and the Uploading hyper-rubbish keeps spewing out

“The question is not whether we can upload our brains onto a computer, but what will become of us when we do” says neuroscientist, novelist and composer Michael Graziano in his recent blog. This sort of rubbish about uploading is so easy to write, but so difficult to evidence.

Before rushing out and getting ready to jump into his uploaded world, lets check his level of certainty. One quick things to do is look for words of uncertainty. I did a quick ‘if’ count. I spotted 20. Lets look for ‘might’. I spotted 17. How about the security of his argument. “And my best guess is: yes, almost certainly.”

It’s interesting to see that there is no technical justification behind his claim, except the statement that his is a neuroscientist who has been around for a bit, and a strong reliance on fictitious worlds presented in various movies… as if they have any bearing on reality.

The most sane comments in this page come in the comments after the piece, most of which are a refreshing breeze of common sense. Most pick the piece to pieces.

Can I find a brain booster?

Increasing how well our brain works is one of the key goals of education systems, and for many people it is an on-going drive through life. Many careers involve a need to think more clearly that the competition, to see problems with greater clarity than others or handle more data than the opposition. There are claims that a modest increase in average IQ translates into a noticeable increase in national wealth, and national wealth has linkage with national health. So if you could find a brain boost it would be a no-brainer to use it.

An article in the Guardian eloquently shows just how far we are from achieving that.

In it, Oliver Burkeman checked out the various claims associated with products ranging from brain-food drinks, to on-line mind trainers and electrodes stuck to the head. The end outcome is that the highest achievers are controversial at best. Most are in the snake oil territory, but even the ones that have some claim for success are disputed.

For a brain booster to be worthwhile, the benefit needs to be out of dispute. If you need to have a massive population take the stuff before you can start to see a statistically significant benefit above the random noise of normal, then the effect isn’t very effective.

Interestingly the take home from the piece is that if you really want to boost the brain, then stop using tools that make life easy. Using a sat-nav soon causes you to loose the ability to map read. Using a diary makes you sloppy at remembering where you need to be. It’s just the same as driving to work will reduce your fitness to walk.

To boost the brain you need to use it. There is still no magic fix.

Google: One step closer to an artificial brain – says Smithsonian

Artificial brains always grab attention. And the Smithsonian’s article title points to further progress. Google, with all it’s might, has pushed achievement in an intriguing direction. Image recognition is about as hard as you get for a machine, and tooling up a network of 16,000 computers so this mass capability can teach itself to spot cats is amazing.

Amazing for a number of reasons. One, that it worked, and could then go on to recognise other things as well, such as porpoises. Two, that this takes 16,000 highly capable computers to do a task that our brian does without thinking.

But it does point to possibility. We can now look at what the computre has taught itself to do, learn from that and build the next network in such as way that it can do it better, where better may be faster, more accurately, use less resources… etc.

It’s a long way from creating anything small and simple enough to be useful. It’s a huge way from creating anything that will meet or beat human flexibile capability. Note the claim was an artifical brain, not artificial intelligence…

Remember though that the first computers could do simple maths with small numbers, but occupied a shed… and now look a what you’ve got in your pocket.

Can robots have feelings? BBC clip implies ‘yes’

Can robots have feelings?” asks a BBC web page title… and the answer implied is ‘yes’. Not only that we have a bishop saying they could pray and the more normal voice of Prof Kevin Warwick saying they should have rights and votes.

Let’s remember one thing in the whole of this game. Robots, however clever, are property and not people. They may have useful capabilities, but they will never be culpable. If something goes wrong, if a robot causes damage, it will be the owner who will be in court.

Just because someone has created machines with cute plastic faces doesn’t take away from the fact that robots are machines. We can programme them so that given a specific set of cues the servos move elements of the plastic to resemble a smile. But it is following code, not responding to feeling.

It’s ok to go around creating a career where people expect you to say wild things. Its fun to point a camera at them and capture their crazy comments, but few people who really know the technology well take any of this sort of hype seriously.

Bit of a shame that the BBC puts it up without any counter comments or anything that would resemble sensible debate. What we loose here is a sensible debate of the role that robots could, should and will play in society. We stop asking what it is that will make our societies better, safer and just and turn a serious issue into a joke… or was the idea to present robots as threats.

Let’s marvel at what we are capable of creating – but let’s not go crazy.

Take care not to over interpret fMRI data

Just came across this 2009 artcile on fMRI. Shows interesting activity in the brain of a long-dead salmon.

fMRI has given an incredible insight into the living brain. But as with all tools, fMRI needs to be used with caution and care. Part of that involves making sure that you don’t squeeze the data so hard you end up creating findings that aren’t there!

Read the article – I can’t explain it better than he does…

“Why we are living longer” – are we?

I went to a pair of talks last night. The overall title for the evening was “Why are we living longer”. The title started from an assumption that we are living longer, and looked for the cause.

But I was keen to ask a prior question: “Are we living longer?” And to ask for evidence to support the claim. Ok, if that was established, then we could ask why?

You see, I’m not sure we are living longer. And the talks confirmed my suspicion.

The first speaker, Prof Tom Kirkwood, started with a slide showing a near linear increase in life expectancy for human beings over the last 50 to 60 years. His implication was that this linear increase should go on for ever. He hinted at the possibility. For the UK, life expectancy is now in the high 70s, and increasing.

But hold on. Humans have always had individuals who had life spans into the 70s and 80s. The second speaker, Prof Richard Faragher pointed this out. Research on the age of ancient skeletons found around Europe shows this 70-year lifespans stretch back through millennia. He concluded that we are not living longer.

The issue is who was meant by the ‘we’ in the title. Does it refer to us as individuals or species.

At an individual level, more of us are making it to the 80s and 90s – yes, we are living longer. At a species level, there is no evidence that the number of people entering super old age. The list of established supercentenarians (people over 110) currently contains only 70 names, with only 3 over 114. None are over 115. The record for a human is 122.

I asked for evidence that there is a mass of people about to join the list. There may be hunches, or beliefs or wishes – but as yet no evidence.

The evening was put on by the Medical Journalists’ Association. I’m a member, and I value our goals to make complex matters clear. So let’s be clear. At the moment the evidence that more people will live to 80 and 90 is clear. The evidence that the human species is about to stretch to new lengths is at best unclear – certainly not a certainty.

Yes, individual life expectancy is going up. No, as yet, the human species hasn’t changed.

The issue is more than academic. It rapidly becomes political and financial. For example, if you think the species limits are about to change, then there is a deeply troubling pension problem. If you think that we are going to have more 90-year olds, then yes, there is an issue, but it is of a much lower magnitude.

Correct representation of data is important.

Human futures: A blog

There is nothing new about trying to guess the future. If you can do it well, you can plan with greater certainty.

When it comes to human futures, there are lots of uncertainties, many opportunities and some threats. Having a cool-headed assessment it made harder because few people have all the facts – eg, they many be strong at science, but weak on in the skills needed to see if an idea could seriously get to the market. They many be strong in terms of assessing human desires and aspirations, but weak in terms of seeing which techological possibilities have more hope than hype.

This blog spot aims to navigate through this space, pointing what is wonderful about humans, celebrating the achievements we have made and are continuting to make, and questioning the likely tragectory of our future.