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The Possibilities and the Future of Brain Hacking

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For all of man’s scientific and technological advances, the human brain largely remains a mystery. A new Vimeo video, “Master/Mind,” examines the state of research on the human mind and the questions that scientists, ethicists, futurists and others are asking in light of what we’re learning about the mind. The video, a Vimeo Staff Pick, consists of a series of comments from scientists, technologist, futurists and ethicists.

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Automation, robotics and artificial intelligence are developing so rapidly that many people are wondering if some day, man will no longer harness science but rather be controlled by it. As this question weighs heavily on peoples’ mind, there has been a focus on understanding the human brain.

The central issue the video explores is: New technologies are beginning to unlock the brain’s true potential, but at what cost to our humanity?

“We can identify galaxies light years away, but we still haven’t unlocked the mystery of the three pounds of matter that sits between our ears,” President Obama states at the outset of the video’s journey.

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The video shows a recent news report that scientists are seeing neurons change in real-time as events are “recorded” in the brain.

An Organ Of Surreal Complexity

“This is an organ of surreal complexity, and we are just beginning to understand how to even study it,” says Thomas R. Insel, M.D., director of the National Institute of Mental Health.

Sebastian Seung, Ph.D., Princeton Neuroscience Institute professor of computer science, says scientists have speculated that human memories, “the information that makes you, you,” are stored in the connections between the brain’s neurons.

The video examines various approaches to the study of the brain, from the universities to self-taught technology geeks.

The brain consists of 86 billion neurons and the neurons are connected via synapses and other matter. It’s a vast network of connections.

Scientists think synapses record what happens when someone learns something. The video shows what appear to be synapse images.

EEG Detects Brain’s Electrical Activity

Joel Murphy, co-founder of a technology consultancy called OpenBCI, sought to create a low-cost, open source electroencephalography (EEG) system that detects electrical activity in the brain. His partner, Conor Russomanno, found a “how to hack EEG’s” tutorial and was able to do it in one day. “I think everybody is interested in the brain these days,” Russomanno says. Technologies are emerging allowing us to tap in and “figure out what’s going on in there.”

The video examines the laboratory research using electrodes that attach to the human body and allow scientists to monitor fluctuations in electrical activity. Scientists are trying to understand the meaning of these frequencies and relate them to things that people perceive or experience in their everyday lives.

“I think brain computer interfaces are going to be instrumental in human evolution,” Russomanno says.

“Conceivably you could image your brain every two weeks and you would never lose more than two weeks of your experience,” says Russell Hanson, Ph.D., founder of a firm called Brain Backups.

Science Versus Ethics

The video also explores the tension between ethics and science.

Arthur Caplan, Ph.D., director of New York University (NYU) division of medical ethics, says myths throughout history are cautionary about going too far with human knowledge. But in modern times, people have been wondering about controlling new power, be it medical or physics. If we talk about modifying the brain, people worry about losing their identities, Caplan says.

In recent years, science has considered how technology can enhance human capability, such as wearable technology.

Futurist and inventor Raymond Kurzweil says thinking will be a hybrid, biological and non-biological.

Nick Bostrom, Ph.D., author and philosopher, says machine intelligence is the last invention that will need to be made. Machines will eventually be better at inventing than humans. “Once there is super intelligence, the fate of humanity may depend on what this super-intelligence does,” he says.

“Once they go in there (the brain) and tinker, what they are eventually going to do is very crude control and mostly destruction,” says Peter Breggin, M.D., a psychiatrist. “It’s the seat of our humanity, and that’s what they’re tampering with.”

Also read: Research Priorities for Artificial Intelligence — open letter

What Makes Us Human?

A narrator notes near the end of the video that man does not have the ability to do what he is doing if it wasn’t intended in the first place. From the beginning of time, man has worked to control the environment.

“We develop technology to improve the human experience,” Russomanno says. “Whatever we turn into or whatever we become, we need to make sure that we’re still human.”

“It seems to me the brain alterations are closer to changing who we are, so we have to be careful about what we want to be,” Caplan of NYU says.

“What is it about the human brain that could potentially never be replicated artificially?” asks Lydia Fazzio, M.D., founder of biohackers NYC. “To be human is to incorporate a bit of the erratic, of the unpredictable, and that is what I hope continues.”

Image from Shutterstock.

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Bitcoin Giant Bitmain Enters the High Stakes AI Race

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The Sophon, named for a fictional proton-sized supercomputer, could be the tool to train neural networks in data centers worldwide. It is the latest project being developed by Bitmain Technologies Ltd., the bitcoin mining giant that has carved out a dominant position in bitcoin mining.

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Such chips, called application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs), could unleash a new wave of distributed computing, according to Michael Bedford Taylor, a University of Washington professor who studies bitcoin mining and chips.

Sophon is due to debut before the end of the year.

Bitmain Has The Know-How

Bitmain has the background to play a role in the expanding artificial intelligence industry. The company designs the silicon that goes in bitcoin mining equipment, assembles the machines and sells them worldwide, in addition to its own bitcoin mining operation and the ones that it manages for other mining pools.

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Bitmain’s founders are not averse to playing a spoiler role.

Jihan Wu, the co-founder of Bitmain, supports the New York Agreement that seeks to double the bitcoin block size under the SegWit2X proposal, a move that some in the bitcoin community view as an attempt to give the miners control over bitcoin.

Some also believe Wu was behind the recent bitcoin split known as bitcoin cash, which at least one of Bitmain’s miners supported, a contention that Wu has denied. Wu points out that he was among the supporters of Bitcoin Unlimited, an earlier bitcoin scaling proposal that did not get activated.

Why Wu Supports Forks

Wu nonetheless said splits should be allowed. He said a fork is inevitable since people in the bitcoin community do not agree on how to best scale bitcoin.

Wu met Micree Zhan, Bitcoin’s co-founder, when Zhan was running DivaIP in 2010, a company that made a device that allowed a user to stream a TV show on a computer screen.

In 2011, Wu needed a chip designer to build a mining operation and approached Zhan. Zhan first designed an ASIC to run SHA-256, the cryptographic calculation used in bitcoin, at maximum efficiency. It took him six months to finish the job. His first rig, Antminer S1, was ready in November 2013.

Bitmain felt the sting of the 2014 Mt. Gox meltdown. But by 2015, bitcoin’s price bottomed out and later recovered. In the meantime, Bitmain introduced its Antminer S5.

Bitmain now employs 600 people in Beijing.

Also read: Bitmain clarifies its ‘bitcoin cash’ fork position

Ready To Take On Google

Bitmain has since developed a deep learning chip with improved efficiency. Users will be able to build their own models on the ASICs, enabling neural networks to deliver results at a faster pace. Google’s DeepMind unit used this technique to train its AlphaGo artificial intelligence.

Bitmain plans to sell the chips to any company looking to train its own neural nets, including firms like Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu. Bitmain could build its own data centers with thousands of deep learning rigs, renting out the computation power to clients the way it does with bitcoin mines.

Professor Taylor said companies like Bitmain that have excelled in bitcoin mining could take on the Googles and Nvidias since they have developed the skills to survive in an ultra-competitive and highly commoditized industry, and have the system level design expertise and the ability to reduce data center costs.

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Dutch Police Use Augmented Reality to Investigate Crime Scenes

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Dutch police are undertaking an experiment to see if augmented reality can help officers at a crime scene, according to the New Scientist.

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Using an AI system video from the body cameras worn on the officers at the scene will relay back to experts who can guide the officers by making virtual notes which the officers will be able to see via a smartphone or head-mounted device.

Dragos Datcu, principal researcher at augmented reality (AR) company Twnkls in Rotterdam, the Netherlands said:

We now have good enough software and hardware to use augmented reality at crime scenes.

What’s great about the new AI system is the fact that experts can get involved with what the crime scene investigators are doing regardless of where they are located.

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So by viewing the footage that is sent from a camera on the police vest, a chemical specialist in one location can view it while a forensic scientist in another location can too. The system is similar to the popular Pokémon Go smartphone game that has grabbed the attention of millions of people around the world.

Not Suitable for Making an Arrest

However, while the technology may prove beneficial in providing an extra pair of eyes for investigating crime scenes, when it comes to making an actual arrest the technology is not suitable for that just yet.

According to Nick Koeman, innovation adviser from the National Police of the Netherlands, the officers undertaking the AI system trial found the extra information distracting.

Of course, some may simply say that ensuring a complete team is at the scene of a crime would be more beneficial for an investigation; however, that is not always possible due to budget cuts and time constraints.

As such the use of an AI system that can cut down on the number of people involved at a crime scene without sacrificing on the required thoroughness could potentially provide the answer that many police departments are searching for.

Not only that, but by reducing the number of people at a scene it cuts the potential possibility of contaminating evidence. The use of AI gives people the chance to assess the evidence and discover additional clues without being at the crime scene.

AI could also help in court cases by helping to recreate a scene for a jury, but as Michael Buerger, professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green State University in Ohio states, legal challenges are likely to raise when augmented reality (AR) is used in the courts.

Featured image from Shutterstock.

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Apple Patent Reveals Siri-Assisted iMessage P2P Payments Platform

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Apple has filed a patent application for a “virtual assistant in a communication session.” On first glance, application 14/713,410 might scare developers of chat bots and the like, but Apple is specific in the scope of their claims – Siri, their virtual assistant platform, will be able to directly communicate with either user in an iMessage conversation and then be able to act on the instructions given. The other participant of the conversation will not see messages intended to Siri, nor messages sent from Siri to the user activating her. This is somewhat different from current implementations of chat bots and virtual assistants in chat programs, in that the classical chat bot for, say, IRC, would be accessible by most of the users of the chatroom.

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Siri Sharing Location Information Between iMessage Participants

Source: USPTO

Siri will also be able to privately give information requested of the other party, even if the other party has not provided it. In the above image, Siri lets the user know that everyone will arrive within five minutes, clearly flexing the GPS data available to her from the other user’s iPhone. One would assume a massive update to the iMessage user agreement will be necessary, and the privacy implications of voluntarily allowing an AI to be involved in every conversation are clear. However, as shown, the default is for the user to give permission for their location information to be shared. If Siri is ever compromised, so too could every conversation on the famously secure iMessage protocol.

Siri Scheduling Meetings Between Participants

Source: USPTO

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However, Siri is not involved in conversations until she is summoned. She is added as another participant when the user summons her or, presumably, adds her manually. As seen in the image above, she can schedule meetings in addition to her other functionalities. However, perhaps most interesting, and most appetizing for malicious hackers, is the prospect shown in the below image. Users who have their financial details linked to their Apple account (which is to say, most or all users) are able to send money via iMessage at the stroke of a message.

Siri Faciliating P2P Payments in iMessage

Source: USPTO

As you can see, Siri suggests giving the funds via cash, likely due to the small amount. According to the patent application, Siri first figures out what options are available to both party, and then presents options. Both users appear to use Bank of America and Paypal, but Siri recommends cash. Both the illustrations and their descriptions in the application make it unclear which option the user selects, although the logo to the left of the success message indicates that cash was, indeed, used. Also shown are some security features in the actual sending of funds, including a thumb print scan and password. One would assume that Apple Pay will play a role in all this, and speculation has abounded that the new platform is meant to rival the Venmo system.

About a year ago, reports were in circulation that Apple and banks were discussing the implementation of such a system, and indeed this patent was first filed over a year ago. Presumably it will see ratification within the next year or two, supposing that other major AI developers like Microsoft choose not to contest it on some of its broader implications.

Microsoft and Google would surely oppose paying patent licensing fees to Apple in order to instantiate their own AI peer-to-peer payment systems, and for the most part, the patent application seems to indicate that Apple would then have sole dominion over that field. Therefore, with numerous dogs in the fight including Cortana, the future of this patent and/or the platform itself (failure to acquire a patent would not prohibit Apple from creating the platform, necessarily) is still very much up in the air. More is sure to surface in the coming months, and Hacked will keep you posted.

Images from Shutterstock and USPTO.

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