A Machine that can Read Minds?

Oneirology is the scientific study of dreams. It’s widely considered a protoscience, or a promising field of study that has yet to be firmly established. New research could change all that though. In fact, it could change a lot of things. What if technology existed that could read dreams? What if these “natural movies” could read entire minds?

What are Natural Movies?

Scientists at UC Berkeley recently created a computer program that can “translate brain wave patterns into a moving image.” They call these images “Natural Movies.”

In order to get these Natural Movies, subjects watched hours of Youtube videos inside a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine. In the process, the MRI recorded the ways in which the subjects’ brains processed the visual imagery. The research team used this information to develop a computer program “that matched features of the videos – like colors, shapes, and movements – with patterns of brain activity.”

Afterward, the program was tested in reverse. The team “fed the computer 18 million one-second YouTube clips that the participants had never seen.” The program then attempted to reconstruct the clips using other YouTube scenes as well as the information provided by the subjects’ brain activity. This video shows some of these results. The movie on the left is a series of Youtube clips. The movie on the right is the reconstructed Natural Movie. The Natural Movie is blurry because it layers “all the YouTube clips that matched the subject’s brain activity pattern.”

“This is a major leap toward reconstructing internal imagery. We are opening a window into the movies in our minds.” ~ Jack Gallant, Professor of Psychology

The Future of Natural Movies?

Of course, this research is in its infancy. The UC Berkeley study only measured a small amount of total brain activity. More models will be needed to encompass the entire visual system and more computers will be required to analyze the data. And ultimately, our ability to record and watch inner imagery like dreams, memories, or thoughts will depend on “how close those abstract visual experiences are to the real thing.” Still, it looks promising.

“If you can decode movies people saw, you might be able to decode things in the brain that are movie-like but have no real-world analog, like dreams.” ~ Jack Gallant

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

This research is straight out of a science fiction novel and could end up having enormous ramifications on life as we know it. Natural movies could enable paralyzed individuals to communicate movements through visual thoughts, allowing machines to make those movements a reality. The Pensieve from the Harry Potter series, which enabled one to store and recall memories, could become a reality.

Unfortunately, natural movies could also become a nightmare. It might be used in harmful ways we can’t even begin to imagine. Even the researchers themselves seem a bit nervous about the whole thing.

“It is possible that decoding brain activity could have serious ethical and privacy implications downstream in, say, the 30-year time frame. As an analogy, consider the current debates regarding availability of genetic information. Genetic sequencing is becoming cheaper by the year, and it will soon be possible for everyone to have their own genome sequenced. This raises many issues regarding privacy and the accessibility of individual genetic information. The authors believe strongly that no one should be subjected to any form of brain-reading process involuntarily, covertly, or without complete informed consent. ~ Shinji Nishimoto, An T. Vu, Thomas Naselaris, Yuval Benjamini, Bin Yu & Jack L. Gallant: Reconstructing Visual Experiences from Brain Activity Evoked by Natural Movies

Will this research benefit mankind? Or will it lead to a future straight out of Minority Report? Only time will tell.

Inorganic Life?

Life as we know it derives from organic compounds. Or does it? Can inorganic life exist?

Inorganic Life?

Carbon is the basis for all organic compounds and thus, all life on earth. Compounds that lack carbon are considered inorganic and thus, inanimate. However, for many years scientists have speculated on the possibility of unknown lifeforms, some of which might not be organic in nature.

Recently, a team led by Professor Lee Cronin at Glasgow University demonstrated a new methodology designed to “create life from inorganic chemicals.” In other words, metal-based life.

“What we are trying do is create self-replicating, evolving, inorganic cells that would essentially be alive. You could call it inorganic biology.” ~ Professor Lee Cronin

How do you Create Inorganic Life?

The process, as reported by New Scientist, revolves around developing a self-assembling cell-like sphere.

“Cronin and his team begin by creating salts from negatively charged ions of the large metal oxides bound to a small positively charged ion such as hydrogen or sodium. A solution of this salt is squirted into another salt solution made of large, positively charged organic ions bound to small negative ones.”

“When the two salts meet, they swap parts and the large metal oxides end up partnered with the large organic ions. The new salt is insoluble in water: it precipitates as a shell around the injected solution.”

These shells are called iCHELLs. Cronin has managed to create internal membranes within the iCHELLs, allowing materials and energy to flow through them in ways that are similar to those used by organic cells. But he doesn’t intend to stop there.

“I am 100 per cent positive that we can get evolution to work outside organic biology.” ~ Professor Lee Cronin

Cronin wants to create “fully inorganic self-replicating entities.” In other words, inorganic life. This is no easy task and many scientists are skeptical, pointing out that the iCHELLs will never be “alive” without DNA or something similar which could enable self-replication and evolution.

Currently, he’s subjecting the iCHELLs to tubes filled with chemicals at different pH levels. The goal is to ascertain whether or not the cells can self-modify in order to adapt to different environments. While he hasn’t prepared a formal statement yet, early results appear promising.

“I think we have just shown the first droplets that can evolve.” ~ Professor Lee Cronin

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

If successful, Cronin’s work could eventually be used “in all sorts of applications in medicine, as sensors or to confine chemical reactions.” Also, it would help us to search for new types of life on this planet…and elsewhere.

“There is every possibility that there are life forms out there which aren’t based on carbon. On Mercury, the materials are all different. There might be a creature made of inorganic elements.” ~ Tadashi Sugawara, University of Tokyo, Japan

The Turing Test?

In 1950, Alan Turing wanted to answer the question, “Can machines think?” However, due to the difficulties involved in defining exactly what constitutes “thinking,” he chose to answer a closely related question: “Are there imaginable digital computers which would do well in the imitation game?” This question, which is known popularly as the “Turing Test,” has become the most famous test in the field of artificial intelligence. Recently, a piece of software known as Cleverbot took the “Turing Test.” How did it fare?

What was the Turing Test?

The “Turing Test” was first discussed in Alan Turing’s paper, Computing Machinery and Intelligence. The basic idea is to measure the ability of a machine to mimic intelligence. If a human engages in separate text-only conversations with another human and a machine and is unable to tell which is which, the machine passes the test.

Recently, a piece of software known as Cleverbot was put to the Turing Test. Thirty volunteers at the Techniche festival in India held on-line conversations for four-minutes. Half of the participants spoke to a human, half spoke to Cleverbot. The conversations were displayed for an audience. Afterward, the volunteers and the audience voted on whether the responses were spoken by Cleverbot or by a human. Out of 1,334 votes, Cleverbot was believed to be human 59.3% of the time. Sadly, the actual humans only rated 63.3%.

“The world had better decide rather than me – it’s either passed or it’s come very close in this particular test.” Rollo Carpenter, Cleverbot Developer

Cleverbot doesn’t “think,” at least not in the way we would define the word. Instead, it bases its answers on records of its previous conversations. The version used in the test runs 42 searches before furnishing an answer. Still, since Cleverbot fooled people more than half the time, it arguably passed the Turing Test. So, does that mean that artificial intelligence has passed some sort of threshold?

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

The answer is a definite “sort of.” Although Cleverbot managed to fool the participants and spectators, this represents a very small segment of the population. More importantly, there’s obviously a large difference between how Cleverbot operates and the way a human thinks. Still, Cleverbot does learn from previous conversations and this is obviously a form of intelligence.

If you’d like to give a “less intelligent” version of Cleverbot a try, check it out here. While the real machine chose from 42 separate answers, this version only gets three choices. Here’s a snapshot of my own conversation with Cleverbot. You can decide for yourself how well it did.

Cleverbot: My favorite color is blue.

User: Why?

Cleverbot: Because purple is the color of royalty.

User: But you said blue before.

Cleverbot: That wasn’t me. I was someone else that you were talking to.

Well, nobody’s perfect.

The Cryonics Man?

On January 12, 1967, Dr. James Bedford passed away. A few hours later, he became the first person in history to have his body frozen with intent of future resuscitation. So, where is the Cryonics Man today?

The Strange Science of Cryonics?

Cryonics is the science of freezing a deceased subject in the hopes of reviving that same subject in the future. The idea is to keep the subject in a state of preservation until technology advancements allow for resuscitation as well as a cure for whatever killed the subject in the first place. While cryonics procedures currently take place after death, suspended animation, similar to the phenomenon of human hibernation, may someday be possible. Regardless, cryonics supporters believe that they can ultimately cheat death.

Cryonics is a very new and somewhat controversial science. Most historians trace it to Robert Ettinger’s 1962 book, The Prospect of Immortality. While Ettinger was probably more influential, Evan Cooper deserves much credit for his work, Immortality: Physically, Scientifically, Now, as well as for his founding of the Life Extension Society.

The First Cryonics Patient?

In June 1965, the Life Extension Society announced a strange promotion that took the world by storm. It offered to cryopreserve a single subject, free of charge. At the time, Dr. James Bedford was a psychology professor at the University of California. He suffered from a terminal case of kidney cancer. He submitted an application and was subsequently selected as the promotion winner. Eighteen months later, on January 12, 1967, Dr. Bedford died. A few hours later, his body was frozen by Robert Prehoda, Dr. Dante Brunol, and Robert Nelson. That day, Dr. Bedford became the first cryonics patient in history.

The Cryonics Man created much excitement and Robert Nelson’s organization, the Cryonics Society of California (CSC), began taking on additional patients. This lasted until 1979. In what would become known as the Chatsworth Disaster, nine cryonics patients maintained by the CSC were discovered to have thawed due to a lack of funds. Understandably, the growth of the cryonics industry slowed in the aftermath. But what happened to Robert Nelson’s first patient, Dr. James Bedford? Was he thawed at Chatsworth?

Where is the Cryonics Man today?

Fortunately, Dr. Bedford had been transferred to a separate facility just six days after being frozen. Thus, his body escaped the Chatsworth Disaster. Since his death, he has been on quite the journey. He spent two years at the Cryo-Care facility in Arizona, four years at the Galiso facility in California, four years at Trans Time, and five years being kept privately by his son. In 1982, he was moved to his current residence at Alcor Life Extension Foundation. Dr. Bedford remains the only person frozen prior to 1973 that remains frozen today.

Cryonics is often viewed as a LIFO science. In other words, “Last In, First Out.” Preservation technologies should continue to improve, making future patients easier to revive. It will take additional scientific advancements to revive earlier subjects who were preserved with more primitive techniques. This is undoubtedly the case for Dr. Bedford. His brain was injected with DMSO rather than the anti-freeze products used today. Thus, it probably wasn’t well-protected from ice formation. Still, a 1991 report prepared by Alcor states that “it seems likely that his external temperature has remained at relatively low subzero temperatures throughout the storage interval.”

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

Despite the promise of cryonics, it is not widely used today, thanks to the large expense required to maintain care. In order to avoid another Chatsworth, cryonics companies require full payment for all future storage costs, which could range for decades or even centuries. Alcor charges as much as $200,000 for whole body cryopreservation. Head and brain preservation only is still pretty steep at $80,000. It should be noted that life insurance is an option to spread out the cost over time.

Due in part to the steep cost, there are only some 200 human cryonic subjects today, with 106 and 103 maintained by the Alcor Life Extension Foundation and the Cryonics Institute, respectively. KrioRus, located in Russia, maintains 17 human subjects while Trans Time hosts 3 subjects. However, I expect these numbers to rise dramatically in the future as more and more people seek out extended lifespans. Centuries from now, those who seek out cryonics treatment may someday reawaken, a second chance of life at their fingertips. And when they do, they’ll have one man to thank for leading the way…the Cryonics Man, Dr. James Bedford.