Tag Archives: consciousness

A robot with body image and self awareness

This research is a rather interesting direction for robotics to take (from a July 13, 2022 news item on ScienceDaily),

As every athletic or fashion-conscious person knows, our body image is not always accurate or realistic, but it’s an important piece of information that determines how we function in the world. When you get dressed or play ball, your brain is constantly planning ahead so that you can move your body without bumping, tripping, or falling over.

We humans acquire our body-model as infants, and robots are following suit. A Columbia Engineering team announced today they have created a robot that — for the first time — is able to learn a model of its entire body from scratch, without any human assistance. In a new study published by Science Robotics,, the researchers demonstrate how their robot created a kinematic model of itself, and then used its self-model to plan motion, reach goals, and avoid obstacles in a variety of situations. It even automatically recognized and then compensated for damage to its body.

Courtesy Columbia University School of Engineering and Applied Science

A July 13, 2022 Columbia University news release by Holly Evarts (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the research in more detail, Note: Links have been removed,

Robot watches itself like an an infant exploring itself in a hall of mirrors

The researchers placed a robotic arm inside a circle of five streaming video cameras. The robot watched itself through the cameras as it undulated freely. Like an infant exploring itself for the first time in a hall of mirrors, the robot wiggled and contorted to learn how exactly its body moved in response to various motor commands. After about three hours, the robot stopped. Its internal deep neural network had finished learning the relationship between the robot’s motor actions and the volume it occupied in its environment. 

“We were really curious to see how the robot imagined itself,” said Hod Lipson, professor of mechanical engineering and director of Columbia’s Creative Machines Lab, where the work was done. “But you can’t just peek into a neural network, it’s a black box.” After the researchers struggled with various visualization techniques, the self-image gradually emerged. “It was a sort of gently flickering cloud that appeared to engulf the robot’s three-dimensional body,” said Lipson. “As the robot moved, the flickering cloud gently followed it.” The robot’s self-model was accurate to about 1% of its workspace.

Self-modeling robots will lead to more self-reliant autonomous systems

The ability of robots to model themselves without being assisted by engineers is important for many reasons: Not only does it save labor, but it also allows the robot to keep up with its own wear-and-tear, and even detect and compensate for damage. The authors argue that this ability is important as we need autonomous systems to be more self-reliant. A factory robot, for instance, could detect that something isn’t moving right, and compensate or call for assistance.

“We humans clearly have a notion of self,” explained the study’s first author Boyuan Chen, who led the work and is now an assistant professor at Duke University. “Close your eyes and try to imagine how your own body would move if you were to take some action, such as stretch your arms forward or take a step backward. Somewhere inside our brain we have a notion of self, a self-model that informs us what volume of our immediate surroundings we occupy, and how that volume changes as we move.”

Self-awareness in robots

The work is part of Lipson’s decades-long quest to find ways to grant robots some form of self-awareness.  “Self-modeling is a primitive form of self-awareness,” he explained. “If a robot, animal, or human, has an accurate self-model, it can function better in the world, it can make better decisions, and it has an evolutionary advantage.” 

The researchers are aware of the limits, risks, and controversies surrounding granting machines greater autonomy through self-awareness. Lipson is quick to admit that the kind of self-awareness demonstrated in this study is, as he noted, “trivial compared to that of humans, but you have to start somewhere. We have to go slowly and carefully, so we can reap the benefits while minimizing the risks.”  

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

Fully body visual self-modeling of robot morphologies by Boyuan Chen, Robert Kwiatkowski, Carl Vondrick and Hod Lipson. Science Robotics 13 Jul 2022 Vol 7, Issue 68 DOI: 10.1126/scirobotics.abn1944

This paper is behind a paywall.

If you follow the link to the July 13, 2022 Columbia University news release, you’ll find an approximately 25 min. video of Hod Lipson showing you how they did it. As Lipson notes discussion of self-awareness and sentience is not found in robotics programmes. Plus, there are more details and links if you follow the EurekAlert link.

Should AI algorithms get patents for their inventions and is anyone talking about copyright for texts written by AI algorithms?

A couple of Australian academics have written a comment for the journal Nature, which bears the intriguing subtitle: “The patent system assumes that inventors are human. Inventions devised by machines require their own intellectual property law and an international treaty.” (For the curious, I’ve linked to a few of my previous posts touching on intellectual property [IP], specifically the patent’s fraternal twin, copyright at the end of this piece.)

Before linking to the comment, here’s the May 27, 2022 University of New South Wales (UNCSW) press release (also on EurekAlert but published May 30, 2022) which provides an overview of their thinking on the subject, Note: Links have been removed,

It’s not surprising these days to see new inventions that either incorporate or have benefitted from artificial intelligence (AI) in some way, but what about inventions dreamt up by AI – do we award a patent to a machine?

This is the quandary facing lawmakers around the world with a live test case in the works that its supporters say is the first true example of an AI system named as the sole inventor.

In commentary published in the journal Nature, two leading academics from UNSW Sydney examine the implications of patents being awarded to an AI entity.

Intellectual Property (IP) law specialist Associate Professor Alexandra George and AI expert, Laureate Fellow and Scientia Professor Toby Walsh argue that patent law as it stands is inadequate to deal with such cases and requires legislators to amend laws around IP and patents – laws that have been operating under the same assumptions for hundreds of years.

The case in question revolves around a machine called DABUS (Device for the Autonomous Bootstrapping of Unified Sentience) created by Dr Stephen Thaler, who is president and chief executive of US-based AI firm Imagination Engines. Dr Thaler has named DABUS as the inventor of two products – a food container with a fractal surface that helps with insulation and stacking, and a flashing light for attracting attention in emergencies.

For a short time in Australia, DABUS looked like it might be recognised as the inventor because, in late July 2021, a trial judge accepted Dr Thaler’s appeal against IP Australia’s rejection of the patent application five months earlier. But after the Commissioner of Patents appealed the decision to the Full Court of the Federal Court of Australia, the five-judge panel upheld the appeal, agreeing with the Commissioner that an AI system couldn’t be named the inventor.

A/Prof. George says the attempt to have DABUS awarded a patent for the two inventions instantly creates challenges for existing laws which has only ever considered humans or entities comprised of humans as inventors and patent-holders.

“Even if we do accept that an AI system is the true inventor, the first big problem is ownership. How do you work out who the owner is? An owner needs to be a legal person, and an AI is not recognised as a legal person,” she says.

Ownership is crucial to IP law. Without it there would be little incentive for others to invest in the new inventions to make them a reality.

“Another problem with ownership when it comes to AI-conceived inventions, is even if you could transfer ownership from the AI inventor to a person: is it the original software writer of the AI? Is it a person who has bought the AI and trained it for their own purposes? Or is it the people whose copyrighted material has been fed into the AI to give it all that information?” asks A/Prof. George.

For obvious reasons

Prof. Walsh says what makes AI systems so different to humans is their capacity to learn and store so much more information than an expert ever could. One of the requirements of inventions and patents is that the product or idea is novel, not obvious and is useful.

“There are certain assumptions built into the law that an invention should not be obvious to a knowledgeable person in the field,” Prof. Walsh says.

“Well, what might be obvious to an AI won’t be obvious to a human because AI might have ingested all the human knowledge on this topic, way more than a human could, so the nature of what is obvious changes.”

Prof. Walsh says this isn’t the first time that AI has been instrumental in coming up with new inventions. In the area of drug development, a new antibiotic was created in 2019 – Halicin – that used deep learning to find a chemical compound that was effective against drug-resistant strains of bacteria.

“Halicin was originally meant to treat diabetes, but its effectiveness as an antibiotic was only discovered by AI that was directed to examine a vast catalogue of drugs that could be repurposed as antibiotics. So there’s a mixture of human and machine coming into this discovery.”

Prof. Walsh says in the case of DABUS, it’s not entirely clear whether the system is truly responsible for the inventions.

“There’s lots of involvement of Dr Thaler in these inventions, first in setting up the problem, then guiding the search for the solution to the problem, and then interpreting the result,” Prof. Walsh says.

“But it’s certainly the case that without the system, you wouldn’t have come up with the inventions.”

Change the laws

Either way, both authors argue that governing bodies around the world will need to modernise the legal structures that determine whether or not AI systems can be awarded IP protection. They recommend the introduction of a new ‘sui generis’ form of IP law – which they’ve dubbed ‘AI-IP’ – that would be specifically tailored to the circumstances of AI-generated inventiveness. This, they argue, would be more effective than trying to retrofit and shoehorn AI-inventiveness into existing patent laws.

Looking forward, after examining the legal questions around AI and patent law, the authors are currently working on answering the technical question of how AI is going to be inventing in the future.

Dr Thaler has sought ‘special leave to appeal’ the case concerning DABUS to the High Court of Australia. It remains to be seen whether the High Court will agree to hear it. Meanwhile, the case continues to be fought in multiple other jurisdictions around the world.

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

Artificial intelligence is breaking patent law by Alexandra George & Toby Walsh. Nature (Nature) COMMENT ISSN 1476-4687 (online) 24 May 2022 ISSN 0028-0836 (print) Vol 605 26 May 2022 pp. 616-18 DOI: 10.1038/d41586-022-01391-x

This paper appears to be open access.

The Journey

DABIUS has gotten a patent in one jurisdiction, from an August 8, 2021 article on brandedequity.com,

The patent application listing DABUS as the inventor was filed in patent offices around the world, including the US, Europe, Australia, and South Afica. But only South Africa granted the patent (Australia followed suit a few days later after a court judgment gave the go-ahard [and rejected it several months later]).

Natural person?

This September 27, 2021 article by Miguel Bibe for Inventa covers some of the same ground adding some some discussion of the ‘natural person’ problem,

The patent is for “a food container based on fractal geometry”, and was accepted by the CIPC [Companies and Intellectual Property Commission] on June 24, 2021. The notice of issuance was published in the July 2021 “Patent Journal”.  

South Africa does not have a substantive patent examination system and, instead, requires applicants to merely complete a filing for their inventions. This means that South Africa patent laws do not provide a definition for “inventor” and the office only proceeds with a formal examination in order to confirm if the paperwork was filled correctly.

… according to a press release issued by the University of Surrey: “While patent law in many jurisdictions is very specific in how it defines an inventor, the DABUS team is arguing that the status quo is not fit for purpose in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.”

On the other hand, this may not be considered as a victory for the DABUS team since several doubts and questions remain as to who should be considered the inventor of the patent. Current IP laws in many jurisdictions follow the traditional term of “inventor” as being a “natural person”, and there is no legal precedent in the world for inventions created by a machine.

August 2022 update

Mike Masnick in an August 15, 2022 posting on Techdirt provides the latest information on Stephen Thaler’s efforts to have patents and copyrights awarded to his AI entity, DABUS,

Stephen Thaler is a man on a mission. It’s not a very good mission, but it’s a mission. He created something called DABUS (Device for the Autonomous Bootstrapping of Unified Sentience) and claims that it’s creating things, for which he has tried to file for patents and copyrights around the globe, with his mission being to have DABUS named as the inventor or author. This is dumb for many reasons. The purpose of copyright and patents are to incentivize the creation of these things, by providing to the inventor or author a limited time monopoly, allowing them to, in theory, use that monopoly to make some money, thereby making the entire inventing/authoring process worthwhile. An AI doesn’t need such an incentive. And this is why patents and copyright only are given to persons and not animals or AI.

… Thaler’s somewhat quixotic quest continues to fail. The EU Patent Office rejected his application. The Australian patent office similarly rejected his request. In that case, a court sided with Thaler after he sued the Australian patent office, and said that his AI could be named as an inventor, but thankfully an appeals court set aside that ruling a few months ago. In the US, Thaler/DABUS keeps on losing as well. Last fall, he lost in court as he tried to overturn the USPTO ruling, and then earlier this year, the US Copyright Office also rejected his copyright attempt (something it has done a few times before). In June, he sued the Copyright Office over this, which seems like a long shot.

And now, he’s also lost his appeal of the ruling in the patent case. CAFC, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit — the appeals court that handles all patent appeals — has rejected Thaler’s request just like basically every other patent and copyright office, and nearly all courts.

If you have the time, the August 15, 2022 posting is an interesting read.

Consciousness and ethical AI

Just to make things more fraught, an engineer at Google has claimed that one of their AI chatbots has consciousness. From a June 16, 2022 article (in Canada’s National Post [previewed on epaper]) by Patrick McGee,

Google has ignited a social media firestorm on the the nature of consciousness after placing an engineer on paid leave with his belief that the tech group’s chatbot has become “sentient.”

Blake Lemoine, a senior software engineer in Google’s Responsible AI unit, did not receive much attention when he wrote a Medium post saying he “may be fired soon for doing AI ethics work.”

But a Saturday [June 11, 2022] profile in the Washington Post characterized Lemoine as “the Google engineer who thinks “the company’s AI has come to life.”

This is not the first time that Google has run into a problem with ethics and AI. Famously, Timnit Gebru who co-led (with Margaret Mitchell) Google’s ethics and AI unit departed in 2020. Gebru said (and maintains to this day) she was fired. They said she was ?, they never did make a final statement although after an investigation Gebru did receive an apology. You read more about Gebru and the issues she brought to light in her Wikipedia entry. Coincidentally (or not), Margaret Mitchell was terminated/fired in February 2021 from Google after criticizing the company for Gebru’s ‘firing’. See a February 19, 2021 article by Megan Rose Dickey for TechCrunch for details about what the company has admitted is a firing or Margaret Mitchell’s termination from the company.

Getting back intellectual property and AI.

What about copyright?

There are no mentions of copyright in the earliest material I have here about the ‘creative’ arts and artificial intelligence is this, “Writing and AI or is a robot writing this blog?” posted July 16, 2014. More recently, there’s “Beer and wine reviews, the American Chemical Society’s (ACS) AI editors, and the Turing Test” posted May 20, 2022. The type of writing featured is not literary or typically considered creative writing.

On the more creative front, there’s “True love with AI (artificial intelligence): The Nature of Things explores emotional and creative AI (long read)” posted on December 3, 2021. The literary/creative portion of the post can be found under the ‘AI and creativity’ subhead approximately 30% of the way down and where I mention Douglas Coupland. Again, there’s no mention of copyright.

It’s with the visual arts that copyright gets mentioned. The first one I can find here is “Robot artists—should they get copyright protection” posted on July 10, 2017.

Fun fact: Andres Guadamuz who was mentioned in my posting took to his own blog where he gave my blog a shout out while implying that I wasn’t thoughtful. The gist of his August 8, 2017 posting was that he was misunderstood by many people, which led to the title for his post, “Should academics try to engage the public?” Thankfully, he soldiers on trying to educate us with his TechnoLama blog.

Lastly, there’s this August 16, 2019 posting “AI (artificial intelligence) artist got a show at a New York City art gallery” where you can scroll down to the ‘What about intellectual property?’ subhead about 80% of the way.

You look like a thing …

i am recommending a book for anyone who’d like to learn a little more about how artificial intelligence (AI) works, “You look like a thing and I love you; How Artificial Intelligence Works and Why It’s Making the World a Weirder Place” by Janelle Shane (2019).

It does not require an understanding of programming/coding/algorithms/etc.; Shane makes the subject as accessible as possible and gives you insight into why the term ‘artificial stupidity’ is more applicable than you might think. You can find Shane’s website here and you can find her 10 minute TED talk here.

Nanotechnology at the movies: Transcendence opens April 18, 2014 in the US & Canada

Screenwriter Jack Paglen has an intriguing interpretation of nanotechnology, one he (along with the director) shares in an April 13, 2014 article by Larry Getlen for the NY Post and in his movie, Transcendence. which is opening in the US and Canada on April 18, 2014. First, here are a few of the more general ideas underlying his screenplay,

In “Transcendence” — out Friday [April 18, 2014] and directed by Oscar-winning cinematographer Wally Pfister (“Inception,” “The Dark Knight”) — Johnny Depp plays Dr. Will Caster, an artificial-intelligence researcher who has spent his career trying to design a sentient computer that can hold, and even exceed, the world’s collective intelligence.

After he’s shot by antitechnology activists, his consciousness is uploaded to a computer network just before his body dies.

“The theories associated with the film say that when a strong artificial intelligence wakes up, it will quickly become more intelligent than a human being,” screenwriter Jack Paglen says, referring to a concept known as “the singularity.”

It should be noted that there are anti-technology terrorists. I don’t think I’ve covered that topic in a while so an Aug. 31, 2012 posting is the most recent and, despite the title, “In depth and one year later—the nanotechnology bombings in Mexico” provides an overview of sorts. For a more up-to-date view, you can read Eric Markowitz’s April 9, 2014 article for Vocative.com. I do have one observation about the article where Markowitz has linked some recent protests in San Francisco to the bombings in Mexico. Those protests in San Francisco seem more like a ‘poor vs. the rich’ situation where the rich happen to come from the technology sector.

Getting back to “Transcendence” and singularity, there’s a good Wikipedia entry describing the ideas and some of the thinkers behind the notion of a singularity or technological singularity, as it’s sometimes called (Note: Links have been removed),

The technological singularity, or simply the singularity, is a hypothetical moment in time when artificial intelligence will have progressed to the point of a greater-than-human intelligence, radically changing civilization, and perhaps human nature.[1] Because the capabilities of such an intelligence may be difficult for a human to comprehend, the technological singularity is often seen as an occurrence (akin to a gravitational singularity) beyond which the future course of human history is unpredictable or even unfathomable.

The first use of the term “singularity” in this context was by mathematician John von Neumann. In 1958, regarding a summary of a conversation with von Neumann, Stanislaw Ulam described “ever accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, which gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue”.[2] The term was popularized by science fiction writer Vernor Vinge, who argues that artificial intelligence, human biological enhancement, or brain-computer interfaces could be possible causes of the singularity.[3] Futurist Ray Kurzweil cited von Neumann’s use of the term in a foreword to von Neumann’s classic The Computer and the Brain.

Proponents of the singularity typically postulate an “intelligence explosion”,[4][5] where superintelligences design successive generations of increasingly powerful minds, that might occur very quickly and might not stop until the agent’s cognitive abilities greatly surpass that of any human.

Kurzweil predicts the singularity to occur around 2045[6] whereas Vinge predicts some time before 2030.[7] At the 2012 Singularity Summit, Stuart Armstrong did a study of artificial generalized intelligence (AGI) predictions by experts and found a wide range of predicted dates, with a median value of 2040. His own prediction on reviewing the data is that there is an 80% probability that the singularity will occur between 2017 and 2112.[8]

The ‘technological singularity’ is controversial and contested (from the Wikipedia entry).

In addition to general criticisms of the singularity concept, several critics have raised issues with Kurzweil’s iconic chart. One line of criticism is that a log-log chart of this nature is inherently biased toward a straight-line result. Others identify selection bias in the points that Kurzweil chooses to use. For example, biologist PZ Myers points out that many of the early evolutionary “events” were picked arbitrarily.[104] Kurzweil has rebutted this by charting evolutionary events from 15 neutral sources, and showing that they fit a straight line on a log-log chart. The Economist mocked the concept with a graph extrapolating that the number of blades on a razor, which has increased over the years from one to as many as five, will increase ever-faster to infinity.[105]

By the way, this movie is mentioned briefly in the pop culture portion of the Wikipedia entry.

Getting back to Paglen and his screenplay, here’s more from Getlen’s article,

… as Will’s powers grow, he begins to pull off fantastic achievements, including giving a blind man sight, regenerating his own body and spreading his power to the water and the air.

This conjecture was influenced by nanotechnology, the field of manipulating matter at the scale of a nanometer, or one-billionth of a meter. (By comparison, a human hair is around 70,000-100,000 nanometers wide.)

“In some circles, nanotechnology is the holy grail,” says Paglen, “where we could have microscopic, networked machines [emphasis mine] that would be capable of miracles.”

The potential uses of, and implications for, nanotechnology are vast and widely debated, but many believe the effects could be life-changing.

“When I visited MIT,” says Pfister, “I visited a cancer research institute. They’re talking about the ability of nanotechnology to be injected inside a human body, travel immediately to a cancer cell, and deliver a payload of medicine directly to that cell, eliminating [the need to] poison the whole body with chemo.”

“Nanotechnology could help us live longer, move faster and be stronger. It can possibly cure cancer, and help with all human ailments.”

I find the ‘golly gee wizness’ of Paglen’s and Pfister’s take on nanotechnology disconcerting but they can’t be dismissed. There are projects where people are testing retinal implants which allow them to see again. There is a lot of work in the field of medicine designed to make therapeutic procedures that are gentler on the body by making their actions specific to diseased tissue while ignoring healthy tissue (sadly, this is still not possible). As for human enhancement, I have so many pieces that it has its own category on this blog. I first wrote about it in a four-part series starting with this one: Nanotechnology enables robots and human enhancement: part 1, (You can read the series by scrolling past the end of the posting and clicking on the next part or search the category and pick through the more recent pieces.)

I’m not sure if this error is Paglen’s or Getlen’s but nanotechnology is not “microscopic, networked machines” as Paglen’s quote strongly suggests. Some nanoscale devices could be described as machines (often called nanobots) but there are also nanoparticles, nanotubes, nanowires, and more that cannot be described as machines or devices, for that matter. More importantly, it seems Paglen’s main concern is this,

“One of [science-fiction author] Arthur C. Clarke’s laws is that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. That very quickly would become the case if this happened, because this artificial intelligence would be evolving technologies that we do not understand, and it would be capable of miracles by that definition,” says Paglen. [emphasis mine]

This notion of “evolving technologies that we do not understand” brings to mind a  project that was announced at the University of Cambridge (from my Nov. 26, 2012 posting),

The idea that robots of one kind or another (e.g. nanobots eating up the world and leaving grey goo, Cylons in both versions of Battlestar Galactica trying to exterminate humans, etc.) will take over the world and find humans unnecessary  isn’t especially new in works of fiction. It’s not always mentioned directly but the underlying anxiety often has to do with intelligence and concerns over an ‘explosion of intelligence’. The question it raises,’ what if our machines/creations become more intelligent than humans?’ has been described as existential risk. According to a Nov. 25, 2012 article by Sylvia Hui for Huffington Post, a group of eminent philosophers and scientists at the University of Cambridge are proposing to found a Centre for the Study of Existential Risk,

While I do have some reservations about how Paglen and Pfister describe the science, I appreciate their interest in communicating the scientific ideas, particularly those underlying Paglen’s screenplay.

For anyone who may be concerned about the likelihood of emulating  a human brain and uploading it to a computer, there’s an April 13, 2014 article by Luke Muehlhauser and Stuart Armstrong for Slate discussing that very possibility (Note 1: Links have been removed; Note 2: Armstrong is mentioned in this posting’s excerpt from the Wikipedia entry on Technological Singularity),

Today scientists can’t even emulate the brain of a tiny worm called C. elegans, which has 302 neurons, compared with the human brain’s 86 billion neurons. Using models of expected technological progress on the three key problems, we’d estimate that we wouldn’t be able to emulate human brains until at least 2070 (though this estimate is very uncertain).

But would an emulation of your brain be you, and would it be conscious? Such questions quickly get us into thorny philosophical territory, so we’ll sidestep them for now. For many purposes—estimating the economic impact of brain emulations, for instance—it suffices to know that the brain emulations would have humanlike functionality, regardless of whether the brain emulation would also be conscious.

Paglen/Pfister seem to be equating intelligence (brain power) with consciousness while Muehlhauser/Armstrong simply sidestep the issue. As they (Muehlhauser/Armstrong) note, it’s “thorny.”

If you consider thinkers like David Chalmers who suggest everything has consciousness, then it follows that computers/robots/etc. may not appreciate having a human brain emulation which takes us back into Battlestar Galactica territory. From my March 19, 2014 posting (one of the postings where I recounted various TED 2014 talks in Vancouver), here’s more about David Chalmers,

Finally, I wasn’t expecting to write about David Chalmers so my notes aren’t very good. A philosopher, here’s an excerpt from Chalmers’ TED biography,

In his work, David Chalmers explores the “hard problem of consciousness” — the idea that science can’t ever explain our subjective experience.

David Chalmers is a philosopher at the Australian National University and New York University. He works in philosophy of mind and in related areas of philosophy and cognitive science. While he’s especially known for his theories on consciousness, he’s also interested (and has extensively published) in all sorts of other issues in the foundations of cognitive science, the philosophy of language, metaphysics and epistemology.

Chalmers provided an interesting bookend to a session started with a brain researcher (Nancy Kanwisher) who breaks the brain down into various processing regions (vastly oversimplified but the easiest way to summarize her work in this context). Chalmers reviewed the ‘science of consciousness’ and noted that current work in science tends to be reductionist, i.e., examining parts of things such as brains and that same reductionism has been brought to the question of consciousness.

Rather than trying to prove consciousness, Chalmers proposes that we consider it a fundamental in the same way that we consider time, space, and mass to be fundamental. He noted that there’s precedence for additions and gave the example of James Clerk Maxwell and his proposal to consider electricity and magnetism as fundamental.

Chalmers next suggestion is a little more outré and based on some thinking (sorry I didn’t catch the theorist’s name) that suggests everything, including photons, has a type of consciousness (but not intelligence).

Have a great time at the movie!

Brains, guts, health, and consciouness at TED 2014′s Session 5: Us

While most of the speakers I’m mentioning are the ‘science’ speakers in this session, they are more precisely ‘medical science’ speakers which takes me further than usual out of my comfort zone. That said, Nancy Kanwisher, brain researcher, opened the session (from her TED biography),

Using cutting-edge fMRI technology as her lens, Nancy Kanwisher zooms in on the brain regions responsible for some surprisingly specific elements of cognition.

Does the brain use specialized processors to solve complex problems, or does it rely instead on more general-purpose systems?

This question has been at the crux of brain research for centuries. MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] researcher Nancy Kanwisher seeks to answer this question by discovering a “parts list” for the human mind and brain. “Understanding the nature of the human mind,” she says, “is arguably the greatest intellectual quest of all time.”

As many of us now know courtesy of researchers like Kanwisher, the brain has both general purpose regions and specialized regions for perception and complex processing but Kanwisher’s presentation was as much about the process of discovery as it was about the discoveries she and her colleagues have made. She talked about her personal experiences with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) as she tested (many times) her own brain first and then spent years looking at grayscale images as she decoded what she was observing and tested over and over and over again.

Next came the ‘gut guy’, or as microbial ecologist Rob Knight’s TED biography describes him,

Rob Knight explores the unseen microbial world that exists literally right under our noses — and everywhere else on (and in) our bodies.

Using scatological research methods that might repel the squeamish, microbial researcher Rob Knight uncovers the secret ecosystem (or “microbiome”) of microbes that inhabit our bodies — and the bodies of every creature on earth. In the process, he’s discovered a complex internal ecology that affects everything from weight loss to our susceptibility to disease. As he said to Nature in 2012, “What motivates me, from a pragmatic standpoint, is how understanding the microbial world might help us improve human and environmental health.”

Knight made the case that our microbes are what give us our individuality by noting that 99.99% of our DNA is the same from one person to the next but out microbial communities vary greatly person to person and the community in your mouth varies greatly from the community on your skin. He and his colleagues are using the information to consider new types of medical interventions. For example, research has shown that giving children antibiotics before the age of six months affects their future health.

Interestingly, we carry about 3 lbs. of microbes individually and Knight and his colleagues are still gathering information about those lbs. He mentioned the American Gut project (and solicited future volunteers from the live audience by mentioning he had just happened to bring 100 kits which were available at his table outside). This project is for US participant only.

Stephen Friend, oncologist and open science advocate was featured next. From his TED biography,

Inspired by open-source software models, Sage Bionetworks co-founder Stephen Friend builds tools that facilitate research sharing on a massive and revolutionary scale.

While working for Merck, Stephen Friend became frustrated by the slow pace at which big pharma created new treatments for desperate patients. Studying shared models like Wikipedia, Friend realized that the complexities of disease could only be understood — and combated — with collaboration and transparency, not by isolated scientists working in secret with proprietary data

Friend has a great name for someone who advocates for transparency and openness. He opened with stories about his work and how he came to be inspired to look for health rather than disease. He noted that for the most part, medical research is focused on the question of what went wrong with a patient rather than asking if healthy people have some sort of natural immunity or protection from cancer, Alzheimer’s, etc. Perhaps by examining health people we can find ways to more effectively intervene.

He provided two examples of research that examined natural immunity such as research in San Francisco (California) into why a small but significant percentage of people with HIV never developed AIDS; his other example was regarding research into lipid levels and why some people with high levels never develop heart disease.

I’m a little foggy about this point but I think he made a request for information about these medical phenomena and people from around the world shared their research with him in an open and transparent fashion.

This next bit was clear to me, he and his colleagues are moving to another stage with their research initiative which they have named the Resilience Project; Unexpected Heroes. He too solicited volunteers from the audience. I haven’t been able to locate a website for the project but there maybe some on the Sage Bionetworks website, the organization Friend co-founded. Good luck!

Finally, I wasn’t expecting to write about David Chalmers so my notes aren’t very good. A philosopher, here’s an excerpt from Chalmers’ TED biography,

In his work, David Chalmers explores the “hard problem of consciousness” — the idea that science can’t ever explain our subjective experience.

David Chalmers is a philosopher at the Australian National University and New York University. He works in philosophy of mind and in related areas of philosophy and cognitive science. While he’s especially known for his theories on consciousness, he’s also interested (and has extensively published) in all sorts of other issues in the foundations of cognitive science, the philosophy of language, metaphysics and epistemology.

Chalmers provided an interesting bookend to a session started with a brain researcher (Nancy Kanwisher) who breaks the brain down into various processing regions (vastly oversimplified but the easiest way to summarize her work in this context). Chalmers reviewed the ‘science of consciousness’ and noted that current work in science tends to be reductionist, i.e., examining parts of things such as brains and that same reductionism has been brought to the question of consciousness.

Rather than trying to prove consciousness, Chalmers proposes that we consider it a fundamental in the same way that we consider time, space, and mass to be fundamental. He noted that there’s precedence for additions and gave the example of James Clerk Maxwell and his proposal to consider electricity and magnetism as fundamental.

Chalmers next suggestion is a little more outré and based on some thinking (sorry I didn’t catch the theorist’s name) that suggests everything, including photons, has a type of consciousness (but not intelligence).

Reverse engineering the brain Ray Kurzweil style; funding for neuroprosthetics; a Canadian digital power list for 2009

After much hemming and hawing, I finally got around to reading something about Ray Kurzweil and his ideas in an interview at the H+ site and quite unexpectedly was engaged by his discussion of consciousness. From the interview,

I get very excited about discussions about the true nature of consciousness, because I‘ve been thinking about this issue for literally 50 years, going back to junior high school. And it‘s a very difficult subject. When some article purports to present the neurological basis of consciousness… I read it. And the articles usually start out, “Well, we think that consciousness is caused by…” You know, fill in the blank. And then it goes on with a big extensive examination of that phenomenon. And at the end of the article, I inevitably find myself thinking… where is the link to consciousness? Where is any justification for believing that this phenomenon should cause consciousness? Why would it cause consciousness?

Some scientists say, “Well, it‘s not a scientific issue, therefore it‘s not a real issue. Therefore consciousness is just an illusion and we should not waste time on it.” But we shouldn‘t be too quick to throw it overboard because our whole moral system and ethical system is based on consciousness.

The article is well worth a read  and I have to say I enjoyed his comments about science fiction movies. I’m not enamoured of his notion about trying to reverse engineer brains no matter how ‘mindfully’ done. I suspect I have a fundamental disagreement with many of Kurweil’s ideas which as far as I can tell are profoundly influenced by his experience and success in IT (information technology).

Unlike Kurzweil, I don’t view the brain or genomes as computer codes but I will read more about his work and ideas as he makes me think about some of my unconscious (pun intended) assumptions. (Note: in the H+ article Kurzweil mentions some nanotechnology guidelines from what the interviewers call the Forsyth Institute, I believe Kurzweil was referring to the Foresight Institute’s nanotechnology guidelines found here.)

I guess I’m getting a little blasé about money as I find the $1.6 million US funding awarded to help with neuroprosthetics for returning US soldiers a little on the skimpy side. From the news item on Nanowerk,

The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have left a terrible legacy: more than 1,200 returning American soldiers have lost one or more limbs. To address this growing national need, researchers at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) are laying the groundwork for a new generation of advanced prosthetic limbs that will be fully integrated with the body and nervous system. These implantable neuroprosthetics will look and function like natural limbs, enabling injured soldiers and the more than 2 million other amputees in the United States lead higher quality, more independent lives.

As for making these limbs more natural looking, I find this contrasts a bit with some of Lanfranco Aceti’s work  (I first posted my comments about it here) where he notes that males (under 50) don’t want limbs that look natural. I don’t if he or someone else has followed up with that but it certainly poses an intriguing question about how we may be starting to view our bodies, gender differences and all.

Michael Geist has a 2009 Canadian digital power list on The Tyee website here. I was surprised that Gary Goodyear (Minister of State for Science and Technology) received no mention, given his portfolio.