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Neuralink – which is “developing ultra high bandwidth brain-machine interfaces to connect humans and computers” – is probably a bad idea. If you understand the science behind it, and that’s what you wanted to hear, you can stop reading.The Conversation

But this is an absurdly simple narrative to spin about Neuralink and an unhelpful attitude to have when it comes to understanding the role of technology in the world around us, and what we might do about it. It’s easy to be cynical about everything Silicon Valley does, but sometimes it comes up with something so compelling, fascinating and confounding it cannot be dismissed; or embraced uncritically.

Putting aside the hyperbole and hand-wringing that usually follows announcements like this, Neuralink is a massive idea. It may fundamentally alter how we conceive of what it means to be human and how we communicate and interact with our fellow humans (and non-humans). It might even represent the next step in human evolution.

Neurawhat?

But what exactly is Neuralink? If you have time to read a brilliant 36,400-word explainer by genius Tim Urban, then you can do so here. If you don’t, Davide Valeriani has done an excellent summary right here on The Conversation. However, to borrow a few of Urban’s words, NeuraLink is a “wizard hat for your brain”.

 

Essentially, Neuralink is a company purchased by Elon Musk, the visionary-in-chief behind Tesla, Space X and Hyperloop. But it’s the company’s product that really matters. Neuralink is developing a “whole brain interface”, essentially a network of tiny electrodes linked to your brain that the company envisions will allow us to communicate wirelessly with the world. It would enable us to share our thoughts, fears, hopes and anxieties without demeaning ourselves with written or spoken language.

One consequence of this is that it would allow us to be connected at the biological level to the internet. But it’s who would be connecting back with us, how, where, why and when that are the real questions.

Through his Tesla and Space X ventures, Musk has already ruffled the feathers of some formidable players; namely, the auto, oil and gas industries, not to mention the military-industrial complex. These are feathers that mere mortals dare not ruffle; but Musk has demonstrated a brilliance, stubborn persistence and a knack for revenue generation (if not always the profitability) that emboldens resolve.

However, unlike Tesla and Space X, Neuralink operates in a field where there aren’t any other major players – for now, at least. But Musk has now fired the starting gun for competitors and, as Urban observes, “an eventual neuro-revolution would disrupt almost every industry”.

Part of the human story

There are a number of technological hurdles between Neuralink and its ultimate goal. There is reason to think they can surmount these; and reason to think they won’t.

While Neuralink may ostensibly be lumped in with other AI/big data companies in its branding and general desire to bring humanity kicking and screaming into a brave new world of their making, what it’s really doing isn’t altogether new. Instead, it’s how it’s going about it that makes Neuralink special – and a potentially major player in the next chapter of the human story.

Depending on who you ask, the human story generally goes like this. First, we discovered fire and developed oral language. We turned oral language into writing, and eventually we found a way to turn it into mechanised printing. After a few centuries, we happened upon this thing called electricity, which gave rise to telephones, radios, TVs and eventually personal computers, smart phones – and ultimately the Juicero.

file-20170502-17245-86mpzv.jpg

Fire: a great leap forward. Shutterstock

Over time, phones lost their cords, computers shrunk in size and we figured out ways to make them exponentially more powerful and portable enough to fit in pockets. Eventually, we created virtual realities, and melded our sensate reality with an augmented one.

But if Neuralink were to achieve its goal, it’s hard to predict how this story plays out. The result would be a “whole-brain interface” so complete, frictionless, bio-compatible and powerful that it would feel to users like just another part of their cerebral cortex, limbic and central nervous systems.

A whole-brain interface would give your brain the ability to communicate wirelessly with the cloud, with computers, and with the brains of anyone who has a similar interface in their head. This flow of information between your brain and the outside world would be so easy it would feel the same as your thoughts do right now.

But if that sounds extraordinary, so are the potential problems. First, Neuralink is not like putting an implant in your head designed to manage epileptic seizures, or a pacemaker in your heart. This would be elective surgery on (presumably) healthy people for non-medical purposes. Right there, we’re in a completely different ball park, both legally and ethically.

There seems to be only one person who has done such a thing, and that was a bonkers publicity stunt conducted by a Central American scientist using himself as a research subject. He’s since suffered life threatening complications. Not a ringing endorsement, but not exactly a condemnation of the premise either.

Second, because Neuralink is essentially a communications system there is the small matter of regulation and control. Regardless of where you stand on the whole privacy and surveillance issue (remember Edward Snowden) I cannot imagine a scenario in which there would not be an endless number of governments, advertisers, insurers and marketing folks looking to tap into the very biological core of our cognition to use it as a means of thwarting evildoers and selling you stuff. And what’s not to look forward to with that?

 

And what if the tech normalises to such a point that it becomes mandatory for future generations to have a whole-brain implant at birth to combat illegal or immoral behaviour (however defined)? This obviously opens up a massive set of questions that go far beyond the technical hurdles that might never be cleared. It nonetheless matters that we think about them now.

Brain security

There’s also the issue of security. If we’ve learned one thing from this era of “smart” everything, it’s that “smart” means exploitable. Whether it’s your fridge, your TV, your car, or your insulin pump, once you connect something to something else you’ve just opened up a means for it to be compromised.

Doors are funny like that. They’re not picky about who walks through them, so a door into your head raises some critical security questions. We can only begin to imagine what forms hacking would take when you have a direct line into the minds of others. Would this be the dawn of Cognitive Law? A legal regime that pertains exclusively to that squishy stuff between your ears?

What it really all comes down to is this: across a number of fields at the intersection of law, philosophy, technology and society we are going to need answers to questions no one has yet thought of asking (at least not often enough; and for the right reasons). We have faced, are facing, and will face incredibly complex and overwhelming problems that we may well not like the answers to. But it matters that we ask good questions early and often. If we don’t, they’ll be answered for us.

And so Neuralink is probably a bad idea, but to the first person who fell into a firepit, so was fire. On a long enough time line even the worst ideas need to be reckoned with early on. Now who wants a Juicero?

Christopher Markou, PhD Candidate, Faculty of Law, University of Cambridge

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Categorized in Internet Technology

While 2016 saw its share of chaos, it also produced some outstanding brain science and psych research. This list isn’t meant to be exhaustive (and it's not in any particular order), but is rather a curation of great studies covered here at Neuropsyched. It's also a preview of things to come in the new year for several topics—depression, sleep, pot, stress and memory among them.

Marijuana Compounds Show Promise Against Alzheimer’s   

Researchers at the Salk Institute discovered in 2016 that the main psychoactive compound in marijuana—tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)—and a few other active compounds remove amyloid beta proteins from lab-grown neurons. Amyloid is the toxic protein known to accumulate in the brains of Alzheimer's patients. The compounds also significantly reduced cellular inflammation in the brain, an underlying factor in the disease's progression. While preliminary, the research is an example of what may be gained by studying potential effects of marijuana compounds, and why it's vital we keep the research door open. Definitely more to come on this in 2017.

 

Your Brain’s Capacity Is 10 Times Greater Than Anyone Realized

We credit our brains with a lot of storage capacity and processing power, but research from 2016 hinted that we’ve been nowhere close to estimating their actual capacity. The study showed that the human brain has at least as much capacity as the entire World Wide Web (that's about ten times as much as previously thought), and it could turn out to be more. It’s all about the amazing computing power packed into synapses, the juncture points between neurons, which change in size and shape with more frequency and variation than anyone realized before now, and it’s that uncanny flexibility that holds the key to our vast neural resources. Quoting study co-senior author Terry Sejnowski, “This is a real bombshell in the field of neuroscience.”

Painkillers May Make Chronic Pain Worse

In the unintended consequences category, a study showed that just five days of morphine treatment in rats caused chronic pain that continued for several months by triggering the release of pain signals from cells in the brain and spinal cord. If the findings hold true in humans, they’d help explain the vicious cycle of prescription opioid use. The drugs numb pain at the surface level, but below the surface they may be drawing out how long a patient experiences pain, thereby extending how long the drugs are taken. Since opioid addiction can begin after a relatively short period of time, it’s easy to see how this effect could be contributing to the epidemic of painkiller addiction that's been building for the last 15 years.

Why Sugar Dependency Is Such A Hard Habit To Break

Research in 2016 deconstructed how habits rewire the brain, with one in particular showing that neural “stop” and “go” signals are reversed by habitual exposure to sugar. Not unlike drug addiction, sugar dependency changes how the brain controls electrical signals linked to either pursuing a reward or putting the brakes on the pursuit. The implication is that sugar cravings aren’t just a matter of appetite, but the result of brain changes brought about by habitual exposure to a potently addictive chemical. This is yet more evidence that we’ve been underestimating the effects of sugar for too long. (Another study from the year showed how fructose damages genes underlying memory.)

Finding Genetic Links To Happiness And Depression

One of the largest studies to date seeking genetic links to mood found convincing evidence that how we psychologically experience the world has roots in the genome. More than 190 researchers in 17 countries analyzed genomic data from nearly 300,000 people. The results zeroed in on a handful of genetic variants linked to subjective well-being—the thoughts and feelings we have about the quality of our lives, which psychologists define as a central component of happiness. Other variants were found with links to depression and neuroticism. The next big questions include how these variants interact with our environments, and if depression can be genetically revealed before developing into a full-blown disorder.

First Step Toward A Preventative Alzheimer's Pill

Research in 2016 opened the door to an eventual preventative medication against Alzheimer's, and potentially also other neuro-degenerative diseases like Parkinson's. Scientists from the Baylor College of Medicine, Texas Children’s Hospital and Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine targeted ways of reducing the amount of toxic proteins that accumulate over years in the brains of those who subsequently develop these diseases, specifically the tau protein that's been strongly linked to the development of Alzheimer's. The research is a shift in focus, as most Alzheimer’s studies have concentrated on the later stages of the disease. But in the last several years mounting evidence has pointed to Alzheimer’s developing over the course of decades, which opens the possibility of slowing its progression before irreversible damage is done to a patient’s brain later in life. This study marks a definitive step forward in the treatment of a disease that affects one in every nine people over the age of 65.

How Sleep Apnea Changes The Brain

While it’s difficult to choose a single sleep research study from the year, one in particular stands out to me because it uncovered more precisely the effects of sleep apnea on the brain. Apnea is a growing concern for several reasons, its link to stroke, depression and traffic accidents among them. This study showed how restless nights of interrupted breathing trigger a chemical rollercoaster in the brain by throwing off the neurotransmitters GABA and glutamate. The results, common to apnea sufferers, include a heightened response to stress, lack of concentration and feeling like emotions are teetering on the proverbial cliff. More to come on this as sleep research continues its ascent.

 

Walking Is Deceptively Simple Brain Medicine

In the practical science category, research reinforced the importance of simply taking a walk for a positive brain boost. Among a stack of studies supporting the argument, one from 2016 focused on how walking improves mood even when we’re not expecting any effect. Researchers conducted three experiments on hundreds of people to find out if they’d experience a positive mood boost while walking, without knowing that walking could be the reason. They found that just 12 minutes of walking resulted in an increase in joviality, vigor, attentiveness and self-confidence versus the same time spent sitting. The importance here is to underscore a basic point: some of the best brain tools available to us don’t require money, special training or seeing a doctor. They just require moving.

Facebook's Effect On How The Brain Manages Relationships

Much of the psych research about Facebook has focused on whether it’s a mood enhancer or depression trigger, and you can find studies from 2016 supporting both arguments. The study I’m more interested in asked whether Facebook is changing how we manage relationships. Theoretically, a social media tool that allows us to expand our reach to thousands of people could enable us to turn a corner, cognitively speaking, and go beyond the constraints that have kept human social groups relatively small for centuries. Or not. Maybe a few decades from now we’ll have a different answer, but for the moment it seems that despite big social media numbers, our brains are still calibrated to handle right around 150 overall relationships, and a much smaller number of close relationships. Dunbar's Number holds.

Old-Time Memory Hacks Are Still The Best

Finally, in the rage-against-the-digital-machine category, I really liked a study from 2016 showing why “reminders through association” (or “cue-based reminders”) work so well. It’s all about simple time and place proximity, according to the researchers, and none of the memory hacks require a computer of any sort to work. Crumpled paper, paperclips and well-placed envelopes do the trick darn near flawlessly. As our lives become more complex and stressful, practical science like this becomes more essential.

Source: This article was forbes.com By David DiSalvo

Categorized in Internet Technology

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