December 14, 2012
There are times when I wonder why so many scientists are spending so much time trying to recreate something as fickle and full of fogginess as the human brain.
But who am I kidding? Those dyspeptic moments inevitably pass, as anyone who’s been following this blog knows. Every few months, it seems, I’m back writing about the latest attempt to build machines that can learn to recognize objects or even develop cognitive skills.
And now there’s Spaun.
Staying on task
Its full name is the Semantic Pointer Architecture Unified Network, but Spaun sounds way more epic. It’s the latest version of a techno brain, the creation of a Canadian research team at the University of Waterloo.
So what makes Spaun different from a mindboggingly smart artificial brain like IBM’s Watson? Put simply, Watson is designed to work like a supremely powerful search engine, digging through an enormous amount of data at breakneck speed and using complex algorithms to derive an answer. It doesn’t really care about how the process works; it’s mainly about mastering information retrieval.
But Spaun tries to actually mimic the human brain’s behavior and does so by performing a series of tasks, all different from each other. It’s a computer model that can not only recognize numbers with its virtual eye and remember them, but also can manipulate a robotic arm to write them down.
Spaun’s “brain” is divided into two parts, loosely based on our cerebral cortex and basal ganglia and its simulated 2.5 million neurons–our brains have 100 billion–are designed to mimic how researchers think those two parts of the brain interact.
Say, for instance, that its “eye” sees a series of numbers. The artificial neurons take that visual data and route it into the cortex where Spaun uses it to perform a number of different tasks, such as counting, copying the figures, or solving number puzzles.
Soon it will be forgetting birthdays
But there’s been an interesting twist to Spaun’s behavior. As Francie Diep wrote in Tech News Daily, it became more human than its creators expected.
Ask it a question and it doesn’t answer immediately. No, it pauses slightly, about as long as a human might. And if you give Spaun a long list of numbers to remember, it has an easier time recalling the ones it received first and last, but struggles a bit to remember the ones in the middle.
“There are some fairly subtle details of human behavior that the model does capture,” says Chris Eliasmith, Spaun’s chief inventor. “It’s definitely not on the same scale. But it gives a flavor of a lot of different things brains can do.”
The fact that Spaun can move from one task to another brings us one step closer to being able to understand how our brains are able to shift so effortlessly from reading a note to memorizing a phone number to telling our hand to open a door.
And that could help scientists equip robots with the ability to be more flexible thinkers, to adjust on the fly. Also, because Spaun operates more like a human brain, researchers could use it to run health experiments that they couldn’t do on humans.
Recently, for instance, Eliasmith ran a test in which he killed off the neurons in a brain model at the same rate that neurons die in people as they age. He wanted to see how the loss of neurons affected the model’s performance on an intelligence test.
One thing Eliasmith hasn’t been able to do is to get Spaun to recognize if it’s doing a good or a bad job. He’s working on it.
Here are a few other recent developments in brain research and artificial intelligence:
- I can’t get this song out of your head: Scientists in Berlin wired guitarists playing a duet with electrodes and found that when they had to closely coordinate their playing, their brain activity became synchronized. But when they weren’t coordinated, when one was leading and the other following, their brain activity was distinctly different.
- One day the brain may actually understand itself: A team of MIT neuroscientists has developed a way to monitor how brain cells coordinate with each other to control specific behaviors, such as telling the body to move. Not only could this help them map brain circuits to see how tasks are carried out, but it also may provide insight into how psychiatric diseases develop.
- Deep thinking is so yesterday: The top prize in a recent competition sponsored by pharmaceutical giant Merck went to a team of researchers from the University of Toronto who used a form of artificial intelligence known as deep learning to help discover molecules that could become new drugs.
- So robots will learn how to stare at smart phones?: To teach robots how to function in social situations, scientists at Carnegie-Mellon University are tracking groups of people with head-mounted cameras to see when and where their eyes converge in social settings.
- Unfortunately, they keep trying to hide nuts: By using the deceptive behavior of birds and squirrels as a model, researchers at Georgia Tech have been able to develop robots that can trick each other.
Video bonus: Check out a demo of Spaun in action.
More from Smithsonian.com
November 5, 2012
A vote in tomorrow’s presidential election could be viewed one of two ways.
It’s either the culmination of months of weighing the arguments on countless issues and making a choice based on a commingling of knowledge and personal principle.
Or you voted Republican or Democratic because, to paraphrase accidental pundit Lady Gaga, you were born that way.
Okay, in the spirit of punditry, the latter is a bit of an oversimplification, but it does reflect the thinking of an emerging field called political neuroscience. Its focus has been on using brain scans to see if people of different political persuasions are different all the way done to their genes.
Or put more bluntly, do their brains work differently?
Right brain, left brain
The latest research came out last week, a study at the University of South Carolina that concluded that the brains of self-identified Democrats and Republicans aren’t hard-wired the same.
Specifically, the scientists found more neural activity in areas of the brain believed to be linked with broad social connectedness in Democrats (friends, the world at-large) and more activity in areas linked with tight social connectedness in the Republicans (family, country).
This was in line with what previous studies have suggested, that people who say they’re Democrats tend to take a more global view on issues while those who call themselves Republicans tend to see things through more of an American filter.
But the findings also ran counter to previous research suggesting Democrats are, by biological nature, more empathetic souls than Republicans. Not so, according to the South Carolina study; it’s just that Republicans are more likely to focus their empathy on family members or people they know.
That’s your amygdala talking
If case you missed it, a study that stirred up much debate last year–done at University College in London–likewise zeroed in on apparent links between political beliefs and brain biology. It found that research subjects who considered themselves conservative tended to have larger amygdala, the section of the brain in the temporal lobes that plays a major role in the processing of emotions.
Self-defined liberals, meanwhile, generally had a larger volume of gray matter in the anterior cingulate cortex, a part of the brain associated with coping with uncertainty and handling conflicting information.
One of the study’s authors, Ryota Kanai, cautioned against jumping to conclusions. The scientists found nothing to indicate that political orientation is encoded in the brain, or that brain structure alone can shape the way you vote. But this kind of research, he noted, suggests political beliefs may not develop solely from social experience, that they also could have biological roots.
I think, therefore I scan
Of course, not everyone is impressed with this line of inquiry. Plenty of critics deride the increasing value given to brain scans as scientific evidence. Steven Poole, writing recently on the New Statesman website, referred to it as “neurobollocks.” He argued:
“The human brain, it is said, is the most complex object in the known universe. That a part of it “lights up” on an fMRI scan does not mean the rest is inactive; nor is it obvious what any such lighting-up indicates; nor is it straightforward to infer general lessons about life from experiments conducted under highly artificial conditions.”
And you can guess how this kind of research plays out in the political arena–from liberals claiming it shows they are, by biological definition, rational thinkers who embrace science and are open to outsiders and new ideas, to conservatives saying it reinforces their belief that their principles are deep and heartfelt and that they really are born patriots.
Or consider Chris Mooney, a writer who’s been tilling this ground for a while. Generally, he makes the case, as he did in a piece for The Atlantic earlier this year, that it’s important to understand that our brain wiring plays a role in why we can seem “impervious to facts, logic, and reason” from the other side. But then his book on the subject came out with a title that didn’t exactly genuflect to scientific impartiality: The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science–and Reality.
Can’t we all just get along?
Okay, so let’s assume that there is a connection between biology and belief. You can bet political consultants will be all over this, looking for ways to refine messages and ads so they tap right into the brains of their party faithful.
Andrea Kuszewski, a researcher who has written about political neuroscience, would rather put a positive spin on what it could mean for politics. She says this kind of knowledge could help open up communication, or at least ease hostility between the country’s two major political parties.
“Each side is going to have to recognize that not everyone thinks like them, processes information like them, or values the same types of things,” she wrote last week. “With the state our country is in right now, I don’t think we have any choice but to cowboy up and do whatever needs to be done in order to reach some common ground.”
But Roger Newman-Norlund, author of the South Carolina study mentioned above, believes that while having people of opposing parties understand why they don’t think alike is a good start, he’s not expecting a kumbaya moment any time soon.
“The brain differences could be a result of genetics, experiences, or a combination of both,” he said. “It takes a lot of effort to see the other side and we’re not going to wake up one day and all start getting along.”
Here’s other recent research into the psychology and politics:
- Just don’t shake their baby’s hand: According to a new study published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, scientific evidence supports what every politician knows — people like and trust you more if you shake their hand.
- Why didn’t someone tell the campaigns about this?: A study at the University of Miami came to the conclusion that negative ads are most effective if they’re used in moderation. If they air too often, at least according to the research, they can bring a backlash.
- Text me maybe: Ten percent of people who donated to the presidential campaigns this year did so on their cell phones. Analysis by the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project also found that also found that Democrats were more likely to contribute to President Obama’s campaign either online or through a cellphone, while supporters of Republican Mitt Romney tended to donate through traditional mail, by phone or in person.
- Right face: Using a computer program called FaceGen, UCLA researchers concluded that Republican congresswomen look more “feminine” than their Democratic counterparts.
- The height stuff: In case you didn’t realize it, the taller presidential candidate has won 58 percent of the time. Mitt Romney is 6’2, Barack Obama is 6’1.
Video bonus:When was the last time your toured your brain? Here’s a chance to get inside your head.
Video bonus bonus: And here are 10 things the brain does that it won’t help you understand.
More from Smithsonian.com
October 22, 2012
As we come to the end of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I’ve learned that sometimes you can have too much awareness. A friend died of breast cancer last week and the truth is I didn’t want to hear much more about it.
On second thought, though, maybe it helps to look cancer in the eyes and show that it’s not the monster it can seem to be, that slowly progress continues to be made in moving toward a cure. My friend Trish used to say, “Take that, cancer!” in those times when it seemed that she was winning the battle.
So here’s a “Take that, cancer!” list, 10 ways in which scientists have come one step closer to taming the beast.
1) It’s important to stop cancer cells from talking to each other: That’s what a recent paper written by researchers from Johns Hopkins, Tel Aviv University and Rice University argues. They contend that we need to recognize that tumor cells are a lot smarter and more collaborative than long thought and the key to fighting them is to learn how to interrupt their conversations.
2) And it helps to be able to see inside them: A new MRI technology, being developed at the University of California at San Francisco, could give physicians a better idea of whether or not a particular treatment for tumors is working.
3) Green tea could help fight cancer: A study of breast cancer patients found that those who received a regular treatment of green tea extract had significantly lower tumor growth than those women who didn’t. Scientists said chemicals in green tea called polyphenols appear to inhibit two proteins that promote tumor cell growth and migration. The extract may help prostate cancer patients.
4) So might multivitamins: A clinical trial that followed nearly 15,000 male doctors for more than a decade determined that those who took a multivitamin every day were 8 percent less likely to develop cancer than those who received a placebo. Cancer experts point out, however, that it’s a less effective strategy than a healthy diet, exercise and not smoking.
5) And fasting could make chemo more effective: A study published earlier this year from the University of Southern California at Davis reported that mice that were given only water for two days before chemotherapy treatments experienced more shrinkage of tumors than mice that stayed on their usual diets. The researchers suggested that fasting appears to protect normal cells from chemo’s toxic effects by causing them to focus on internal maintenance instead of growing and reproduction.
6) Could a smart bra replace mammograms?: That’s what testing by a Nevada company named First Warning Systems suggests. It has designed a bra with sensors that measure tiny temperature changes that occur as blood vessels grow and feed tumors. The company says that in three clinical trials involving 650 women, the bra was able to detect the beginnings of tumors as many as six years before imaging would have. The bra could be available in Europe next year and in the U.S. in 2014, pending FDA approval.
7) And could a simple blood test predict breast cancer risk?: According to a team of Boston researchers who analyzed the results of a long-running study, women with high levels of three hormones were more likely to develop breast cancer. If the research is confirmed, it could mean that women could be tested for the hormones every 10 to 20 years to assess their cancer risk.
8) There’s an explanation for the obesity-cancer link: Scientists have long known that obese patients with cancer often have a poorer chance of survival than those at a healthier weight. New research may explain why. A report in the journal Cancer Research suggests that fatty tissue, known as white adipose tissue, contains cells that, once in a tumor, can become part of blood vessels that foster tumor growth.
9) There may be a way to counter “chemo brain”: A clinical study published in Breast Cancer Research and Treatment concluded that women who suffer from “chemo brain,” –cognitive problems that occur during and after cancer treatment–can improve their memory and their mental health through computerized brain training.
10) Finally, could magnets be an answer?: The research is still preliminary, but South Korean scientists are reporting success in using tiny magnets to cause tumor cells to self-destruct. The magnetic therapy, used so far on living fish and bowel cancer cells, involves creating tiny iron nanoparticles attached to anti-bodies produced by the body’s immune system, When they bind to tumor cells and a magnetic field is applied, the molecules can trigger a ”destroy” signal.
Video bonus: Yes, it’s possible to be funny about breast cancer. All it takes is to have a few bare-chested hunks give women a little advice.
More from Smithsonian.com
October 18, 2012
A few months ago Google shared with us another challenge it had taken on. It wasn’t as fanciful as a driverless car or as geekily sexy as augmented reality glasses, but in the end, it could be bigger than both. In fact, it likely will make both of them even more dynamic.
What Google did was create a synthetic brain, or at least the part of it that processes visual information. Technically, it built a mechanical version of a neural network, a small army of 16,000 computer processors that, by working together, was actually able to learn.
At the time, most of the attention focused on what all those machines learned, which mainly was how to identify cats on YouTube. That prompted a lot of yucks and cracks about whether the computers wondered why so many of the cats were flushing toilets.
But Google was going down a path that scientists have been exploring for many years, the idea of using computers to mimick the connections and interactions of human brain cells to the point where the machines actually start learning. The difference is that the search behemoth was able to marshal resources and computing power that few companies can.
The face is familiar
For 10 days, non-stop, 1,000 computers–using those 16,000 processors–examined random thumbnail images taken from 10 million different YouTube videos. And because the neural network was so big–it had more than a billion connections–it was able to learn to identify features on its own, without any real human guidance. Through the massive amount of information it absorbed, the network, by recognizing the relationships between data, basically taught itself the concept of a cat.
Impressive. But in the realm of knowledge, is this cause for great jubilation? Well, yes. Because eventually all the machines working together were able to decide which features of cats merited their attention and which patterns mattered, rather than being told by humans which particular shapes to look for. And from the knowledge gained through much repetition, the neural network was able to create its own digital image of a cat’s face.
That’s a big leap forward for artificial intelligence. It’s also likely to have nice payoffs for Google. One of its researchers who worked on the project, an engineer named Jeff Dean, recently told MIT’s Technology Review that now his group is testing computer models that understand images and text together.
“You give it ‘porpoise” and it gives you pictures of porpoises,” Dean explained. “If you give it a picture of a porpoise, it gives you ‘porpoise’ as a word.”
So Google’s image search could become far less dependent on accompanying text to identify what’s in a photo. And it’s likely to apply the same approach to refining speech recognition by being able to gather extra clues from video.
No question that the ability to use algorithms to absorb and weave together many streams of data, even different types of data, such as sound and images, will help make Google’s driverless car that much more autonomous. Same with Google glasses.
But now a slice of perspective. For all its progress, Google still has a long way to go to measure up to the real thing. Its massive neural network, the one with a billion connections, is, in terms of neurons and synapses, still a million times smaller than the human brain’s visual cortex.
A matter of intelligence
Here are more recent developments in artificial intelligence:
- A bee, or not a bee: A team of British scientists are attempting to create an accurate model of a honeybee’s brain. By reproducing the key systems that make up a bee’s perception, such as vision and scent, the researchers hope to eventually be able to install the artificial bee brain in a small flying robot.
- But does it take the cover into account?: New software called Booksai is using artificial intelligence to give you book recommendations based on the style, tone, mood and genre of things you already know you like to read.
- Do I always look this good?: Scientists at Yale have programmed a robot that can recognize itself in the mirror. In theory, that should make the robot, named Nico, better able to interact with its environment and humans.
- Lost in space no more: Astronomers in Germany have developed an artificial intelligence algorithm to help them chart and explain the structure and dynamics of the universe with amazing accuracy.
- Walk this way: Scientists at MIT have created a wearable intelligent device that creates a real-time map of where you’ve just walked. It’s designed as a tool to help first responders coordinate disaster search and rescue.
Video bonus: In France–where else?–an inventor has created a robot that not only prunes grape vines, but also has the intelligence to memorize the specific needs of each plant. And now it’s learning to pick grapes.
More from Smithsonian.com
September 28, 2012
You and I would look at Wall Street and see the epitome of capitalism, a place where the marketplace, while more manic than in times past, still drives decisions.
But a group of scientists gathering today for a conference in Miami would see it differently. They would argue that if you really want to understand why investors and traders behave the way they do, you need to look inside their brains.
Meet the neuroeconomists, pioneers of sorts in an emerging field based on the notion that financial decisions have their roots in neuron connections. They’re building a science around using brain scans to try to figure out what’s going on when people choose to chase rewards, or conversely, avoid risk. They’re also hoping this will help them understand why people make irrational choices, even when the reasoning part of their minds seems to know better.
My brain says you disgust me
Josh Fischman, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education details some of the observations neuroeconomists have made during their brain imaging experiments. For starters, they say that when people reject what they feel is a lowball offer, a part of their brain associated with disgust, called the insula, gets active. In fact, it’s more active than the part of the brain linked to reasoned calculation, suggesting that in that situation, a person’s negative emotion–to make sure the cheapstake doesn’t win–trumps a more rational one.
Scientists have also analyzed the brain’s response when someone feels they’ve spent too much for something. The region of the brain called the striatum, often linked to rewards, gets particularly active when people overpay because they’re afraid of losing something.
In short, based on what their brains reflected, subjects in the research seemed to be more motivated by the fear of losing than the joy of winning. And that, neuroeconomists contend, could help explain why people will hold on to losing stocks too long–they want to avoid acknowledging a loss.
Still other researchers, such as Brian Knutson at Stanford, found that investors with the greatest appetite for risk had a high level of brain activity in the same section that lights up in an animal when it finds food. These investors tended to experience boosts in their dopamine levels, usually associated with anticipating something pleasurable. And it’s that kind of brain reaction, says Knutson, that can lead to risky behavior.
“By deconstructing why investors get excited, and why they do what they do” Knutson told Bloomberg’s Nikhil Hutheesing. “we will be able to design tools that help people make better decisions.”
Not everyone’s buying into this. In fact, plenty of economists are dubious about how much this approach will really teach us about financial risk and reward. Reading brain scans is hardly a precise science and skeptics say MRI images are so open to interpretation that a researcher can see what they want to see and end up drawing simplistic conclusions about something as complex as human decision-making.
Yet major organizations, such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, haven’t been skittish about investing millions of dollars in neuroeconomics research–although their interest is skewed more toward addictive behavior and why people make bad choices when they clearly understand the benefits of avoiding them.
It may even be able to provide insight into how elderly people make decisions. Says Elisabeth Nielsen, of the National Institute on Aging:
“We’re very interested in decision-making and aging. And that’s not just health decisions but choices about insurance plans and how to manage your retirement savings. Are changes in choices related to the underlying neuorophysiology? Or is it the environment? You won’t know unless you get input from different sciences and that’s what neuroeconomics brings to us.”
Why, brain, why?
Here’s other recent research on how our brain affects our behavior:
- There’s good news and there’s good news: A study at University College in London found that our brains are wired to want good news. Our tendency, the research suggested, is to give more weight to positive things that could happen in the future and discount negative ones. Only when scientists turned off a section of subjects’ brains were they able to evenly consider good and bad potential outcomes.
- But the monkeys also became big fans of “Scarface”: Scientists from Wake Forest and the University of Southern California were able to improve the decision-making skills of monkeys by implanting a small device that stimulated the frontal cortex of their brains. This was after their performance in a matching game had plummeted when they were given a dose of cocaine. The findings encouraged the researchers that an implant might be able to one day help people with damage from dementia, strokes or other brain injuries.
- It’s lonely at the top. But also mellow: Contrary to conventional wisdom, leaders likely feel less stressed than those who work for them. In studying baboons, scientists at Harvard found that the stress hormone cortisol was less prevalent in the primates with higher standing in the troop. Researchers also analyzed the self-reported anxiety levels of military leaders and discovered that the higher an officer’s rank, the lower the stress level they reported. The scientists postulated that it was because the leaders were able to have more control over their lives.
- And that’s why you don’t eat buckets of ice cream: According to a study at the California Institute of Technology, the brain relies on two separate neural networks to make decisions–one that determines the overall value (the risk versus reward) and the other that guides cognitive control to make sure you don’t get carried away with potential rewards.
- Next they’ll suggest we leave pheromones on the sidewalk: It seems that ants can teach us a thing or two about making good decisions. Researchers at Arizona State suggest that the key to not overloading our brains with too information is to follow the example of ants and engage in collective decision-making instead of relying on multi-tasking.
Video bonus: Enough with the ants. Neuroscientist Adam Kepecs explains what rats can teach us about confidence.
More from Smithsonian.com