Friday, March 27, 2015

The Thumb-Brain Connection, and DIY Robots

Scientists learned how using our thumbs changes our brains by collecting data from 26 smartphone users, 11 users of "old-fashioned cellphones," and electroencephalography.

Building your own robot is getting a whole lot easier, now that RoboCORE is around. It's a robotic central nervous system you can program with C++ or Python.
  1. Smart Phones, Thumbs, and a Grain of Salt
  2. RoboCORE, Personal Robots, and Movies
Build-your-own robots reminded me of garage bands, guitars, and why I don't yearn for the days of cholera and famines. That's why this post has an epilogue of sorts:
I've done that before. (August 29, 2014)

Brains and Assumptions

When I was in high school, I learned that adult brains were static, unchanging. Neuroscientists thought, or assumed, that once we get past youth — that our brains don't change: no new neurons, no new connections between neurons.

They were wrong.

Rhesus monkeys keep rewiring their brains through adulthood — and so do we. A five-dollar word for having a brain that changes is neuroplasticity. Having a capacity for learning, and learning, aren't the same thing: and that's another topic.

We've got new tech for tracking what goes on in our brains, but scientists have known that electrical impulses happen in brains since around 1860.

We've also learned a great deal since the days of Richard Caton, Adolf Beck, and Vladimir Pravdich-Neminsky.

Since tech like functional neuroimaging and magnetoencephalography is new(ish), my guess is that we'll learn a very great deal more in the next few generations.

The Missing Hippocampus of Henry Molaison

Before today's imaging technologies, opportunities for learning how the brain works were largely limited to studying victims of horrific accidents, like Phineas Gage; or survivors of drastic medical treatments, like Henry Molaison.

Doctors cut out Henry Molaison's hippocampi and other components, in a well-intentioned effort to cure his epilepsy. He lived for decades after the surgery.

Being used as a lab rat and other personal experiences gave me opportunities to learn that doctors aren't always right: but in this case, removing part of the patient's brain worked. Mr. Molaison no longer had epilepsy.

That was the good news. The bad news was that he had serious trouble with memory after the operation. His experiences gave scientists opportunities to study how memory works: by noting how it didn't work for him.

Medical research, even research involving humans, can be a good idea. But 'it's for science' isn't a good excuse for ignoring ethics. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2292-2296)

Balancing the needs and well-being of the subject with our natural curiosity may be frustrating: but it would help us avoid atrocities like Auschwitz, Dachau, Tuskegee, and Willowbrook. (December 5, 2014)

Being curious comes with being human, or should. Part of our job is taking care of this astounding creation: studying it and developing new tools. Science and technology aren't transgressions. They're what we do. (Genesis 1:27-31; Catechism, 31, 355-361, 374-379, 2292-2296, 2301)

God, Clay, and Accepting Arithmetic

Now that we have a better idea of what to look for, scientists have been learning more about how our brains change — how experience gets recorded; how we learn new skills, and improve old ones.

For example: cabbies, folks whose livelihood depends on keeping track of a city's transportation network and planning optimum routes on the fly, generally have oversize hippocampuses. Hippocampi. Whatever.

The hippocampus isn't uniquely human. It's standard-issue for mammals, and most likely developed from the pallium, a structure we share with all vertebrates.

If you're waiting for a rant about the "religion of the Antichrist," evolution — you'll have a long wait. I'm a Christian, and a Catholic.

The idea of being made from the stuff of this world and in the image of God — mind and body, body and soul — is something I must believe. (Genesis 2:7; Catechism, 355, 357, 362-368)

What's changed recently is how much we know about the 'clay' God used. (January 2, 2014; April 4, 2014)

Oddly enough, I have yet to run into denunciations of arithmetic: although the symbols we use for numbers are Hindu-Arabic; and a person can add, subtract, multiply, and divide, without consulting the Bible. (February 5, 2014)

Beware the Robots! — or — Rotwang's Maschinenmensch, H.A.L., and All That

Not all fictional robots are psychotic killers, like "2001: A Space Odyssey's" H.A.L. For that matter, H.A.L.'s behavior was — in Clark's novelization of the movie — a logical consequence of profoundly bad decisions by the mission planners.

Authors have many reasons for writing tales of robots: like discussing human frailties and potential, raising social consciousness through allegory, and paying the bills.

I think (some) speculative fiction is getting more sophisticated in portrayals of robots because more adults are admitting to an interest in the genre — and an increasing number of us have worked with robots and other AI.

I also think that there isn't a technology, real or imagined, from sharpened sticks to Rotwang's maschinenmensch, that can't be misused.

Good grief: string can kill, if we let it tighten around our neck; and after a million years we still have the occasional spot of trouble with fire. (August 15, 2014; May 9, 2014)

1. Smart Phones, Thumbs, and a Grain of Salt

"Smartphone use changing our brain and thumb interaction, say researchers"
Jim Drury, Reuters (March 25, 2015)

"Typing text messages, scrolling web pages, and checking your email on your smartphone could be changing the way your thumbs and brain interacts. That's according to researchers from the University of Zurich, ETH Zurich, and University of Fribourg.

"Dr Arko Ghosh, of the University of Zurich and ETH Zurich, led the research which involved using electroencephalography (EEG) to measure the cortical brain activity in 37 right-handed people, 26 of whom were touchscreen Smartphone users and 11 users of old-fashioned cellphones.

"A total of 62 electrodes were placed on an EEG cap worn by subjects to record how the brain processed touch from their thumb, forefinger and middle finger. Brain activity was then compared with the individual commands recorded by each individuals' phone logs...."
Scientists have been tracking electrical activity in brains since the 1870s: and in human brains since 1924. Back then we didn't have smart phones, though: which make this sort of research a whole lot easier.

Since smart phones keep a log of the user's activity, researchers got very exact data on how often folks had touched parts of the smart phone — and could compare that to changes in their brains.

I think this research is interesting, and it may indirectly help designers of next-generation smart phones. It also adds to what we know about how our brains work.

However, I take this bit of the article with a few grains of salt:
"...Ghosh says the results suggest that repetitive movements over the touchscreen surface reshape sensory processing from the hand, with daily updates in the brain's representation of the fingertips. He believes that cortical sensory processing in the contemporary brain is continuously shaped by personal digital technology...."
(Jim Drury, Reuters)
Personal digital tech has an effect on our brains. It'd be odd if it didn't. Anything we do, or experience, affects our brains. If that wasn't so, we'd never remember anything, or learn anything.

What's been changing in recent years is how much we know about the neuromechanics — if that wasn't a word before, it is now — of learning and memory work. We've come a long way since the 'good old days,' when experts thought our brains pretty much just sat there.


2. RoboCORE, Personal Robots, and Movies

(From Geeky Gadgets, used w/o permission.)
(RoboCORE: plug-and-play reaches robotics, a robotic brain in a box.)
"DIY robotics device developed"
Reuters (March20, 2015)

"It's a revolution in robotics that makes building your own personal robot a reality for the masses.

"The new device developed by Polish scientists Dominik Nowak and Radoslaw Jarema of the Husarion Company, acts as a robot's central nervous system and provides people with the hardware and software to build almost any type of robot they can think of....

"...While RoboCORE contains advanced technology, the designers kept the system simple for users. It's compatible with almost any mechanical system; even Lego's Mindstorm, and uses open system cloud-based software to control the finished construction...."
In the movies, robots are right up there with Godzilla as threats:
That's the movies.

I've talked about robots, the Roomba revolution that wasn't, and conventional angst, before. (August 22, 2014; August 15, 2014)

Bottom line? Artificial intelligence has so far been quite obviously "artificial." But even if a robot passes a Turning Test, I don't think humanity will be replaced. Some of our jobs: that's yet another topic. (August 15, 2014; May 10, 2013)

Getting back to RoboCORE and Reuters, whoever wrote — or edited — it apparently likes this kickstarter. The tone is downright enthusiastic.

Maybe it comes from growing up in the '60s, but "for the masses" seems out of place here.

Kickstarter is a crowdfunding platform based in America. 'Obviously, from one point of view, a capitalistic imperialistic plot to enslave the world.

Crowdfunding is "the practice of funding a project or venture by raising many small amounts of money from a large number of people, typically via the Internet." (Oxford Dictionaries) — which I think it s a really good idea.

One of the problems with capitalism, Victorian style, was that it was a sort of upper-crust club: a game played by and for folks with lots of wealth. My opinion. I've talked about wealth, poverty, and social justice, before. (September 28, 2014; March 8, 2011)

Kerosene Lamps to DIY Robots in Three Generations

(From RoboCORE via Kickstarter, used w/o permission.)
("Build your own robots. Connect them to the Web. Develop and share your passion. Building robots has never been so easy and affordable."

My father remembered when a kerosene lamp was new — and potentially dangerous — tech, I grew up in a world where computers were 'science fiction,' and my kids probably know what that thing with a screen is called.

They had a kerosene lamp — my father's family, not my kids. Come to think of it, one of my ancestors was the first person in his part of the world with a telephone. Technophobia does not run in the family. But we aren't stupid, either. Tech does stuff: and it's best to find out what it does before letting it run unattended.

My father told how his folks cleared ground around a stump before test-lighting the lamp under controlled conditions. And that's not quite another topic.

I'm convinced that folks in the Paleolithic, Old Kingdom, and Renaissance got along without kerosene lamps and Roombas. But I'm also convinced that we're not losing our humanity because some animated doorstop can sweep the floor.

I'm also pretty sure that kids growing up in families where DIY robots are a child's — or mom's — toy won't all grow up to be the next Luigi Taparelli, Mother Teresa, or Bill Gates. But some might: and many more will very likely find new uses for this emerging technology.

More about RoboCORE:

No [Advanced] Programming Skills Needed

The Reuters article says you don't need "programming or engineering skills" to make RoboCORE work. I think Husarion's site is a tad more accurate:
" can build your personal assistants from scratch without high­level programming skills and at an affordable price....

"...Use our C++ or Python programming interface to revive your constructions. If you have everything programmed the Arduino, you can easily handle RoboCORE too....""
My family might have a blast, playing with RoboCORE. But my son is C+ certified; helped my son-in-law design industrial robots; and is developing a digital game, in cooperation with two of my daughters.

This is not a normal family.

We're not the only folks who kept up with some Information Age tech, though. I'm pretty sure that RoboCORE and products like it will be as well-liked and widely-used as guitars and shop tools. Not everybody's a musician or woodworker: but many are.

If DIY robots get popular enough, we'll probably hear warnings against this 'Satanic' snare for sinners.

Don't laugh. Back when "garage band" was a bunch of kids making music in a gaarage, not music software, a ranting preacher or two denounced guitars — along with commies, Catholicism, and other 'Satanic' plots. I think they were sincere: and set me on my path to becoming a Catholic. And that's another topic.

Or maybe it is vaguely on-topic.

Faith, Famines, and Looking Ahead

I've been asked how I can think that my faith has any relevance in today's world. The question makes sense, since some of the louder Christians apparently feel that being Christian means trying to live in the 1820s: or at least before the Seneca Falls Convention.

Folks were Christians in the 1800s: and some of us have an odd nostalgia for the 'good old days' of cholera pandemics and frequent famines.

But I'm a Christian, a Catholic, and I know my faith's history.

We were 'out of step' with contemporary culture in the 1st and 11th centuries: and almost certainly won't be fervent supporters of whatever's fashionable in the 31st.

That's because there hasn't been a society yet that wholeheartedly embraced the idea that loving neighbors — and seeing everybody as neighbors — makes sense. (Matthew 22:36-40, 5:43-44; Mark 12:28-31; Luke 10:25-27, 29-37; Catechism, 1825)

We keep passing the idea along, though: along with the rest of what our Lord told us. And with every millennium that passes, a few more folks get the message: and act like it matters. (January 18, 2015; December 28, 2014; October 26, 2014)

(From JJasso, used w/o permission.)

Stuff, but not nonsense:


Brigid said...

Missing space: "But we aren't stupid,either."

Missing... something: "Back when "garage band" about music, not music software, a ranting preacher or two denounced guitars — along with commies, Catholicism, and other 'Satanic' plots."

The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

Brian Gill said...

Well, that took me long enough. But - - - found, and fixed. Thanks!

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I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

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