dreams of building transport links underneath our biggest cities. This week the world’s richest man said his Neuralink division had successfully implanted its first wireless brain chip into a human.

Is he right when he says this technology could – in the long term – save the human race itself?

Sticking electrodes into brain tissue is really nothing new.

In the 1960s and 70s electrical stimulation was used to trigger or suppress aggressive behaviour in cats. By the early 2000s monkeys were being trained to move a cursor around a computer screen using just their thoughts.

“It’s nothing novel, but implantable technology takes a long time to mature, and reach a stage where companies have all the pieces of the puzzle, and can really start to put them together,” says Anne Vanhoestenberghe, professor of active implantable medical devices, at King’s College London.

Neuralink is one of a growing number of companies and university departments attempting to refine and ultimately commercialise this technology. The focus, at least to start with, is on paralysis and the treatment of complex neurological conditions.

Reed and McFadden’s February 2024 BBC article describes a few of the other brain implant efforts, Note: Links have been removed,

One of its [Neuralink’s] main rivals, a start-up called Synchron backed by funding from investment firms controlled by Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos, has already implanted its stent-like device into 10 patients.

Back in December 2021, Philip O’Keefe, a 62-year old Australian who lives with a form of motor neurone disease, composed the first tweet using just his thoughts to control a cursor.

And researchers at Lausanne University in Switzerland have shown it is possible for a paralysed man to walk again by implanting multiple devices to bypass damage caused by a cycling accident.

In a research paper published this year, they demonstrated a signal could be beamed down from a device in his brain to a second device implanted at the base of his spine, which could then trigger his limbs to move.

Some people living with spinal injuries are sceptical about the sudden interest in this new kind of technology.

“These breakthroughs get announced time and time again and don’t seem to be getting any further along,” says Glyn Hayes, who was paralysed in a motorbike accident in 2017, and now runs public affairs for the Spinal Injuries Association.

If I could have anything back, it wouldn’t be the ability to walk. It would be putting more money into a way of removing nerve pain, for example, or ways to improve bowel, bladder and sexual function.” [emphasis mine]

Musk, however, is focused on something far more grand for Neuralink implants, from Reed and McFadden’s February 2024 BBC article, Note: A link has been removed,

But for Elon Musk, “solving” brain and spinal injuries is just the first step for Neuralink.

The longer-term goal is “human/AI symbiosis” [emphasis mine], something he describes as “species-level important”.

Musk himself has already talked about a future where his device could allow people to communicate with a phone or computer “faster than a speed typist or auctioneer”.

In the past, he has even said saving and replaying memories may be possible, although he recognised “this is sounding increasingly like a Black Mirror episode.”

One of the experts quoted in Reed and McFadden’s February 2024 BBC article asks a pointed question,

… “At the moment, I’m struggling to see an application that a consumer would benefit from, where they would take the risk of invasive surgery,” says Prof Vanhoestenberghe.

“You’ve got to ask yourself, would you risk brain surgery just to be able to order a pizza on your phone?”

Rae Hodge’s February 11, 2024 article about Elon Musk and his hyped up Neuralink implant for Salon is worth reading in its entirety but for those who don’t have the time or need a little persuading, here are a few excerpts, Note 1: This is a warning; Hodge provides more detail about the animal cruelty allegations; Note 2: Links have been removed,

Elon Musk’s controversial brain-computer interface (BCI) tech, Neuralink, has supposedly been implanted in its first recipient — and as much as I want to see progress for treatment of paralysis and neurodegenerative disease, I’m not celebrating. I bet the neuroscientists he reportedly drove out of the company aren’t either, especially not after seeing the gruesome torture of test monkeys and apparent cover-up that paved the way for this moment. 

All of which is an ethics horror show on its own. But the timing of Musk’s overhyped implant announcement gives it an additional insulting subtext. Football players are currently in a battle for their lives against concussion-based brain diseases that plague autopsy reports of former NFL players. And Musk’s boast of false hope came just two weeks before living players take the field in the biggest and most brutal game of the year. [2024 Super Bowl LVIII]

ESPN’s Kevin Seifert reports neuro-damage is up this year as “players suffered a total of 52 concussions from the start of training camp to the beginning of the regular season. The combined total of 213 preseason and regular season concussions was 14% higher than 2021 but within range of the three-year average from 2018 to 2020 (203).”

I’m a big fan of body-tech: pacemakers, 3D-printed hips and prosthetic limbs that allow you to wear your wedding ring again after 17 years. Same for brain chips. But BCI is the slow-moving front of body-tech development for good reason. The brain is too understudied. Consequences of the wrong move are dire. Overpromising marketable results on profit-driven timelines — on the backs of such a small community of researchers in a relatively new field — would be either idiotic or fiendish. 

Brown University’s research in the sector goes back to the 1990s. Since the emergence of a floodgate-opening 2002 study and the first implant in 2004 by med-tech company BrainGate, more promising results have inspired broader investment into careful research. But BrainGate’s clinical trials started back in 2009, and as noted by Business Insider’s Hilary Brueck, are expected to continue until 2038 — with only 15 participants who have devices installed. 

Anne Vanhoestenberghe is a professor of active implantable medical devices at King’s College London. In a recent release, she cautioned against the kind of hype peddled by Musk.

“Whilst there are a few other companies already using their devices in humans and the neuroscience community have made remarkable achievements with those devices, the potential benefits are still significantly limited by technology,” she said. “Developing and validating core technology for long term use in humans takes time and we need more investments to ensure we do the work that will underpin the next generation of BCIs.” 

Neuralink is a metal coin in your head that connects to something as flimsy as an app. And we’ve seen how Elon treats those. We’ve also seen corporate goons steal a veteran’s prosthetic legs — and companies turn brain surgeons and dentists into repo-men by having them yank anti-epilepsy chips out of people’s skulls, and dentures out of their mouths. 

“I think we have a chance with Neuralink to restore full-body functionality to someone who has a spinal cord injury,” Musk said at a 2023 tech summit, adding that the chip could possibly “make up for whatever lost capacity somebody has.”

Maybe BCI can. But only in the careful hands of scientists who don’t have Musk squawking “go faster!” over their shoulders. His greedy frustration with the speed of BCI science is telling, as is the animal cruelty it reportedly prompted.

There have been other examples of Musk’s grandiosity. Notably, David Lee expressed skepticism about hyperloop in his August 13, 2013 article for BBC news online

Is Elon Musk’s Hyperloop just a pipe dream?

Much like the pun in the headline, the bright idea of transporting people using some kind of vacuum-like tube is neither new nor imaginative.

There was Robert Goddard, considered the “father of modern rocket propulsion”, who claimed in 1909 that his vacuum system could suck passengers from Boston to New York at 1,200mph.

And then there were Soviet plans for an amphibious monorail  – mooted in 1934  – in which two long pods would start their journey attached to a metal track before flying off the end and slipping into the water like a two-fingered Kit Kat dropped into some tea.

So ever since inventor and entrepreneur Elon Musk hit the world’s media with his plans for the Hyperloop, a healthy dose of scepticism has been in the air.

“This is by no means a new idea,” says Rod Muttram, formerly of Bombardier Transportation and Railtrack.

“It has been previously suggested as a possible transatlantic transport system. The only novel feature I see is the proposal to put the tubes above existing roads.”

Here’s the latest I’ve found on hyperloop, from the Hyperloop Wikipedia entry,

As of 2024, some companies continued to pursue technology development under the hyperloop moniker, however, one of the biggest, well funded players, Hyperloop One, declared bankruptcy and ceased operations in 2023.[15]

Musk is impatient and impulsive as noted in a September 12, 2023 posting by Mike Masnick on Techdirt, Note: A link has been removed,

The Batshit Crazy Story Of The Day Elon Musk Decided To Personally Rip Servers Out Of A Sacramento Data Center

Back on Christmas Eve [December 24, 2022] of last year there were some reports that Elon Musk was in the process of shutting down Twitter’s Sacramento data center. In that article, a number of ex-Twitter employees were quoted about how much work it would be to do that cleanly, noting that there’s a ton of stuff hardcoded in Twitter code referring to that data center (hold that thought).

That same day, Elon tweeted out that he had “disconnected one of the more sensitive server racks.”

Masnick follows with a story of reckless behaviour from someone who should have known better.

Ethics of implants—where to look for more information

While Musk doesn’t use the term when he describes a “human/AI symbiosis” (presumably by way of a neural implant), he’s talking about a cyborg. Here’s a 2018 paper, which looks at some of the implications,

Do you want to be a cyborg? The moderating effect of ethics on neural implant acceptance by Eva Reinares-Lara, Cristina Olarte-Pascual, and Jorge Pelegrín-Borondo. Computers in Human Behavior Volume 85, August 2018, Pages 43-53 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2018.03.032

This paper is open access.

Getting back to Neuralink, I have two blog posts that discuss the company and the ethics of brain implants from way back in 2021.

First, there’s Jazzy Benes’ March 1, 2021 posting on the Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics blog. It stands out as it includes a discussion of the disabled community’s issues, Note: Links have been removed,

In the heart of Silicon Valley we are constantly enticed by the newest technological advances. With the big influencers Grimes [a Canadian musician and the mother of three children with Elon Musk] and Lil Uzi Vert publicly announcing their willingness to become experimental subjects for Elon Musk’s Neuralink brain implantation device, we are left wondering if future technology will actually give us “the knowledge of the Gods.” Is it part of the natural order for humans to become omniscient beings? Who will have access to the devices? What other ethical considerations must be discussed before releasing such technology to the public?

A significant issue that arises from developing technologies for the disabled community is the assumption that disabled persons desire the abilities of what some abled individuals may define as “normal.” Individuals with disabilities may object to technologies intended to make them fit an able-bodied norm. “Normal” is relative to each individual, and it could be potentially harmful to use a deficit view of disability, which means judging a disability as a deficiency. However, this is not to say that all disabled individuals will reject a technology that may enhance their abilities. Instead, I believe it is a consideration that must be recognized when developing technologies for the disabled community, and it can only be addressed through communication with disabled persons. As a result, I believe this is a conversation that must be had with the community for whom the technology is developed–disabled persons.

With technologies that aim to address disabilities, we walk a fine line between therapeutics and enhancement. Though not the first neural implant medical device, the Link may have been the first BCI system openly discussed for its potential transhumanism uses, such as “enhanced cognitive abilities, memory storage and retrieval, gaming, telepathy, and even symbiosis with machines.” …

Benes also discusses transhumanism, privacy issues, and consent issues. It’s a thoughtful reading experience.

Second is a July 9, 2021 posting by anonymous on the University of California at Berkeley School of Information blog which provides more insight into privacy and other issues associated with data collection (and introduced me to the concept of decisional interference),

As the development of microchips furthers and advances in neuroscience occur, the possibility for seamless brain-machine interfaces, where a device decodes inputs from the user’s brain to perform functions, becomes more of a reality. These various forms of these technologies already exist. However, technological advances have made implantable and portable devices possible. Imagine a future where humans don’t need to talk to each other, but rather can transmit their thoughts directly to another person. This idea is the eventual goal of Elon Musk, the founder of Neuralink. Currently, Neuralink is one of the main companies involved in the advancement of this type of technology. Analysis of the Neuralink’s technology and their overall mission statement provide an interesting insight into the future of this type of human-computer interface and the potential privacy and ethical concerns with this technology.

As this technology further develops, several privacy and ethical concerns come into question. To begin, using Solove’s Taxonomy as a privacy framework, many areas of potential harm are revealed. In the realm of information collection, there is much risk. Brain-computer interfaces, depending on where they are implanted, could have access to people’s most private thoughts and emotions. This information would need to be transmitted to another device for processing. The collection of this information by companies such as advertisers would represent a major breach of privacy. Additionally, there is risk to the user from information processing. These devices must work concurrently with other devices and often wirelessly. Given the widespread importance of cloud computing in much of today’s technology, offloading information from these devices to the cloud would be likely. Having the data stored in a database puts the user at the risk of secondary use if proper privacy policies are not implemented. The trove of information stored within the information collected from the brain is vast. These datasets could be combined with existing databases such as browsing history on Google to provide third parties with unimaginable context on individuals. Lastly, there is risk for information dissemination, more specifically, exposure. The information collected and processed by these devices would need to be stored digitally. Keeping such private information, even if anonymized, would be a huge potential for harm, as the contents of the information may in itself be re-identifiable to a specific individual. Lastly there is risk for invasions such as decisional interference. Brain-machine interfaces would not only be able to read information in the brain but also write information. This would allow the device to make potential emotional changes in its users, which be a major example of decisional interference. …

For the most recent Neuralink and brain implant ethics piece, there’s this February 14, 2024 essay on The Conversation, which, unusually, for this publication was solicited by the editors, Note: Links have been removed,

In January 2024, Musk announced that Neuralink implanted its first chip in a human subject’s brain. The Conversation reached out to two scholars at the University of Washington School of Medicine – Nancy Jecker, a bioethicst, and Andrew Ko, a neurosurgeon who implants brain chip devices – for their thoughts on the ethics of this new horizon in neuroscience.

Information about the implant, however, is scarce, aside from a brochure aimed at recruiting trial subjects. Neuralink did not register at ClinicalTrials.gov, as is customary, and required by some academic journals. [all emphases mine]

Some scientists are troubled by this lack of transparency. Sharing information about clinical trials is important because it helps other investigators learn about areas related to their research and can improve patient care. Academic journals can also be biased toward positive results, preventing researchers from learning from unsuccessful experiments.

Fellows at the Hastings Center, a bioethics think tank, have warned that Musk’s brand of “science by press release, while increasingly common, is not science. [emphases mine]” They advise against relying on someone with a huge financial stake in a research outcome to function as the sole source of information.

When scientific research is funded by government agencies or philanthropic groups, its aim is to promote the public good. Neuralink, on the other hand, embodies a private equity model [emphasis mine], which is becoming more common in science. Firms pooling funds from private investors to back science breakthroughs may strive to do good, but they also strive to maximize profits, which can conflict with patients’ best interests.

In 2022, the U.S. Department of Agriculture investigated animal cruelty at Neuralink, according to a Reuters report, after employees accused the company of rushing tests and botching procedures on test animals in a race for results. The agency’s inspection found no breaches, according to a letter from the USDA secretary to lawmakers, which Reuters reviewed. However, the secretary did note an “adverse surgical event” in 2019 that Neuralink had self-reported.

In a separate incident also reported by Reuters, the Department of Transportation fined Neuralink for violating rules about transporting hazardous materials, including a flammable liquid.

…the possibility that the device could be increasingly shown to be helpful for people with disabilities, but become unavailable due to loss of research funding. For patients whose access to a device is tied to a research study, the prospect of losing access after the study ends can be devastating. [emphasis mine] This raises thorny questions about whether it is ever ethical to provide early access to breakthrough medical interventions prior to their receiving full FDA approval.

Not registering a clinical trial would seem to suggest there won’t be much oversight. As for Musk’s “science by press release” activities, I hope those will be treated with more skepticism by mainstream media although that seems unlikely given the current situation with journalism (more about that in a future post).

As for the issues associated with private equity models for science research and the problem of losing access to devices after a clinical trial is ended, my April 5, 2022 posting, “Going blind when your neural implant company flirts with bankruptcy (long read)” offers some cautionary tales, in addition to being the most comprehensive piece I’ve published on ethics and brain implants.

My July 17, 2023 posting, “Unveiling the Neurotechnology Landscape: Scientific Advancements, Innovations and Major Trends—a UNESCO report” offers a brief overview of the international scene.

First round of seed funding announced for NSF (US National Science Foundation) Institute for Trustworthy AI in Law & Society (TRAILS)

Having published an earlier January 2024 US National Science Foundation (NSF) funding announcement for the TRAILS (Trustworthy AI in Law & Society) Institute yesterday (February 21, 2024), I’m following up with an announcement about the initiative’s first round of seed funding.

From a TRAILS undated ‘story‘ by Tom Ventsias on the initiative’s website (and published January 24, 2024 as a University of Maryland news release on EurekAlert),

The Institute for Trustworthy AI in Law & Society (TRAILS) has unveiled an inaugural round of seed grants designed to integrate a greater diversity of stakeholders into the artificial intelligence (AI) development and governance lifecycle, ultimately creating positive feedback loops to improve trustworthiness, accessibility and efficacy in AI-infused systems.

The eight grants announced on January 24, 2024—ranging from $100K to $150K apiece and totaling just over $1.5 million—were awarded to interdisciplinary teams of faculty associated with the institute. Funded projects include developing AI chatbots to assist with smoking cessation, designing animal-like robots that can improve autism-specific support at home, and exploring how people use and rely upon AI-generated language translation systems.

All eight projects fall under the broader mission of TRAILS, which is to transform the practice of AI from one driven primarily by technological innovation to one that is driven by ethics, human rights, and input and feedback from communities whose voices have previously been marginalized.

“At the speed with which AI is developing, our seed grant program will enable us to keep pace—or even stay one step ahead—by incentivizing cutting-edge research and scholarship that spans AI design, development and governance,” said Hal Daumé III, a professor of computer science at the University of Maryland who is the director of TRAILS.

After TRAILS was launched in May 2023 with a $20 million award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), lead faculty met to brainstorm how the institute could best move forward with research, innovation and outreach that would have a meaningful impact.

They determined a seed grant program could quickly leverage the wide range of academic talent at TRAILS’ four primary institutions. This includes the University of Maryland’s expertise in computing and human-computer interaction; George Washington University’s strengths in systems engineering and AI as it relates to law and governance; Morgan State University’s work in addressing bias and inequity in AI; and Cornell University’s research in human behavior and decision-making.

“NIST and NSF’s support of TRAILS enables us to create a structured mechanism to reach across academic and institutional boundaries in search of innovative solutions,” said David Broniatowski, an associate professor of engineering management and systems engineering at George Washington University who leads TRAILS activities on the GW campus. “Seed funding from TRAILS will enable multidisciplinary teams to identify opportunities for their research to have impact, and to build the case for even larger, multi-institutional efforts.”

Further discussions were held at a TRAILS faculty retreat to identify seed grant guidelines and collaborative themes that mirror TRAILS’ primary research thrusts—participatory design, methods and metrics, evaluating trust, and participatory governance.

“Some of the funded projects are taking a fresh look at ideas we may have already been working on individually, and others are taking an entirely new approach to timely, pressing issues involving AI and machine learning,” said Virginia Byrne, an assistant professor of higher education & student affairs at Morgan State who is leading TRAILS activities on that campus and who served on the seed grant review committee.

A second round of seed funding will be announced later this year, said Darren Cambridge, who was recently hired as managing director of TRAILS to lead its day-to-day operations.

Projects selected in the first round are eligible for a renewal, while other TRAILS faculty—or any faculty member at the four primary TRAILS institutions—can submit new proposals for consideration, Cambridge said.

Ultimately, the seed funding program is expected to strengthen and incentivize other TRAILS activities that are now taking shape, including K–12 education and outreach programs, AI policy seminars and workshops on Capitol Hill, and multiple postdoc opportunities for early-career researchers.

“We want TRAILS to be the ‘go-to’ resource for educators, policymakers and others who are seeking answers and solutions on how to build, manage and use AI systems that will benefit all of society,” Cambridge said.

The eight projects selected for the first round of TRAILS seed-funding are:

Chung Hyuk Park and Zoe Szajnfarber from GW and Hernisa Kacorri from UMD aim to improve the support infrastructure and access to quality care for families of autistic children. Early interventions are strongly correlated with positive outcomes, while provider shortages and financial burdens have raised challenges—particularly for families without sufficient resources and experience. The researchers will develop novel parent-robot teaming for the home, advance the assistive technology, and assess the impact of teaming to promote more trust in human-robot collaborative settings.

Soheil Feizi from UMD and Robert Brauneis from GW will investigate various issues surrounding text-to-image [emphasis mine] generative AI models like Stable Diffusion, DALL-E 2, and Midjourney, focusing on myriad legal, aesthetic and computational aspects that are currently unresolved. A key question is how copyright law might adapt if these tools create works in an artist’s style. The team will explore how generative AI models represent individual artists’ styles, and whether those representations are complex and distinctive enough to form stable objects of protection. The researchers will also explore legal and technical questions to determine if specific artworks, especially rare and unique ones, have already been used to train AI models.

Huaishu Peng and Ge Gao from UMD will work with Malte Jung from Cornell to increase trust-building in embodied AI systems, which bridge the gap between computers and human physical senses. Specifically, the researchers will explore embodied AI systems in the form of miniaturized on-body or desktop robotic systems that can enable the exchange of nonverbal cues between blind and sighted individuals, an essential component of efficient collaboration. The researchers will also examine multiple factors—both physical and mental—in order to gain a deeper understanding of both groups’ values related to teamwork facilitated by embodied AI.

Marine Carpuat and Ge Gao from UMD will explore “mental models”—how humans perceive things—for language translation systems used by millions of people daily. They will focus on how individuals, depending on their language fluency and familiarity with the technology, make sense of their “error boundary”—that is, deciding whether an AI-generated translation is correct or incorrect. The team will also develop innovative techniques to teach users how to improve their mental models as they interact with machine translation systems.

Hal Daumé III, Furong Huang and Zubin Jelveh from UMD and Donald Braman from GW will propose new philosophies grounded in law to conceptualize, evaluate and achieve “effort-aware fairness,” which involves algorithms for determining whether an individual or a group of individuals is discriminated against in terms of equality of effort. The researchers will develop new metrics, evaluate fairness of datasets, and design novel algorithms that enable AI auditors to uncover and potentially correct unfair decisions.

Lorien Abroms and David Broniatowski from GW will recruit smokers to study the reliability of using generative chatbots, such as ChatGPT, as the basis for a digital smoking cessation program. Additional work will examine the acceptability by smokers and their perceptions of trust in using this rapidly evolving technology for help to quit smoking. The researchers hope their study will directly inform future digital interventions for smoking cessation and/or modifying other health behaviors.

Adam Aviv from GW and Michelle Mazurek from UMD will examine bias, unfairness and untruths such as sexism, racism and other forms of misrepresentation that come out of certain AI and machine learning systems. Though some systems have public warnings of potential biases, the researchers want to explore how users understand these warnings, if they recognize how biases may manifest themselves in the AI-generated responses, and how users attempt to expose, mitigate and manage potentially biased responses.

Susan Ariel Aaronson and David Broniatowski from GW plan to create a prototype of a searchable, easy-to-use website to enable policymakers to better utilize academic research related to trustworthy and participatory AI. The team will analyze research publications by TRAILS-affiliated researchers to ascertain which ones may have policy implications. Then, each relevant publication will be summarized and categorized by research questions, issues, keywords, and relevant policymaking uses. The resulting database prototype will enable the researchers to test the utility of this resource for policymakers over time.

Yes, things are moving quickly where AI is concerned. There’s text-to-image being investigated by Soheil Feizi and Robert Brauneis and, since the funding announcement in early January 2024, text-to-video has been announced (Open AI’s Sora was previewed February 15, 2024). I wonder if that will be added to the project.

One more comment, Huaishu Peng’s, Ge Gao’s, and Malte Jung’s project for “… trust-building in embodied AI systems …” brings to mind Elon Musk’s stated goal of using brain implants for “human/AI symbiosis.” (I have more about that in an upcoming post.) Hopefully, Susan Ariel Aaronson’s and David Broniatowski’s proposed website for policymakers will be able to keep up with what’s happening in the field of AI, including research on the impact of private investments primarily designed for generating profits.

Prioritizing ethical & social considerations in emerging technologies—$16M in US National Science Foundation funding

I haven’t seen this much interest in the ethics and social impacts of emerging technologies in years. It seems that the latest AI (artificial intelligence) panic has stimulated interest not only in regulation but ethics too.

The latest information I have on this topic comes from a January 9, 2024 US National Science Foundation (NSF) news release (also received via email),

NSF and philanthropic partners announce $16 million in funding to prioritize ethical and social considerations in emerging technologies

ReDDDoT is a collaboration with five philanthropic partners and crosses
all disciplines of science and engineering_

The U.S. National Science Foundation today launched a new $16 million
program in collaboration with five philanthropic partners that seeks to
ensure ethical, legal, community and societal considerations are
embedded in the lifecycle of technology’s creation and use. The
Responsible Design, Development and Deployment of Technologies (ReDDDoT)
program aims to help create technologies that promote the public’s
wellbeing and mitigate potential harms.

“The design, development and deployment of technologies have broad
impacts on society,” said NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan. “As
discoveries and innovations are translated to practice, it is essential
that we engage and enable diverse communities to participate in this
work. NSF and its philanthropic partners share a strong commitment to
creating a comprehensive approach for co-design through soliciting
community input, incorporating community values and engaging a broad
array of academic and professional voices across the lifecycle of
technology creation and use.”

The ReDDDoT program invites proposals from multidisciplinary,
multi-sector teams that examine and demonstrate the principles,
methodologies and impacts associated with responsible design,
development and deployment of technologies, especially those specified
in the “CHIPS and Science Act of 2022.” In addition to NSF, the
program is funded and supported by the Ford Foundation, the Patrick J.
McGovern Foundation, Pivotal Ventures, Siegel Family Endowment and the
Eric and Wendy Schmidt Fund for Strategic Innovation.

“In recognition of the role responsible technologists can play to
advance human progress, and the danger unaccountable technology poses to
social justice, the ReDDDoT program serves as both a collaboration and a
covenant between philanthropy and government to center public interest
technology into the future of progress,” said Darren Walker, president
of the Ford Foundation. “This $16 million initiative will cultivate
expertise from public interest technologists across sectors who are
rooted in community and grounded by the belief that innovation, equity
and ethics must equally be the catalysts for technological progress.”

The broad goals of ReDDDoT include:  

*Stimulating activity and filling gaps in research, innovation and capacity building in the responsible design, development, and deployment of technologies.
* Creating broad and inclusive communities of interest that bring
together key stakeholders to better inform practices for the design,
development, and deployment of technologies.
* Educating and training the science, technology, engineering, and
mathematics workforce on approaches to responsible design,
development, and deployment of technologies. 
* Accelerating pathways to societal and economic benefits while
developing strategies to avoid or mitigate societal and economic harms.
* Empowering communities, including economically disadvantaged and
marginalized populations, to participate in all stages of technology
development, including the earliest stages of ideation and design.

Phase 1 of the program solicits proposals for Workshops, Planning
Grants, or the creation of Translational Research Coordination Networks,
while Phase 2 solicits full project proposals. The initial areas of
focus for 2024 include artificial intelligence, biotechnology or natural
and anthropogenic disaster prevention or mitigation. Future iterations
of the program may consider other key technology focus areas enumerated
in the CHIPS and Science Act.

For more information about ReDDDoT, visit the program website or register for an informational webinar on Feb. 9, 2024, at 2 p.m. ET.

Statements from NSF’s Partners

“The core belief at the heart of ReDDDoT – that technology should be
shaped by ethical, legal, and societal considerations as well as
community values – also drives the work of the Patrick J. McGovern
Foundation to build a human-centered digital future for all. We’re
pleased to support this partnership, committed to advancing the
development of AI, biotechnology, and climate technologies that advance
equity, sustainability, and justice.” – Vilas Dhar, President, Patrick
J. McGovern Foundation

“From generative AI to quantum computing, the pace of technology
development is only accelerating. Too often, technological advances are
not accompanied by discussion and design that considers negative impacts
or unrealized potential. We’re excited to support ReDDDoT as an
opportunity to uplift new and often forgotten perspectives that
critically examine technology’s impact on civic life, and advance Siegel
Family Endowment’s vision of technological change that includes and
improves the lives of all people.” – Katy Knight, President and
Executive Director of Siegel Family Endowment

Only eight months ago, another big NSF funding project was announced but this time focused on AI and promoting trust, from a May 4, 2023 University of Maryland (UMD) news release (also on EurekAlert), Note: A link has been removed,

The University of Maryland has been chosen to lead a multi-institutional effort supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) that will develop new artificial intelligence (AI) technologies designed to promote trust and mitigate risks, while simultaneously empowering and educating the public.

The NSF Institute for Trustworthy AI in Law & Society (TRAILS) announced on May 4, 2023, unites specialists in AI and machine learning with social scientists, legal scholars, educators and public policy experts. The multidisciplinary team will work with impacted communities, private industry and the federal government to determine what trust in AI looks like, how to develop technical solutions for AI that can be trusted, and which policy models best create and sustain trust.

Funded by a $20 million award from NSF, the new institute is expected to transform the practice of AI from one driven primarily by technological innovation to one that is driven by ethics, human rights, and input and feedback from communities whose voices have previously been marginalized.

“As artificial intelligence continues to grow exponentially, we must embrace its potential for helping to solve the grand challenges of our time, as well as ensure that it is used both ethically and responsibly,” said UMD President Darryll J. Pines. “With strong federal support, this new institute will lead in defining the science and innovation needed to harness the power of AI for the benefit of the public good and all humankind.”

In addition to UMD, TRAILS will include faculty members from George Washington University (GW) and Morgan State University, with more support coming from Cornell University, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and private sector organizations like the DataedX Group, Arthur AI, Checkstep, FinRegLab and Techstars.

At the heart of establishing the new institute is the consensus that AI is currently at a crossroads. AI-infused systems have great potential to enhance human capacity, increase productivity, catalyze innovation, and mitigate complex problems, but today’s systems are developed and deployed in a process that is opaque and insular to the public, and therefore, often untrustworthy to those affected by the technology.

“We’ve structured our research goals to educate, learn from, recruit, retain and support communities whose voices are often not recognized in mainstream AI development,” said Hal Daumé III, a UMD professor of computer science who is lead principal investigator of the NSF award and will serve as the director of TRAILS.

Inappropriate trust in AI can result in many negative outcomes, Daumé said. People often “overtrust” AI systems to do things they’re fundamentally incapable of. This can lead to people or organizations giving up their own power to systems that are not acting in their best interest. At the same time, people can also “undertrust” AI systems, leading them to avoid using systems that could ultimately help them.

Given these conditions—and the fact that AI is increasingly being deployed to mediate society’s online communications, determine health care options, and offer guidelines in the criminal justice system—it has become urgent to ensure that people’s trust in AI systems matches those same systems’ level of trustworthiness.

TRAILS has identified four key research thrusts to promote the development of AI systems that can earn the public’s trust through broader participation in the AI ecosystem.

The first, known as participatory AI, advocates involving human stakeholders in the development, deployment and use of these systems. It aims to create technology in a way that aligns with the values and interests of diverse groups of people, rather than being controlled by a few experts or solely driven by profit.

Leading the efforts in participatory AI is Katie Shilton, an associate professor in UMD’s College of Information Studies who specializes in ethics and sociotechnical systems. Tom Goldstein, a UMD associate professor of computer science, will lead the institute’s second research thrust, developing advanced machine learning algorithms that reflect the values and interests of the relevant stakeholders.

Daumé, Shilton and Goldstein all have appointments in the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies, which is providing administrative and technical support for TRAILS.

David Broniatowski, an associate professor of engineering management and systems engineering at GW, will lead the institute’s third research thrust of evaluating how people make sense of the AI systems that are developed, and the degree to which their levels of reliability, fairness, transparency and accountability will lead to appropriate levels of trust. Susan Ariel Aaronson, a research professor of international affairs at GW, will use her expertise in data-driven change and international data governance to lead the institute’s fourth thrust of participatory governance and trust.

Virginia Byrne, an assistant professor of higher education and student affairs at Morgan State, will lead community-driven projects related to the interplay between AI and education. According to Daumé, the TRAILS team will rely heavily on Morgan State’s leadership—as Maryland’s preeminent public urban research university—in conducting rigorous, participatory community-based research with broad societal impacts.

Additional academic support will come from Valerie Reyna, a professor of human development at Cornell, who will use her expertise in human judgment and cognition to advance efforts focused on how people interpret their use of AI.

Federal officials at NIST will collaborate with TRAILS in the development of meaningful measures, benchmarks, test beds and certification methods—particularly as they apply to important topics essential to trust and trustworthiness such as safety, fairness, privacy, transparency, explainability, accountability, accuracy and reliability.

“The ability to measure AI system trustworthiness and its impacts on individuals, communities and society is limited. TRAILS can help advance our understanding of the foundations of trustworthy AI, ethical and societal considerations of AI, and how to build systems that are trusted by the people who use and are affected by them,” said Under Secretary of Commerce for Standards and Technology and NIST Director Laurie E. Locascio.

Today’s announcement [May 4, 2023] is the latest in a series of federal grants establishing a cohort of National Artificial Intelligence Research Institutes. This recent investment in seven new AI institutes, totaling $140 million, follows two previous rounds of awards.

“Maryland is at the forefront of our nation’s scientific innovation thanks to our talented workforce, top-tier universities, and federal partners,” said U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). “This National Science Foundation award for the University of Maryland—in coordination with other Maryland-based research institutions including Morgan State University and NIST—will promote ethical and responsible AI development, with the goal of helping us harness the benefits of this powerful emerging technology while limiting the potential risks it poses. This investment entrusts Maryland with a critical priority for our shared future, recognizing the unparalleled ingenuity and world-class reputation of our institutions.” 

The NSF, in collaboration with government agencies and private sector leaders, has now invested close to half a billion dollars in the AI institutes ecosystem—an investment that expands a collaborative AI research network into almost every U.S. state.

“The National AI Research Institutes are a critical component of our nation’s AI innovation, infrastructure, technology, education and partnerships ecosystem,” said NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan. “[They] are driving discoveries that will ensure our country is at the forefront of the global AI revolution.”

As noted in the UMD news release, this funding is part of a ‘bundle’, here’s more from the May 4, 2023 US NSF news release announcing the full $ 140 million funding program, Note: Links have been removed,

The U.S. National Science Foundation, in collaboration with other federal agencies, higher education institutions and other stakeholders, today announced a $140 million investment to establish seven new National Artificial Intelligence Research Institutes. The announcement is part of a broader effort across the federal government to advance a cohesive approach to AI-related opportunities and risks.

The new AI Institutes will advance foundational AI research that promotes ethical and trustworthy AI systems and technologies, develop novel approaches to cybersecurity, contribute to innovative solutions to climate change, expand the understanding of the brain, and leverage AI capabilities to enhance education and public health. The institutes will support the development of a diverse AI workforce in the U.S. and help address the risks and potential harms posed by AI.  This investment means  NSF and its funding partners have now invested close to half a billion dollars in the AI Institutes research network, which reaches almost every U.S. state.

“The National AI Research Institutes are a critical component of our nation’s AI innovation, infrastructure, technology, education and partnerships ecosystem,” said NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan. “These institutes are driving discoveries that will ensure our country is at the forefront of the global AI revolution.”

“These strategic federal investments will advance American AI infrastructure and innovation, so that AI can help tackle some of the biggest challenges we face, from climate change to health. Importantly, the growing network of National AI Research Institutes will promote responsible innovation that safeguards people’s safety and rights,” said White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Director Arati Prabhakar.

The new AI Institutes are interdisciplinary collaborations among top AI researchers and are supported by co-funding from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST); U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate (DHS S&T); U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA-NIFA); U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (ED-IES); U.S. Department of Defense’s Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering (DoD OUSD R&E); and IBM Corporation (IBM).

“Foundational research in AI and machine learning has never been more critical to the understanding, creation and deployment of AI-powered systems that deliver transformative and trustworthy solutions across our society,” said NSF Assistant Director for Computer and Information Science and Engineering Margaret Martonosi. “These recent awards, as well as our AI Institutes ecosystem as a whole, represent our active efforts in addressing national economic and societal priorities that hinge on our nation’s AI capability and leadership.”

The new AI Institutes focus on six research themes:

Trustworthy AI

NSF Institute for Trustworthy AI in Law & Society (TRAILS)

Led by the University of Maryland, TRAILS aims to transform the practice of AI from one driven primarily by technological innovation to one driven with attention to ethics, human rights and support for communities whose voices have been marginalized into mainstream AI. TRAILS will be the first institute of its kind to integrate participatory design, technology, and governance of AI systems and technologies and will focus on investigating what trust in AI looks like, whether current technical solutions for AI can be trusted, and which policy models can effectively sustain AI trustworthiness. TRAILS is funded by a partnership between NSF and NIST.

Intelligent Agents for Next-Generation Cybersecurity

AI Institute for Agent-based Cyber Threat Intelligence and Operation (ACTION)

Led by the University of California, Santa Barbara, this institute will develop novel approaches that leverage AI to anticipate and take corrective actions against cyberthreats that target the security and privacy of computer networks and their users. The team of researchers will work with experts in security operations to develop a revolutionary approach to cybersecurity, in which AI-enabled intelligent security agents cooperate with humans across the cyberdefense life cycle to jointly improve the resilience of security of computer systems over time. ACTION is funded by a partnership between NSF, DHS S&T, and IBM.

Climate Smart Agriculture and Forestry

AI Institute for Climate-Land Interactions, Mitigation, Adaptation, Tradeoffs and Economy (AI-CLIMATE)

Led by the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, this institute aims to advance foundational AI by incorporating knowledge from agriculture and forestry sciences and leveraging these unique, new AI methods to curb climate effects while lifting rural economies. By creating a new scientific discipline and innovation ecosystem intersecting AI and climate-smart agriculture and forestry, our researchers and practitioners will discover and invent compelling AI-powered knowledge and solutions. Examples include AI-enhanced estimation methods of greenhouse gases and specialized field-to-market decision support tools. A key goal is to lower the cost of and improve accounting for carbon in farms and forests to empower carbon markets and inform decision making. The institute will also expand and diversify rural and urban AI workforces. AI-CLIMATE is funded by USDA-NIFA.

Neural and Cognitive Foundations of Artificial Intelligence

AI Institute for Artificial and Natural Intelligence (ARNI)

Led by Columbia University, this institute will draw together top researchers across the country to focus on a national priority: connecting the major progress made in AI systems to the revolution in our understanding of the brain. ARNI will meet the urgent need for new paradigms of interdisciplinary research between neuroscience, cognitive science and AI. This will accelerate progress in all three fields and broaden the transformative impact on society in the next decade. ARNI is funded by a partnership between NSF and DoD OUSD R&E.

AI for Decision Making

AI Institute for Societal Decision Making (AI-SDM)

Led by Carnegie Mellon University, this institute seeks to create human-centric AI for decision making to bolster effective response in uncertain, dynamic and resource-constrained scenarios like disaster management and public health. By bringing together an interdisciplinary team of AI and social science researchers, AI-SDM will enable emergency managers, public health officials, first responders, community workers and the public to make decisions that are data driven, robust, agile, resource efficient and trustworthy. The vision of the institute will be realized via development of AI theory and methods, translational research, training and outreach, enabled by partnerships with diverse universities, government organizations, corporate partners, community colleges, public libraries and high schools.

AI-Augmented Learning to Expand Education Opportunities and Improve Outcomes

AI Institute for Inclusive Intelligent Technologies for Education (INVITE)

Led by the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, this institute seeks to fundamentally reframe how educational technologies interact with learners by developing AI tools and approaches to support three crucial noncognitive skills known to underlie effective learning: persistence, academic resilience and collaboration. The institute’s use-inspired research will focus on how children communicate STEM content, how they learn to persist through challenging work, and how teachers support and promote noncognitive skill development. The resultant AI-based tools will be integrated into classrooms to empower teachers to support learners in more developmentally appropriate ways.

AI Institute for Exceptional Education (AI4ExceptionalEd)

Led by the University at Buffalo, this institute will work toward universal speech and language screening for children. The framework, the AI screener, will analyze video and audio streams of children during classroom interactions and assess the need for evidence-based interventions tailored to individual needs of students. The institute will serve children in need of ability-based speech and language services, advance foundational AI technologies and enhance understanding of childhood speech and language development. The AI Institute for Exceptional Education was previously announced in January 2023. The INVITE and AI4ExceptionalEd institutes are funded by a partnership between NSF and ED-IES.

Statements from NSF’s Federal Government Funding Partners

“Increasing AI system trustworthiness while reducing its risks will be key to unleashing AI’s potential benefits and ensuring our shared societal values,” said Under Secretary of Commerce for Standards and Technology and NIST Director Laurie E. Locascio. “Today, the ability to measure AI system trustworthiness and its impacts on individuals, communities and society is limited. TRAILS can help advance our understanding of the foundations of trustworthy AI, ethical and societal considerations of AI, and how to build systems that are trusted by the people who use and are affected by them.”

“The ACTION Institute will help us better assess the opportunities and risks of rapidly evolving AI technology and its impact on DHS missions,” said Dimitri Kusnezov, DHS under secretary for science and technology. “This group of researchers and their ambition to push the limits of fundamental AI and apply new insights represents a significant investment in cybersecurity defense. These partnerships allow us to collectively remain on the forefront of leading-edge research for AI technologies.”

“In the tradition of USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture investments, this new institute leverages the scientific power of U.S. land-grant universities informed by close partnership with farmers, producers, educators and innovators to address the grand challenge of rising greenhouse gas concentrations and associated climate change,” said Acting NIFA Director Dionne Toombs. “This innovative center will address the urgent need to counter climate-related threats, lower greenhouse gas emissions, grow the American workforce and increase new rural opportunities.”

“The leading-edge in AI research inevitably draws from our, so far, limited understanding of human cognition. This AI Institute seeks to unify the fields of AI and neuroscience to bring advanced designs and approaches to more capable and trustworthy AI, while also providing better understanding of the human brain,” said Bindu Nair, director, Basic Research Office, Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering. “We are proud to partner with NSF in this critical field of research, as continued advancement in these areas holds the potential for further and significant benefits to national security, the economy and improvements in quality of life.”

“We are excited to partner with NSF on these two AI institutes,” said IES Director Mark Schneider. “We hope that they will provide valuable insights into how to tap modern technologies to improve the education sciences — but more importantly we hope that they will lead to better student outcomes and identify ways to free up the time of teachers to deliver more informed individualized instruction for the students they care so much about.” 

Learn more about the NSF AI Institutes by visiting nsf.gov.

Two things I noticed, (1) No mention of including ethics training or concepts in science and technology education and (2) No mention of integrating ethics and social issues into any of the AI Institutes. So, it seems that ‘Responsible Design, Development and Deployment of Technologies (ReDDDoT)’ occupies its own fiefdom.

Some sobering thoughts

Things can go terribly wrong with new technology as seen in the British television hit series, Mr. Bates vs. The Post Office (based on a true story) , from a January 9, 2024 posting by Ani Blundel for tellyvisions.org,

… what is this show that’s caused the entire country to rise up as one to defend the rights of the lowly sub-postal worker? Known as the “British Post Office scandal,” the incidents first began in 1999 when the U.K. postal system began to switch to digital systems, using the Horizon Accounting system to track the monies brought in. However, the IT system was faulty from the start, and rather than blame the technology, the British government accused, arrested, persecuted, and convicted over 700 postal workers of fraud and theft. This continued through 2015 when the glitch was finally recognized, and in 2019, the convictions were ruled to be a miscarriage of justice.

Here’s the series synopsis:

The drama tells the story of one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in British legal history. Hundreds of innocent sub-postmasters and postmistresses were wrongly accused of theft, fraud, and false accounting due to a defective IT system. Many of the wronged workers were prosecuted, some of whom were imprisoned for crimes they never committed, and their lives were irreparably ruined by the scandal. Following the landmark Court of Appeal decision to overturn their criminal convictions, dozens of former sub-postmasters and postmistresses have been exonerated on all counts as they battled to finally clear their names. They fought for over ten years, finally proving their innocence and sealing a resounding victory, but all involved believe the fight is not over yet, not by a long way.

Here’s a video trailer for ‘Mr. Bates vs. The Post Office,

More from Blundel’s January 9, 2024 posting, Note: A link has been removed,

The outcry from the general public against the government’s bureaucratic mismanagement and abuse of employees has been loud and sustained enough that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had to come out with a statement condemning what happened back during the 2009 incident. Further, the current Justice Secretary, Alex Chalk, is now trying to figure out the fastest way to exonerate the hundreds of sub-post managers and sub-postmistresses who were wrongfully convicted back then and if there are steps to be taken to punish the post office a decade later.

It’s a horrifying story and the worst I’ve seen so far but, sadly, it’s not the only one of its kind.

Too often people’s concerns and worries about new technology are dismissed or trivialized. Somehow, all the work done to establish ethical standards and develop trust seems to be used as a kind of sop to the concerns rather than being integrated into the implementation of life-altering technologies.

Communicating thoughts by means of brain implants?

The Australian military announced mind-controlled robots in Spring 2023 (see my June 13, 2023 posting) and, recently, scientists at Duke University (North Carolina, US) have announced research that may allow people who are unable to speak to communicate their thoughts, from a November 6, 2023 news item on ScienceDaily,

A speech prosthetic developed by a collaborative team of Duke neuroscientists, neurosurgeons, and engineers can translate a person’s brain signals into what they’re trying to say.

Appearing Nov. 6 [2023] in the journal Nature Communications, the new technology might one day help people unable to talk due to neurological disorders regain the ability to communicate through a brain-computer interface.

One more plastic brain for this blog,

Caption: A device no bigger than a postage stamp (dotted portion within white band) packs 128 microscopic sensors that can translate brain cell activity into what someone intends to say. Credit: Dan Vahaba/Duke University

A November 6, 2023 Duke University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail, Note: Links have been removed,

“There are many patients who suffer from debilitating motor disorders, like ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) or locked-in syndrome, that can impair their ability to speak,” said Gregory Cogan, Ph.D., a professor of neurology at Duke University’s School of Medicine and one of the lead researchers involved in the project. “But the current tools available to allow them to communicate are generally very slow and cumbersome.”

Imagine listening to an audiobook at half-speed. That’s the best speech decoding rate currently available, which clocks in at about 78 words per minute. People, however, speak around 150 words per minute.

The lag between spoken and decoded speech rates is partially due the relatively few brain activity sensors that can be fused onto a paper-thin piece of material that lays atop the surface of the brain. Fewer sensors provide less decipherable information to decode.

To improve on past limitations, Cogan teamed up with fellow Duke Institute for Brain Sciences faculty member Jonathan Viventi, Ph.D., whose biomedical engineering lab specializes in making high-density, ultra-thin, and flexible brain sensors.

For this project, Viventi and his team packed an impressive 256 microscopic brain sensors onto a postage stamp-sized piece of flexible, medical-grade plastic. Neurons just a grain of sand apart can have wildly different activity patterns when coordinating speech, so it’s necessary to distinguish signals from neighboring brain cells to help make accurate predictions about intended speech.

After fabricating the new implant, Cogan and Viventi teamed up with several Duke University Hospital neurosurgeons, including Derek Southwell, M.D., Ph.D., Nandan Lad, M.D., Ph.D., and Allan Friedman, M.D., who helped recruit four patients to test the implants. The experiment required the researchers to place the device temporarily in patients who were undergoing brain surgery for some other condition, such as  treating Parkinson’s disease or having a tumor removed. Time was limited for Cogan and his team to test drive their device in the OR.

“I like to compare it to a NASCAR pit crew,” Cogan said. “We don’t want to add any extra time to the operating procedure, so we had to be in and out within 15 minutes. As soon as the surgeon and the medical team said ‘Go!’ we rushed into action and the patient performed the task.”

The task was a simple listen-and-repeat activity. Participants heard a series of nonsense words, like “ava,” “kug,” or “vip,” and then spoke each one aloud. The device recorded activity from each patient’s speech motor cortex as it coordinated nearly 100 muscles that move the lips, tongue, jaw, and larynx.

Afterwards, Suseendrakumar Duraivel, the first author of the new report and a biomedical engineering graduate student at Duke, took the neural and speech data from the surgery suite and fed it into a machine learning algorithm to see how accurately it could predict what sound was being made, based only on the brain activity recordings.

For some sounds and participants, like /g/ in the word “gak,”  the decoder got it right 84% of the time when it was the first sound in a string of three that made up a given nonsense word.

Accuracy dropped, though, as the decoder parsed out sounds in the middle or at the end of a nonsense word. It also struggled if two sounds were similar, like /p/ and /b/.

Overall, the decoder was accurate 40% of the time. That may seem like a humble test score, but it was quite impressive given that similar brain-to-speech technical feats require hours or days-worth of data to draw from. The speech decoding algorithm Duraivel used, however, was working with only 90 seconds of spoken data from the 15-minute test.

Duraivel and his mentors are excited about making a cordless version of the device with a recent $2.4M grant from the National Institutes of Health.

“We’re now developing the same kind of recording devices, but without any wires,” Cogan said. “You’d be able to move around, and you wouldn’t have to be tied to an electrical outlet, which is really exciting.”

While their work is encouraging, there’s still a long way to go for Viventi and Cogan’s speech prosthetic to hit the shelves anytime soon.

“We’re at the point where it’s still much slower than natural speech,” Viventi said in a recent Duke Magazine piece about the technology, “but you can see the trajectory where you might be able to get there.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

High-resolution neural recordings improve the accuracy of speech decoding by Suseendrakumar Duraivel, Shervin Rahimpour, Chia-Han Chiang, Michael Trumpis, Charles Wang, Katrina Barth, Stephen C. Harward, Shivanand P. Lad, Allan H. Friedman, Derek G. Southwell, Saurabh R. Sinha, Jonathan Viventi & Gregory B. Cogan. Nature Communications volume 14, Article number: 6938 (2023) DO: Ihttps://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-023-42555-1 Published: 06 November 2023

This paper is open access.

March 6, 2024 Simon Fraser University (SFU) event “The Planetary Politics of AI: Past, Present, and Future” in Vancouver, Canada

This is not a free event; they’ve changed the information about fees/no fees and how the fees are being assessed enough times for me to lose track; check the eventbrite registration page for the latest. Also, there will not be a publicly available recording of the event. (For folks who can’t afford the fees, there’s a contact listed later in this posting.)

First, here’s the “The Planetary Politics of AI: Past, Present, and Future” event information (from a January 10, 2024 Simon Fraser University (SFU) Public Square notice received via email),

The Planetary Politics of AI: Past, Present, and Future

Wednesday, March 6 [2024] | 7:00pm | In-person | Free [Note: This was an error.]

Generative AI has dominated headlines in 2023, but these new technologies rely on a dramatic increase in the extraction of data, human labor, and natural resources. With increasing media manipulation, polarizing discourse, and deep fakes, regulators are struggling to manage new AI.

On March 6th [2024], join renowned author and digital scholar Kate Crawford, as she sits in conversation with SFU’s Wendy Hui Kyong Chun. Together, they will discuss the planetary politics of AI, how we got here, and where it might be going.

A January 11, 2024 SFU Public Square notice (received via email) updates the information about how this isn’t a free event and offers an option for folks who can’t afford the price of a ticket, Note Links have been removed,

The Planetary Politics of AI: Past, Present, and Future

Wednesday, March 6 | 7:00pm | In-person | Paid

Good morning,

We’ve been made aware that yesterday’s newsletter had a mistake, and we thank those who brought it to our attention. The March 6th [2024] event, The Planetary Politics of AI: Past, Present, and Future, is not a free event and has an admission fee for attendance. We apologize for the confusion.

Whenever possible, SFU Public Square’s events are free and open to all, to ensure that the event is as accessible as possible. For this event, there is a paid admission, with a General and Student/Senior Admission option. That being said, if the admission fees are a barrier to access, please email us at psqevent@sfu.ca. Exceptions can be made. [emphasis mine]

Thank you for your understanding!

“The Planetary Politics of AI: Past, Present, and Future” registration webpage on eventbrite offers more information about the speakers and logistics,

Date and time

Starts on Wed, Mar 6, 2024 7:00 PM PST

Location

Djavad Mowafaghian Cinema (SFU Vancouver — Woodward’s Building) 149 W Hastings Street Vancouver, BC V6B 1H7

[See registration page for link to map]

Refund Policy

Refunds up to 7 days before event

About the speakers

Kate Crawfordis a leading international scholar of the social implications of artificial intelligence. She is a Research Professor at USC Annenberg in Los Angeles, a Senior Principal Researcher at MSR in New York, an Honorary Professor at the University of Sydney, and the inaugural Visiting Chair for AI and Justice at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. Her latest book, Atlas of AI (Yale, 2021), won the Sally Hacker Prize from the Society for the History of Technology, the ASSI&T Best Information Science Book Award, and was named one of the best books in 2021 by New Scientist and the Financial Times.

Over her twenty-year research career, she has also produced groundbreaking creative collaborations and visual investigations. Her project Anatomy of an AI System with Vladan Joler is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the V&A in London, and was awarded with the Design of the Year Award in 2019 and included in the Design of the Decades by the Design Museum of London. Her collaboration with the artist Trevor Paglen, Excavating AI, won the Ayrton Prize from the British Society for the History of Science. She has advised policy makers in the United Nations, the White House, and the European Parliament, and she currently leads the Knowing Machines Project, an international research collaboration that investigates the foundations of machine learning. And in 2023, Kate Crawford was named on of the TIME100 list as one of the most influential people in AI.

Wendy Hui Kyong Chun is Simon Fraser University’s Canada 150 Research Chair in New Media, Professor in the School of Communication, and Director of the Digital Democracies Institute. At the Institute, she leads the Mellon-funded Data Fluencies Project, which combines the interpretative traditions of the arts and humanities with critical work in the data sciences to express, imagine, and create innovative engagements with (and resistances to) our data-filled world.

She has studied both Systems Design Engineering and English Literature, which she combines and mutates in her research on digital media. She is author many books, including: Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiber Optics (MIT, 2006), Programmed Visions: Software and Memory (MIT 2011), Updating to Remain the Same: Habitual New Media (MIT 2016), and Discriminating Data: Correlation, Neighborhoods, and the New Politics of Recognition (2021, MIT Press). She has been Professor and Chair of the Department of Modern Culture and Media at Brown University, where she worked for almost two decades and is currently a Visiting Professor. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and has also held fellowships from: the Guggenheim, ACLS, American Academy of Berlin, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard.

I’m wondering if the speakers will be discussing how visual and other arts impact their views on AI and vice versa. Both academics have an interest in the arts as you can see in Crawford’s event bio. As for Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, in my April 23, 2021 posting where if you scroll down to her name, (about 30% of the way down), you’ll see she was involved with “Multimedia & Electronic Music Experiments (MEME),” History of Art and Architecture,” and “Theatre Arts and Performance Studies” at Brown University.

A February 12, 2024 SFU Public Square announcement (received via email), which includes a link to this Speaker’s Spotlight webpage (scroll down), suggests my speculation is incorrect,

For over two decades, Kate Crawford’s work has focused on understanding large scale data systems, machine learning and AI in the wider contexts of history, politics, labor, and the environment.

Her latest book,  Atlas of AI (2021) explores artificial intelligence as the extractive industry of the 21st century, relying on vast amounts of data, human labour, and natural resources. …

One more biographical note about Crawford, she was mentioned here in an April 17, 2015 posting, scroll down to the National Film Board of Canada subhead, then down to Episode 5 ‘Big Data and its Algorithms’ of the Do Not Track documentary; she is one of the interviewees. I’m not sure if that documentary is still accessible online.

Back to the event, to get more details and/or buy a ticket, go to: “The Planetary Politics of AI: Past, Present, and Future” registration webpage.

Or, SFU is hosting its free 2023 Nobel Prize-themed lecture at Science World on March 6, 2024 (see my January 16, 2024 posting and scroll down about 30% of the way for more details).

Health/science journalists/editors: deadline is March 22, 2024 for media boot camp in Boston, Massachusetts

A February 14, 2023 Broad Institute news release presents an exciting opportunity for health/science journalists and editors,

The Broad Institute of MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] and Harvard is now accepting applications for its 2024 Media Boot Camp.

This annual program connects health/science journalists and editors with faculty from the Broad Institute, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, and Harvard’s teaching hospitals for a two-day event exploring the latest advances in genomics and biomedicine. Journalists will explore possible future storylines, gain fundamental background knowledge, and build relationships with researchers. The program format includes presentations, discussions, and lab tours.

The 2024 Media Boot Camp will take place in person at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, MA on Thursday, May 16 and Friday, May 17 (with an evening welcome reception on Wednesday, May 15).

APPLICATION DEADLINE IS FRIDAY, MARCH 22 (5:00 PM US EASTERN TIME).

2024 Boot Camp topics include:

  • Gene editing
  • New approaches for therapeutic delivery  
  • Cancer biology, drug development
  • Data sciences, machine learning
  • Neurobiology (stem cell models of psychiatric disorders)
  • Antibiotic resistance, microbial biology
  • Medical and population genetics, genomic medicine

Current speakers include: Mimi Bandopadhayay, Clare Bernard,Roby Bhattacharyya, Todd Golub, Laura Kiessling, Eric Lander,David Liu, Ralda Nehme,Heidi Rehm, William Sellers, Feng Zhang, with potentially more to come.

This Media Boot Camp is an educational offering. All presentations are on-background.

Hotel accommodations and meals during the program will be provided by the Broad Institute. Attendees must cover travel costs to and from Boston.

Application Process

By Friday, March 22 [2024] (5:00 PM US Eastern time [2 pm PT]), please send at least one paragraph describing your interest in the program and how you hope it will benefit your reporting, as well as three recent news clips, to David Cameron, Director of External Communications, dcameron@broadinstitute.org

Please contact David at dcameron@broadinstitute.org, or 617-714-7184 with any questions.

I couldn’t find details about eligibility, that said, I wish you good luck with your ‘paragraph and three recent clips’ submission.