26 May 2013

Jaron Lanier on social media

 from You Are Not a Gadget, his 2010 book.  Just found this bit intriguing, though I'm not sure I fully buy it:
Children want attention. Therefore, young adults, in their newly extended childhood, can now perceive themselves to be finally getting enough attention, through social networks and blogs. Lately, the design of online technology has moved from answering this desire for attention to addressing an even earlier developmental stage.

Separation anxiety is assuaged by constant connection. Young people announce every detail of their lives on services like Twitter not to show off, but to avoid the closed door at bedtime, the empty room, the screaming vacuum of an isolated mind. (p. 180)

20 May 2013

Minds, brains and woo.

Mind is not a redundant concept.  I'm with Andrew Brown in this short piece from the Guardian (17 June 2011), 'Mind, brains and woo.'  Here's the ending:
There is something very odd about the idea that the mind is an illusion that a brain has about itself (which is what is implied in a lot of this talk). Illusions are themselves things that only minds can have. An illusion, or a delusion, demands that there is a subjectivity being deluded. If a Buddhist says that the world is an illusion, at least they are being consistent, in that they suppose the ultimate reality is more like a mind – the kind of thing that can have an illusion or can be deluded. But no one can fool a rock, or a computer. Why should a brain be different? 

18 May 2013

Modeling simple worms.

302 neurons - It's a start!

'Is This Virtual Worm the First Sign of the Singularity' by Alexis Madrigal at the Atlantic May 17, 2013 (poor title, but good article) describes efforts to computationally model relatively simple life form, the C. elegans worm.  The project raises interesting questions about a number of things, including what is life? and what constitutes understanding?
"If you're going to understand a nervous system or, more humbly, how a neural circuit works, you can look at it and stick electrodes in it and find out what kind of receptor or transmitter it has," said John White, who built the first map of C. elegans's neural anatomy, and recently started contributing to the project. "But until you can quantify and put the whole thing into a computer and simulate it and show your computer model can behave in the same way as the real one, I don't think you can say you understand it."
This species of worm apparently has 959 cells, 302 of which are neurons.  These neurons form approximately 10,000 connections.  Part of what is unknown is just how much of the behavior of each cell needs to be fully modeled in order to simulate the worm's behavior.  I think it's probably a pretty good place to start.
I asked several researchers whether simulating the worm was possible.  "It's really a difficult thing to say whether it's possible," said Steven Cook, a graduate student at Yale who has worked on C. elegans connectomics. But, he admitted, "I'm optimistic that if we're starting with 302 neurons and 10,000 synapses we'll be able to understand its behavior from a modeling perspective." And, in any case, "If we can't model a worm, I don't know how we can model a human, monkey, or cat brain."

16 May 2013

Brain Stimulation - a net positive?

 'The Hidden Costs of Cognitive Enhancement' from Greg Miller, Wired (March 5, 2013), points to some findings that show there are tradeoffs.  There are a number of studies going on using low levels of electrical stimulation to particular areas of the brain while attempting cognitive tasks such as using a new abstract math system.  While there appear to be some findings for faster learning, researchers Cohen Kadosh and his colleague Teresa Iuculano at University of Oxford also looked for follow-on effects.
Those who had the parietal area involved in numerical cognition stimulated learned the new number system more quickly than those who got sham stimulation, the researchers report today in the Journal of Neuroscience. But at the end of the weeklong study their reaction times were slower when they had to put their newfound knowledge to use to solve a new task that they hadn’t seen during the training sessions. ”They had trouble accessing what they’d learned,” Cohen Kadosh said.
See also this story 'Electrical Brain Stimulation Helps People Learn Math Faster' - also by Miller - May 16, 2013.