Turning the Brain Up to Eleven

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Neurosurgeon Andres Lozano refers to Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) as “adjusting the dials in the circuits in the brain… being able to go anywhere in the brain and turning areas of the brain up or down to help out patients.”  You can watch a great TED lecture on DBS by Lozano below.

DBS has achieved some amazing results–for instance in relation to Parkinson’s Disease, chronic pain, and depression–often taming intractable medical problems with life-changing results.  (See, for instance, Deep Brain Stimulation for Treatment-Resistant Depression (HTML, PDF).

This blog is concerned with real life, current science that could, even in theory, lead to the development of homo artificialis, which can denote either a biological human whose consciousness has been digitized and instantiated in an artificial body, or an entirely artificial consciousness.  DBS could potentially impact on either possibility, but most obviously it relates to the former–natural humans transferred to artificial bodies.

In this respect, there are several things to note about DBS.

First, the possibility of this type of HA ever existing relies upon the notion that the natural human brain is, in effect, a collection of electro-chemical circuits and that it should be possible to mimic these circuits in a synthetic, electronic or electro-chemical device.  DBS works specifically by dealing with the natural brain as just such a collection of circuits, and one whose functioning is understandable even if we have only an incomplete understanding of it at present.

Second, the technologies which, in aggregate, allow for the development of HA are likely to arise for other, more immediately compelling reasons than maybe, one day, creating artificial bodies.  The profound, potent, practical applications of DBS are an excellent impetus for deepening our understanding of exactly which parts of the brain do what, and how they produce their effects, all of which is essential to the HA enterprise.

Deep Brain Stimulation

Deep Brain Stimulation

And that brings us to the news item that prompts this post, because one other powerful driver of technological innovation is the desire for a more effective military force.  Whatever each of us thinks about the larger role played by the world’s various military forces, it is a fact that one role the military has is to drive innovation.

Anyone with a keen interest in cutting edge technology will have heard of the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, which is the research arm of the Pentagon.  They’ve ventured into HA territory before, for instance as early internet pioneers and with their cybug research program (the fictional progeny of which were featured in my novella Los Angeles Honey), and now they’re at it again.

DARPA wants to make DBS technology portable and reactive in real-time, as Raw Story reports:

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced its Systems-Based Neurotechnology for Emerging Therapies (SUBNETS) initiative this week. Its goal is to discover “the characteristics of distributed neural systems and attempt to develop and apply therapies that incorporate near real-time recording, analysis and stimulation in next-generation devices inspired by current Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS).”

“Deep Brain Stimulation” devices already exists as a therapeutic tool for certain patients who are unresponsive to other therapies. Approximately 100,000 people worldwide currently live with DBS implants, which at this moment are only devices that deliver “electrical stimulation to reduce motor impairment,” but which DARPA believes can also be used to treat depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, Tourette’s, epilepsy, general anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“If SUBNETS is successful, it will advance neuropsychiatry beyond the realm of dialogue-driven observations and resultant trial and error and into the realm of therapy driven by quantifiable characteristics of neural state,” according to Justin Sanchez, DARPA program manager.

“SUBNETS is a push toward innovative, informed and precise neurotechnological therapy to produce major improvements in quality of life for servicemembers and veterans who have very few options with existing therapies,” he said. “These are patients for whom current medical understanding of diseases like chronic pain or fatigue, unmanageable depression or severe post-traumatic stress disorder can’t provide meaningful relief.”

As outlined in the agency’s announcement, this will include devising a means of monitoring soldiers in combat conditions, and applying “deep brain stimulation” in real-time.

What’s the significance of DARPA becoming involved in this precursor technology for HA development?  To elaborate on what Justin Sanchez says in the article, it has the potential to give us a much more sophisticated understanding of how neural states relate to consciousness, mood, mobility, and other aspects of mental functioning.  That may have already been on the horizon of DBS research, but where DARPA gets involved, research tends to accelerate, so whatever DBS has to offer, we may well get to it that much faster.

That said, not every DARPA project results in magical new technologies.  The cybugs were quietly retired, although the program produced some interesting results before that happened.  This new initiative will bear watching to see how it plays out.

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Entire Journal Issue on Mind Uploading (links to all papers)

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In June 2012 the International Journal of Machine Consciousness published a special issue on mind uploading, one of the featured topics here at Homo Artificialis.

International Journal of Machine Consciousness

You can find the original here, and there are links to the introduction and all of the papers below in PDF format:


01 Fundamentals of Whole Brain Emulation

02 A Framework for Approaches to Transfer of a Mind’s Substrate

03 Experimental Research in Whole Brain Emulation: the Need for Innovative In Vivo Measurement Techniques

04 Available Tools for Whole Brain Emulation

05 Electron Imaging Technology for Whole Brain Neural Circuit Mapping

06 Non-Destructive Whole-Brain Monitoring Using Nanorobots: Neural Electrical Data Rate Requirements

07 The Terasem Mind Uploading Experiment

08 Whole-Personality Emulation

09 When Should Two Minds Be Considered Versions of One Another?

10 My Brain, My Mind, and I: Some Philosophical Assumptions of Mind Uploading

11 Seeking Normative Guidelines for Novel Future Forms of Consciousness

12 Trans-Human Cognitive Enhancement, Phenomenal Consciousness and the Extended Mind

13 Why Uploading Will Not Work, or, The Ghosts Haunting Transhumanism

14 Digital Immortality: Self or 0010110?

15 Time, Consciousness, and Mind Uploading

16 Advantages of Artificial Intelligences, Uploads, and Digital Minds

17 Coalescing Minds: Brain Uploading-Related Group Mind Scenarios

Posted in Learning: journals, Synthetic Body: brain | 1 Comment

Media Catch Up With Homo Artificialis: Observer Reports on “Killer Robot” Campaign

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Late in 2012 Homo Artificialis reported on the launch of a campaign to ban autonomous weapons or “killer robots” (see Killer Robots and Real Life Warfare)

A report by the group organizing the campaign, called Losing Humanity: the Case Against Killer Robots, has also been placed in the HA library of free PDF documents. You can read it online or download it.

Killer Robots on a Rampage

Killer Robots on a Rampage

The report and campaign are now beginning to get some media attention elsewhere, although it remains to be seen whether the campaign can gather enough momentum to generate ongoing coverage.


Posted in HA Culture: military, Technology: robotics, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

FDA Approves “Bionic Eye”

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In the United States, the Federal Drug Administration has now approved the Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System, created by Second Sight. It is billed on the company’s site as:

…the world’s first and only approved device intended to restore some functional vision for people suffering from blindness. Argus II is approved for use in the United States and the European Economic Area.

The product page is here.

Argus II, from the Second Sight product page

The Argus II (from the Second Sight product page)

You can watch a video on the New York Times site here.

Screenshot from NYT video

Screenshot from NYT video

An animation on the this page of the Second Sight web site demonstrates the principles involved.

An paper on the interim results of an international trial has been published in Opthalmology (abstract).

See previous Homo Artificialis posts regarding vision:

Posted in Synthetic Body: organs, Synthetic Body: senses, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Killer Robots and Real-Life Warfare

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Earlier this month HA reported that four British professional and scientific bodies had issued a joint report regarding their concerns about the potential pitfalls of augmented humanity (British Academies Raise Alarm About ‘Souped-Up’ Humanity).

Now Human Rights Watch has issued a 50-page report urging national and international legislation pre-emptively banning “killer robots,” by which they mean weapons of war that are able to autonomously make life-and-death decisions with no input from a human being.

As with the report on human augmentation, I have made the Killer Robots report available as a free, downloadable PDF in the Homo Artificialis Library (HAL), filed under Ethics and Homo Artificialis.

As Raw Story reports in its news item on the report, the weapons in question aren’t yet deployed, but they are in development:

Such weapons do not yet exist, and major powers, including the US, have not decided to deploy them. But precursors are already being developed. The US, China, Germany, Israel, South Korea, Russia, and Britain are engaged in researching and developing such weapons.

The Report, wisely, not only proposes legislative solutions, which can sometimes reflect the realities of the political landscape more than the issue at hand, but also a grassroots approach rooted in professional ethics, urging roboticists themselves to generate a code of conduct, tasking them to:

Establish a professional code of conduct governing the research and development of autonomous robotic weapons, especially those capable of becoming fully autonomous, in order to ensure that legal and ethical concerns about their use in armed conflict are adequately considered at all stages of technological development.

Military applications of advanced technology are inevitable–indeed, much advanced technology begins life as a military project, for instance within the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). This has several consequences, among them:

  • as with any technology, there is the potential for error or abuse, but because of the military context this can result in serious injury or death,
  • there is likely to continue to be a trickle-down effect in which military applications migrate to civilian applications, like law enforcement and civil security, that also have the potential for error or abuse resulting in serious injury or death, and
  • the first two issues raise the possibility for an alarmist backlash that ends up limititing the positive, beneficial effects such technology can have (and, as we know from laws ostensibly intended to curb the pirating of intellectual property, we are sometimes likely to get all the bad consequences of such a measure without it actually accomplishing its stated goal).

Many readers of this page are, on balance, optimists regarding the life-enhancing potential of technology. Clearly, though, recognizing the immense benefits that have come from technology and that will continue to flow from it shouldn’t mean being naive regarding possible negative consequences. If those consequences are going to be minimized (along with the potential anti-technological backlash) then we have to engage with these issues in a constructive way.

I haven’t yet read the report, so I haven’t decided if it’s sensible and constructive, alarmist and over-reaching, or a bit of both, but if we’re going to act constructively then killer robots isn’t a bad place to start.

You can watch the Human Rights Watch video on the topic, below.

Click image to go to the Homo Artificialis Library (HAL)

Click image to go to the Homo Artificialis Library (HAL)

Posted in HA Culture: military, Technology: robotics, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

British Academies Raise the Alarm About “Souped-Up” Humanity

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Four British professional and scientific bodies–the Academy of Medical Sciences, the British Academy, the Royal Academy of Engineering, and the Royal Society–have gone public with their alarm over the potential pitfalls of augmented humanity in a joint report entitled Human Enhancement and the Future of Work. (BBC news item, Telegraph news item)

Illustration of augmentation attributed to the fictional company Serif Industries in the game Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Illustration of augmentation attributed to the fictional company Sarif Industries in the game Deus Ex: Human Revolution

The report may be alarmist–I’ll know better once I’ve had a chance to read it–but whatever else it does, it underscores a genuine issue: technologies to enhance natural human beings and create artificial ones are advancing far more rapidly than our practical framework for thinking about them.

I don’t mean our technological thought, I mean our social, political, and philosophical thought. We need–very quickly–to create a far more developed outlook on how these technical advances will affect other aspects of our lives.

If we look just at the issue of longevity, the issues proliferate quickly:

  • What will happen to actuarial science and the insurance industry when human lifespan advances far more dramatically than it’s done in the past and over a relatively short period of time?
  • What happens to the time scales of other social instituations, such a prison sentences, when human lifespan is significantly increased? Does five years in prison have the same meaning if I live twice as long?
  • What happens to human attitudes toward risk-taking (in many different spheres) in a world of drastically extended lives? Will I be less willing to engage in risky activity if I know that what I stand to lose isn’t another twenty years of life but another hundred?
  • How will increased lifespan affect our patterns of work, training, and retirement over the span of our lives?
  • How might it change the shape of the family when grandparents–and even great-grandparents–are youthful,  healthy, and capable of working and caring for children? Will our ability to conceive and bear children also be extended, and if so, how will that affect the structure of the family?
  • And how will increased lifespan interact with changes arising from other quarters? The traditional family structure may change as lifespan and vitality are extended, but it’s already changing for other reasons, for instance as attitudes toward gay and lesbian marriage and parenthood evolve. Changes in longevity might well mix with changes that spring from other sources in ways that are difficult to predict until both changes are in effect and have a chance to affect one another.

If you want to go beyond pre-digested news items, none of which seem to link to the report itself, I’ve made it available in the Homo Artificialis Library (HAL) under the subheading Homo Artificialis at Work.

Human Enhancement and the Future of Work - click image to go to the Homo Artificialis Library (HAL)

Click image to go to the Homo Artificialis Library (HAL)

Posted in HA Culture: futurism, Technology: robotics, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

What Technology Is Best At

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What is technology best at?

Producing goods? Overcoming obstacles? Wreaking destruction?

What technology is best at is making real magic. Like alchemy or wizardry, only genuine.

It’s morally neutral. It can do this for good or ill. Today I want to talk about the good.

The real science being done today is more advanced than many people realize and that brings even the most difficult goals tantalizingly close, including enhanced human intelligence and radically extended healthy human life. Just look at recent posts on:

But the entire venture of technologizing humanity will fail in important ways if, in looking toward lofty goals like these, we lose sight of other goals that are equally important even if they’re more prosaic. Simple (but difficult) things like:

defusing the causes of much of human disfigurement and disability: war, poverty, and inequality.

devoting our resources toward making sure that technology is used not just so that a few people can reach the highest heights, but also to make sure that everyone can reach at least a basic minimum of physical and intellectual functionality.

It’s with that in mind that I want to introduce you to Jaipur Foot, the nickname of a non-profit organization whose full name is Bhagwan Mahaveer Viklang Sahayata Samiti. (It’s also non-religious, non-sectarian, and non-political.)

Jaipur Foot is the largest organization for the handicapped in the world, providing custom-made artificial limbs and other aids and appliances for free in 25 countries, including India (where it started).

So far it has benefitted more than 1 million people, without  payment, without paperwork, and without delay. As its proponents are fond of saying: in the morning people crawl in, or are carried in, and later that day they walk out.

Recipients of free artificial limbs in Lebanon, just one of 25 countries where Jaipur Foot has operated.

Recipients of free artificial limbs in Lebanon, just one of 25 countries where Jaipur Foot has operated.

The program is the brainchild of D.R. Mehta, a former chairman of Securities and Exchange Board of India, who now works as a full time volunteer for the group. It operates based on donations and it supplies each prosthetic limb at a cost (to itself, not to the person getting the limb) of about $45.00, so even a small donation goes a very long way. If you’re of a mind to donate you can find out how on the group’s web site.

You want to see what technology is best at?  Watch the video.

Posted in Technology: prosthetics + implants | Tagged , | Leave a comment