Posts Tagged ‘future’

By Jeffrey Kluger

If you’re traveling to Mars, you’re going to have to bring a lot of essentials along — water, air, fuel, food. And, let’s be honest, you probably wouldn’t mind packing some beer too. A two-year journey — the minimum length of a Mars mission — is an awfully long time to go without one of our home planet’s signature pleasures.

Now, Anheuser-Busch InBev, the manufacturer of Budweiser, has announced that it wants to bring cosmic bar service a little closer to reality: On Dec. 4, the company plans to launch 20 barley seeds to space, aboard a SpaceX rocket making a cargo run to the International Space Station (ISS). Studying how barley — one of the basic ingredients in beer — germinates in microgravity will, the company hopes, teach scientists a lot about the practicality of building an extraterrestrial brewery.

“We want to be part of the collective dream to get to Mars,” said Budweiser vice president Ricardo Marques in an email to TIME. “While this may not be in the near future, we are starting that journey now so that when the dream of colonizing Mars becomes a reality, Budweiser will be there.”

Nice idea. But apart from inevitable issues concerning Mars rovers with designated drivers and who exactly is going to check your ID when you’re 100 million miles from home, Budweiser faces an even bigger question: Is beer brewing even possible in space? The answer: Maybe, but it wouldn’t be easy.

Start with that first step Budweiser is investigating: the business of growing the barley. In the U.S. alone, farmers harvest about 2.5 million acres of barley per year. The majority of that is used for animal feed, but about 45% of it is converted to malt, most of which is used in beer. Even the thirstiest American astronauts don’t need quite so much on tap, so start with something modest — say a 20-liter batch. That’s about 42 pints, which should get a crew of five through at least two or three Friday nights. But even that won’t be easy to make in space.

“If you want to make 20-liters of beer on Earth you’re going to need 100 to 200 square feet of land to grow the barley,” wrote Tristan Stephenson, author of The Curious Bartender series, in an email to TIME. “No doubt they would use hydroponics and probably be a bit more efficient in terms of rate of growth, but that’s a fair bit of valuable space on a space station…just for some beer.”

Still, let’s assume you’re on the station, you’ve grown the crops, and now it’s time to brew your first batch. To start with, the barley grains will have to go through the malting process, which means soaking them in water for two or three days, allowing them to germinate partway and then effectively killing them with heat. For that you need specialized equipment, which has to be carried to space and stored onboard. Every pound of orbital cargo can currently cost about $10,000, according to NASA, though competition from private industry is driving the price down. Still, shipping costs to space are never going to be cheap and it’s hard to justify any beer that winds up costing a couple hundred bucks a swallow.

The brewing process itself would present an entirely different set of problems — most involving gravity. On Earth, Stephenson says, “Brewers measure fermentation progress by assessing the ‘gravity’ (density) of the beer. The measurement is taken using a floating hydrometer. You’re not going to be doing that in space.”

The carbonation in the beer would be all wrong too, making the overall drink both unsightly and too frothy. “The bubbles won’t rise in zero-g,” says Stephenson. “Instead they’ll flocculate together into frogspawn style clumps.”

Dispersed or froggy, once the bubbles go down your gullet, they do your body no favors in space. The burp you emit after a beer on Earth seems like a bad thing, but only compared to the alternative — which happens a lot in zero-g, as gasses don’t rise, but instead find their way deeper into your digestive tract.

The type of beer you could make in space is limited and pretty much excludes Lagers — or cold-fermented beer. “Lager takes longer to make compared to most beers, because the yeast works at a lower temperature,” says Stephenson. “This is also the reason for the notable clarity of lager: longer fermentation means more yeast falls out of the solution, resulting in a clearer, cleaner looking beer. Emphasis on ‘falls’ — and stuff doesn’t fall in space.”

Finally, if Budweiser’s stated goal is to grow beer crops on Mars, they’re going about the experiment all wrong. Germinating your seeds in what is effectively the zero-g environment of the ISS is very different from germinating them on Mars, where the gravity is 40% that of Earth’s — weak by our standards, but still considerable for a growing plant. Budweiser and its partners acknowledge this possibility and argue that the very purpose of the experiment is to try to address the problem.

http://time.com/5039091/budweiser-beer-mars-space-station/

Thanks to Pete Cuomo for bringing this to the It’s Interesting community.

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by John H. Richardson

In an ordinary hospital room in Los Angeles, a young woman named Lauren Dickerson waits for her chance to make history.

She’s 25 years old, a teacher’s assistant in a middle school, with warm eyes and computer cables emerging like futuristic dreadlocks from the bandages wrapped around her head. Three days earlier, a neurosurgeon drilled 11 holes through her skull, slid 11 wires the size of spaghetti into her brain, and connected the wires to a bank of computers. Now she’s caged in by bed rails, with plastic tubes snaking up her arm and medical monitors tracking her vital signs. She tries not to move.

The room is packed. As a film crew prepares to document the day’s events, two separate teams of specialists get ready to work—medical experts from an elite neuroscience center at the University of Southern California and scientists from a technology company called Kernel. The medical team is looking for a way to treat Dickerson’s seizures, which an elaborate regimen of epilepsy drugs controlled well enough until last year, when their effects began to dull. They’re going to use the wires to search Dickerson’s brain for the source of her seizures. The scientists from Kernel are there for a different reason: They work for Bryan Johnson, a 40-year-old tech entrepreneur who sold his business for $800 million and decided to pursue an insanely ambitious dream—he wants to take control of evolution and create a better human. He intends to do this by building a “neuroprosthesis,” a device that will allow us to learn faster, remember more, “coevolve” with artificial intelligence, unlock the secrets of telepathy, and maybe even connect into group minds. He’d also like to find a way to download skills such as martial arts, Matrix-style. And he wants to sell this invention at mass-market prices so it’s not an elite product for the rich.

Right now all he has is an algorithm on a hard drive. When he describes the neuroprosthesis to reporters and conference audiences, he often uses the media-friendly expression “a chip in the brain,” but he knows he’ll never sell a mass-market product that depends on drilling holes in people’s skulls. Instead, the algorithm will eventually connect to the brain through some variation of noninvasive interfaces being developed by scientists around the world, from tiny sensors that could be injected into the brain to genetically engineered neurons that can exchange data wirelessly with a hatlike receiver. All of these proposed interfaces are either pipe dreams or years in the future, so in the meantime he’s using the wires attached to Dickerson’s hippo­campus to focus on an even bigger challenge: what you say to the brain once you’re connected to it.

That’s what the algorithm does. The wires embedded in Dickerson’s head will record the electrical signals that Dickerson’s neurons send to one another during a series of simple memory tests. The signals will then be uploaded onto a hard drive, where the algorithm will translate them into a digital code that can be analyzed and enhanced—or rewritten—with the goal of improving her memory. The algorithm will then translate the code back into electrical signals to be sent up into the brain. If it helps her spark a few images from the memories she was having when the data was gathered, the researchers will know the algorithm is working. Then they’ll try to do the same thing with memories that take place over a period of time, something nobody’s ever done before. If those two tests work, they’ll be on their way to deciphering the patterns and processes that create memories.

Although other scientists are using similar techniques on simpler problems, Johnson is the only person trying to make a commercial neurological product that would enhance memory. In a few minutes, he’s going to conduct his first human test. For a commercial memory prosthesis, it will be the first human test. “It’s a historic day,” Johnson says. “I’m insanely excited about it.”

For the record, just in case this improbable experiment actually works, the date is January 30, 2017.

At this point, you may be wondering if Johnson’s just another fool with too much money and an impossible dream. I wondered the same thing the first time I met him. He seemed like any other California dude, dressed in the usual jeans, sneakers, and T-shirt, full of the usual boyish enthusiasms. His wild pronouncements about “reprogramming the operating system of the world” seemed downright goofy.

But you soon realize this casual style is either camouflage or wishful thinking. Like many successful people, some brilliant and some barely in touch with reality, Johnson has endless energy and the distributed intelligence of an octopus—one tentacle reaches for the phone, another for his laptop, a third scouts for the best escape route. When he starts talking about his neuroprosthesis, they team up and squeeze till you turn blue.

And there is that $800 million that PayPal shelled out for Braintree, the online-­payment company Johnson started when he was 29 and sold when he was 36. And the $100 million he is investing into Kernel, the company he started to pursue this project. And the decades of animal tests to back up his sci-fi ambitions: Researchers have learned how to restore memories lost to brain damage, plant false memories, control the motions of animals through human thought, control appetite and aggression, induce sensations of pleasure and pain, even how to beam brain signals from one animal to another animal thousands of miles away.

And Johnson isn’t dreaming this dream alone—at this moment, Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg are weeks from announcing their own brain-hacking projects, the military research group known as Darpa already has 10 under way, and there’s no doubt that China and other countries are pursuing their own. But unlike Johnson, they’re not inviting reporters into any hospital rooms.

Here’s the gist of every public statement Musk has made about his project: (1) He wants to connect our brains to computers with a mysterious device called “neural lace.” (2) The name of the company he started to build it is Neuralink.

Thanks to a presentation at last spring’s F8 conference, we know a little more about what Zuckerberg is doing at Facebook: (1) The project was until recently overseen by Regina Dugan, a former director of Darpa and Google’s Advanced Technology group. (2) The team is working out of Building 8, Zuckerberg’s research lab for moon-shot projects. (3) They’re working on a noninvasive “brain–computer speech-to-text interface” that uses “optical imaging” to read the signals of neurons as they form words, find a way to translate those signals into code, and then send the code to a computer. (4) If it works, we’ll be able to “type” 100 words a minute just by thinking.

As for Darpa, we know that some of its projects are improvements on existing technology and some—such as an interface to make soldiers learn faster—sound just as futuristic as Johnson’s. But we don’t know much more than that. That leaves Johnson as our only guide, a job he says he’s taken on because he thinks the world needs to be prepared for what is coming.

All of these ambitious plans face the same obstacle, however: The brain has 86 billion neurons, and nobody understands how they all work. Scientists have made impressive progress uncovering, and even manipulating, the neural circuitry behind simple brain functions, but things such as imagination or creativity—and memory—are so complex that all the neuroscientists in the world may never solve them. That’s why a request for expert opinions on the viability of Johnson’s plans got this response from John Donoghue, the director of the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering in Geneva: “I’m cautious,” he said. “It’s as if I asked you to translate something from Swahili to Finnish. You’d be trying to go from one unknown language into another unknown language.” To make the challenge even more daunting, he added, all the tools used in brain research are as primitive as “a string between two paper cups.” So Johnson has no idea if 100 neurons or 100,000 or 10 billion control complex brain functions. On how most neurons work and what kind of codes they use to communicate, he’s closer to “Da-da” than “see Spot run.” And years or decades will pass before those mysteries are solved, if ever. To top it all off, he has no scientific background. Which puts his foot on the banana peel of a very old neuroscience joke: “If the brain was simple enough for us to understand, we’d be too stupid to understand it.”

I don’t need telepathy to know what you’re thinking now—there’s nothing more annoying than the big dreams of tech optimists. Their schemes for eternal life and floating libertarian nations are adolescent fantasies; their digital revolution seems to be destroying more jobs than it created, and the fruits of their scientific fathers aren’t exactly encouraging either. “Coming soon, from the people who brought you nuclear weapons!”

But Johnson’s motives go to a deep and surprisingly tender place. Born into a devout Mormon community in Utah, he learned an elaborate set of rules that are still so vivid in his mind that he brought them up in the first minutes of our first meeting: “If you get baptized at the age of 8, point. If you get into the priesthood at the age of 12, point. If you avoid pornography, point. Avoid masturbation? Point. Go to church every Sunday? Point.” The reward for a high point score was heaven, where a dutiful Mormon would be reunited with his loved ones and gifted with endless creativity.

When he was 4, Johnson’s father left the church and divorced his mother. Johnson skips over the painful details, but his father told me his loss of faith led to a long stretch of drug and alcohol abuse, and his mother said she was so broke that she had to send Johnson to school in handmade clothes. His father remembers the letters Johnson started sending him when he was 11, a new one every week: “Always saying 100 different ways, ‘I love you, I need you.’ How he knew as a kid the one thing you don’t do with an addict or an alcoholic is tell them what a dirtbag they are, I’ll never know.”

Johnson was still a dutiful believer when he graduated from high school and went to Ecuador on his mission, the traditional Mormon rite of passage. He prayed constantly and gave hundreds of speeches about Joseph Smith, but he became more and more ashamed about trying to convert sick and hungry children with promises of a better life in heaven. Wouldn’t it be better to ease their suffering here on earth?

“Bryan came back a changed boy,” his father says.

Soon he had a new mission, self-assigned. His sister remembers his exact words: “He said he wanted to be a millionaire by the time he was 30 so he could use those resources to change the world.”

His first move was picking up a degree at Brigham Young University, selling cell phones to help pay the tuition and inhaling every book that seemed to promise a way forward. One that left a lasting impression was Endurance, the story of Ernest Shackleton’s botched journey to the South Pole—if sheer grit could get a man past so many hardships, he would put his faith in sheer grit. He married “a nice Mormon girl,” fathered three Mormon children, and took a job as a door-to-door salesman to support them. He won a prize for Salesman of the Year and started a series of businesses that went broke—which convinced him to get a business degree at the University of Chicago.

When he graduated in 2008, he stayed in Chicago and started Braintree, perfecting his image as a world-beating Mormon entrepreneur. By that time, his father was sober and openly sharing his struggles, and Johnson was the one hiding his dying faith behind a very well-protected wall. He couldn’t sleep, ate like a wolf, and suffered intense headaches, fighting back with a long series of futile cures: antidepressants, biofeedback, an energy healer, even blind obedience to the rules of his church.

In 2012, at the age of 35, Johnson hit bottom. In his misery, he remembered Shackleton and seized a final hope—maybe he could find an answer by putting himself through a painful ordeal. He planned a trip to Mount Kilimanjaro, and on the second day of the climb he got a stomach virus. On the third day he got altitude sickness. When he finally made it to the peak, he collapsed in tears and then had to be carried down on a stretcher. It was time to reprogram his operating system.

The way Johnson tells it, he started by dropping the world-beater pose that hid his weakness and doubt. And although this may all sound a bit like a dramatic motivational talk at a TED conference, especially since Johnson still projects the image of a world-beating entrepreneur, this much is certain: During the following 18 months, he divorced his wife, sold Braintree, and severed his last ties to the church. To cushion the impact on his children, he bought a house nearby and visited them almost daily. He knew he was repeating his father’s mistakes but saw no other option—he was either going to die inside or start living the life he always wanted.

He started with the pledge he made when he came back from Ecuador, experimenting first with a good-government initiative in Washington and pivoting, after its inevitable doom, to a venture fund for “quantum leap” companies inventing futuristic products such as human-­organ-­mimicking silicon chips. But even if all his quantum leaps landed, they wouldn’t change the operating system of the world.

Finally, the Big Idea hit: If the root problems of humanity begin in the human mind, let’s change our minds.

Fantastic things were happening in neuroscience. Some of them sounded just like miracles from the Bible—with prosthetic legs controlled by thought and microchips connected to the visual cortex, scientists were learning to help the lame walk and the blind see. At the University of Toronto, a neurosurgeon named Andres Lozano slowed, and in some cases reversed, the cognitive declines of Alzheimer’s patients using deep brain stimulation. At a hospital in upstate New York, a neuro­technologist named Gerwin Schalk asked computer engineers to record the firing patterns of the auditory neurons of people listening to Pink Floyd. When the engineers turned those patterns back into sound waves, they produced a single that sounded almost exactly like “Another Brick in the Wall.” At the University of Washington, two professors in different buildings played a videogame together with the help of electroencephalography caps that fired off electrical pulses—when one professor thought about firing digital bullets, the other one felt an impulse to push the Fire button.

Johnson also heard about a biomedical engineer named Theodore Berger. During nearly 20 years of research, Berger and his collaborators at USC and Wake Forest University developed a neuroprosthesis to improve memory in rats. It didn’t look like much when he started testing it in 2002—just a slice of rat brain and a computer chip. But the chip held an algorithm that could translate the firing patterns of neurons into a kind of Morse code that corresponded with actual memories. Nobody had ever done that before, and some people found the very idea offensive—it’s so deflating to think of our most precious thoughts reduced to ones and zeros. Prominent medical ethicists accused Berger of tampering with the essence of identity. But the implications were huge: If Berger could turn the language of the brain into code, perhaps he could figure out how to fix the part of the code associated with neurological diseases.

In rats, as in humans, firing patterns in the hippocampus generate a signal or code that, somehow, the brain recognizes as a long-term memory. Berger trained a group of rats to perform a task and studied the codes that formed. He learned that rats remembered a task better when their neurons sent “strong code,” a term he explains by comparing it to a radio signal: At low volume you don’t hear all of the words, but at high volume everything comes through clear. He then studied the difference in the codes generated by the rats when they remembered to do something correctly and when they forgot. In 2011, through a breakthrough experiment conducted on rats trained to push a lever, he demonstrated he could record the initial memory codes, feed them into an algorithm, and then send stronger codes back into the rats’ brains. When he finished, the rats that had forgotten how to push the lever suddenly remembered.

Five years later, Berger was still looking for the support he needed for human trials. That’s when Johnson showed up. In August 2016, he announced he would pledge $100 million of his fortune to create Kernel and that Berger would join the company as chief science officer. After learning about USC’s plans to implant wires in Dickerson’s brain to battle her epilepsy, Johnson approached Charles Liu, the head of the prestigious neurorestoration division at the USC School of Medicine and the lead doctor on Dickerson’s trial. Johnson asked him for permission to test the algorithm on Dickerson while she had Liu’s wires in her hippocampus—in between Liu’s own work sessions, of course. As it happened, Liu had dreamed about expanding human powers with technology ever since he got obsessed with The Six Million Dollar Man as a kid. He helped Johnson get Dickerson’s consent and convinced USC’s institutional research board to approve the experiment. At the end of 2016, Johnson got the green light. He was ready to start his first human trial.

In the hospital room, Dickerson is waiting for the experiments to begin, and I ask her how she feels about being a human lab rat.

“If I’m going to be here,” she says, “I might as well do something useful.”

Useful? This starry-eyed dream of cyborg supermen? “You know he’s trying to make humans smarter, right?”

“Isn’t that cool?” she answers.

Over by the computers, I ask one of the scientists about the multi­colored grid on the screen. “Each one of these squares is an electrode that’s in her brain,” one says. Every time a neuron close to one of the wires in Dickerson’s brain fires, he explains, a pink line will jump in the relevant box.

Johnson’s team is going to start with simple memory tests. “You’re going to be shown words,” the scientist explains to her. “Then there will be some math problems to make sure you’re not rehearsing the words in your mind. Try to remember as many words as you can.”

One of the scientists hands Dickerson a computer tablet, and everyone goes quiet. Dickerson stares at the screen to take in the words. A few minutes later, after the math problem scrambles her mind, she tries to remember what she’d read. “Smoke … egg … mud … pearl.”

Next, they try something much harder, a group of memories in a sequence. As one of Kernel’s scientists explains to me, they can only gather so much data from wires connected to 30 or 40 neurons. A single face shouldn’t be too hard, but getting enough data to reproduce memories that stretch out like a scene in a movie is probably impossible.

Sitting by the side of Dickerson’s bed, a Kernel scientist takes on the challenge. “Could you tell me the last time you went to a restaurant?”

“It was probably five or six days ago,” Dickerson says. “I went to a Mexican restaurant in Mission Hills. We had a bunch of chips and salsa.”

He presses for more. As she dredges up other memories, another Kernel scientist hands me a pair of headphones connected to the computer bank. All I hear at first is a hissing sound. After 20 or 30 seconds go by I hear a pop.

“That’s a neuron firing,” he says.

As Dickerson continues, I listen to the mysterious language of the brain, the little pops that move our legs and trigger our dreams. She remembers a trip to Costco and the last time it rained, and I hear the sounds of Costco and rain.

When Dickerson’s eyelids start sinking, the medical team says she’s had enough and Johnson’s people start packing up. Over the next few days, their algorithm will turn Dickerson’s synaptic activity into code. If the codes they send back into Dickerson’s brain make her think of dipping a few chips in salsa, Johnson might be one step closer to reprogramming the operating system of the world.

But look, there’s another banana peel­—after two days of frantic coding, Johnson’s team returns to the hospital to send the new code into Dickerson’s brain. Just when he gets word that they can get an early start, a message arrives: It’s over. The experiment has been placed on “administrative hold.” The only reason USC would give in the aftermath was an issue between Johnson and Berger. Berger would later tell me he had no idea the experiment was under way and that Johnson rushed into it without his permission. Johnson said he is mystified by Berger’s accusations. “I don’t know how he could not have known about it. We were working with his whole lab, with his whole team.” The one thing they both agree on is that their relationship fell apart shortly afterward, with Berger leaving the company and taking his algorithm with him. He blames the break entirely on Johnson. “Like most investors, he wanted a high rate of return as soon as possible. He didn’t realize he’d have to wait seven or eight years to get FDA approval—I would have thought he would have looked that up.” But Johnson didn’t want to slow down. He had bigger plans, and he was in a hurry.

Eight months later, I go back to California to see where Johnson has ended up. He seems a little more relaxed. On the whiteboard behind his desk at Kernel’s new offices in Los Angeles, someone’s scrawled a playlist of songs in big letters. “That was my son,” he says. “He interned here this summer.” Johnson is a year into a romance with Taryn Southern, a charismatic 31-year-old performer and film producer. And since his break with Berger, Johnson has tripled Kernel’s staff—he’s up to 36 employees now—adding experts in fields like chip design and computational neuroscience. His new science adviser is Ed Boyden, the director of MIT’s Synthetic Neurobiology Group and a superstar in the neuroscience world. Down in the basement of the new office building, there’s a Dr. Frankenstein lab where scientists build prototypes and try them out on glass heads.

When the moment seems right, I bring up the purpose of my visit. “You said you had something to show me?”

Johnson hesitates. I’ve already promised not to reveal certain sensitive details, but now I have to promise again. Then he hands me two small plastic display cases. Inside, two pairs of delicate twisty wires rest on beds of foam rubber. They look scientific but also weirdly biological, like the antennae of some futuristic bug-bot.

I’m looking at the prototypes for Johnson’s brand-new neuromodulator. On one level, it’s just a much smaller version of the deep brain stimulators and other neuromodulators currently on the market. But unlike a typical stimulator, which just fires pulses of electricity, Johnson’s is designed to read the signals that neurons send to other neurons—and not just the 100 neurons the best of the current tools can harvest, but perhaps many more. That would be a huge advance in itself, but the implications are even bigger: With Johnson’s neuromodulator, scientists could collect brain data from thousands of patients, with the goal of writing precise codes to treat a variety of neurological diseases.

In the short term, Johnson hopes his neuromodulator will help him “optimize the gold rush” in neurotechnology—financial analysts are forecasting a $27 billion market for neural devices within six years, and countries around the world are committing billions to the escalating race to decode the brain. In the long term, Johnson believes his signal-reading neuromodulator will advance his bigger plans in two ways: (1) by giving neuroscientists a vast new trove of data they can use to decode the workings of the brain and (2) by generating the huge profits Kernel needs to launch a steady stream of innovative and profitable neural tools, keeping the company both solvent and plugged into every new neuroscience breakthrough. With those two achievements in place, Johnson can watch and wait until neuroscience reaches the level of sophistication he needs to jump-start human evolution with a mind-enhancing neuroprosthesis.

Liu, the neurologist with the Six Million Dollar Man dreams, compares Johnson’s ambition to flying. “Going back to Icarus, human beings have always wanted to fly. We don’t grow wings, so we build a plane. And very often these solutions will have even greater capabilities than the ones nature created—no bird ever flew to Mars.” But now that humanity is learning how to reengineer its own capabilities, we really can choose how we evolve. “We have to wrap our minds around that. It’s the most revolutionary thing in the world.”

The crucial ingredient is the profit motive, which always drives rapid innovation in science. That’s why Liu thinks Johnson could be the one to give us wings. “I’ve never met anyone with his urgency to take this to market,” he says.

When will this revolution arrive? “Sooner than you think,” Liu says.

Now we’re back where we began. Is Johnson a fool? Is he just wasting his time and fortune on a crazy dream? One thing is certain: Johnson will never stop trying to optimize the world. At the pristine modern house he rents in Venice Beach, he pours out idea after idea. He even took skepticism as helpful information—when I tell him his magic neuroprosthesis sounds like another version of the Mormon heaven, he’s delighted.

“Good point! I love it!”

He never has enough data. He even tries to suck up mine. What are my goals? My regrets? My pleasures? My doubts?

Every so often, he pauses to examine my “constraint program.”

“One, you have this biological disposition of curiosity. You want data. And when you consume that data, you apply boundaries of meaning-making.”

“Are you trying to hack me?” I ask.

Not at all, he says. He just wants us to share our algorithms. “That’s the fun in life,” he says, “this endless unraveling of the puzzle. And I think, ‘What if we could make the data transfer rate a thousand times faster? What if my consciousness is only seeing a fraction of reality? What kind of stories would we tell?’ ”

In his free time, Johnson is writing a book about taking control of human evolution and looking on the bright side of our mutant humanoid future. He brings this up every time I talk to him. For a long time I lumped this in with his dreamy ideas about reprogramming the operating system of the world: The future is coming faster than anyone thinks, our glorious digital future is calling, the singularity is so damn near that we should be cheering already—a spiel that always makes me want to hit him with a copy of the Unabomber Manifesto.

But his urgency today sounds different, so I press him on it: “How would you respond to Ted Kaczynski’s fears? The argument that technology is a cancerlike development that’s going to eat itself?”

“I would say he’s potentially on the wrong side of history.”

“Yeah? What about climate change?”

“That’s why I feel so driven,” he answered. “We’re in a race against time.”

He asks me for my opinion. I tell him I think he’ll still be working on cyborg brainiacs when the starving hordes of a ravaged planet destroy his lab looking for food—and for the first time, he reveals the distress behind his hope. The truth is, he has the same fear. The world has gotten way too complex, he says. The financial system is shaky, the population is aging, robots want our jobs, artificial intelligence is catching up, and climate change is coming fast. “It just feels out of control,” he says.

He’s invoked these dystopian ideas before, but only as a prelude to his sales pitch. This time he’s closer to pleading. “Why wouldn’t we embrace our own self-directed evolution? Why wouldn’t we just do everything we can to adapt faster?”

I turn to a more cheerful topic. If he ever does make a neuroprosthesis to revolutionize how we use our brain, which superpower would he give us first? Telepathy? Group minds? Instant kung fu?

He answers without hesitation. Because our thinking is so constrained by the familiar, he says, we can’t imagine a new world that isn’t just another version of the world we know. But we have to imagine something far better than that. So he’d try to make us more creative—that would put a new frame on everything.

Ambition like that can take you a long way. It can drive you to try to reach the South Pole when everyone says it’s impossible. It can take you up Mount Kilimanjaro when you’re close to dying and help you build an $800 million company by the time you’re 36. And Johnson’s ambitions drive straight for the heart of humanity’s most ancient dream: For operating system, substitute enlightenment.

By hacking our brains, he wants to make us one with everything.

https://www.wired.com/story/inside-the-race-to-build-a-brain-machine-interface/?mbid=nl_111717_editorsnote_list1_p1

By Ryan Browne

America’s second-highest ranking military officer, Gen. Paul Selva, advocated Tuesday for “keeping the ethical rules of war in place lest we unleash on humanity a set of robots that we don’t know how to control.”

Selva was responding to a question from Sen. Gary Peters, a Michigan Democrat, about his views on a Department of Defense directive that requires a human operator to be kept in the decision-making process when it comes to the taking of human life by autonomous weapons systems.

Peters said the restriction was “due to expire later this year.”

“I don’t think it’s reasonable for us to put robots in charge of whether or not we take a human life,” Selva told the Senate Armed Services Committee during a confirmation hearing for his reappointment as the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during which a wide range of topics were covered, including North Korea, Iran and defense budget issues.

He predicted that “there will be a raucous debate in the department about whether or not we take humans out of the decision to take lethal action,” but added that he was “an advocate for keeping that restriction.”

Selva said humans needed to remain in the decision making process “because we take our values to war.” He pointed to the laws of war and the need to consider issues like proportional and discriminate action against an enemy, something he suggested could only be done by a human.

His comments come as the US military has sought increasingly autonomous weapons systems.

In July 2016, a group of concerned scientists, researchers and academics, including theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking and billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk, argued against the development of autonomous weapons systems. They warned of an artificial intelligence arms race and called for a “ban on offensive autonomous weapons beyond meaningful human control.”

But Peters warned that America’s adversaries may be less hesitant to adopt such lethal technology.

“Our adversaries often do not to consider the same moral and ethical issues that we consider each and every day,” the senator told Selva.

Selva acknowledged the possibility of US adversaries developing such technology, but said the decision not to pursue it for the US military “doesn’t mean that we don’t have to address the development of those kinds of technologies and potentially find their vulnerabilities and exploit those vulnerabilities.”

By Eva Botkin-Kowacki

Plastic is everywhere around us. We drink out of plastic cups, buy disposable water bottles, unwrap new electronics from plastic packaging, take home plastic shopping bags, and even wear plastic in polyester fabrics.

Some 311 million tons of plastic is produced across the globe annually, and just 10 percent makes it back to a recycling plant. The rest ends up in landfills, or as litter on land or in the ocean, where it remains for decades and longer.

As for the plastic that has been recycled, it has given rise to an unintended side effect: A team of scientists searching through sediments at a plastic bottle recycling plant in Osaka, Japan have found a strain of bacteria that has evolved to consume the most common type of plastic.

Ideonella sakaiensis 201-F6 can degrade poly (ethylene terephthalate), commonly called PET or PETE, in as little as six weeks, they report in a new paper published Thursday in the journal Science.

Common uses of PET include polyester fibers, disposable bottles, and food containers. The last two are typically labelled with a No. 1 inside a recycling symbol.

But this new paper doesn’t mean you should ditch your reusable water bottles in favor of a tray of disposable ones, or that we’re going to inject this bacteria into landfills tomorrow. This study simply evaluated if the bacteria in question could degrade PET and was conducted under laboratory conditions.

“We hope this bacterium could be applied to solve the severe problems by the wasted PET materials in nature,” Kohei Oda, one of the study authors, tells The Christian Science Monitor in an email. But “this is just the initiation for application.” More research has to be done in order to make this a practical solution to plastic pollution.

But could this sort of fix work in theory?

“[Plastics] have been engineered for cost and for durability, or longevity,” says Giora Proskurowski, an oceanographer at the University of Washington who studies plastic debris in the ocean but was not part of this study, in a phone interview with the Monitor. But he’s hopeful that this research could yield further studies and technologies to mitigate the problem.

The durability of plastic isn’t the only challenge this potential fix faces. Microbes are like teenagers, Christopher Reddy, a senior scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution who studies environmental pollution and was not part of this study, explains in an interview with the Monitor.

“You can tell them to clean the garage over the weekend but they’re going to do it on their own timescale, they’re going to do it when they want, they’re going to pick the easiest thing to do and they’re likely going to leave you more frustrated than you think,” he explains the metaphor. Similarly, you can’t rely on microbes to break down compounds. “Don’t rely on microbes to clean the environment.”

Dr. Reddy says that has a lot to do with the environment outside the lab. In the experiment, he says, the researchers controlled the situation so the bacteria ate the plastic, but in nature, they would have many options for food.

Also, if I. sakaiensis 201-F6 were to be applied, it would likely only help plastic pollution on land. PET particles are denser than water, so they tend to sink down into the sediment. The trillions of tons of plastic particles amassing in the oceans are other types of plastics, types for which this bacteria probably lacks an appetite. Also, Dr. Proskurowski says, marine organisms have evolved to withstand the saltwater and sunlight that sediment-dwelling organisms might not.

Still, perhaps this bacteria could be harnessed to accelerate degradation of plastics that make it to a landfill, he says.

But this study does show that “the environment is evolving and you get the microbes evolving along with that as well,” Proskurowski says. “These are evolving systems.”

Neither Proskurowski nor Reddy were surprised that the researchers found an organism that can consume PET.

“I’m surprised it’s taken this long. I’ve been waiting for results like this,” Proskurowski says.

“Nature is incredibly wily, microbes are incredibly wily,” Reddy says. “Microbes are very good eaters.”

This is not the first time researchers have found an organism that will eat trashed plastic. Last year engineers at Stanford University found a mealworm that can eat styrofoam. And in that case, it was not the animal’s digestion that broke down the styrofoam, but bacteria it its gut.

http://www.csmonitor.com/Science/2016/0310/Researchers-discover-plastic-eating-bacteria-in-recycling-plant

Scientists have long been on a quest to find a way to implant electrodes that interface with neurons into the human brain. If successful, the idea could have huge implications for the treatment of Parkinson’s disease and other neurological disorders. Last month, a team of researchers from Italy and the UK made a huge step forward by showing that the world’s favorite wonder-material, graphene, can successfully interface with neurons.

Previous efforts by other groups using treated graphene had created an interface with a very low signal to noise ratio. But an interdisciplinary collaborative effort by the University of Trieste and the Cambridge Graphene Centre has developed a significantly improved electrode by working with untreated graphene.

“For the first time we interfaced graphene to neurons directly,” said Professor Laura Ballerini of the University of Trieste in Italy. “We then tested the ability of neurons to generate electrical signals known to represent brain activities, and found that the neurons retained their neuronal signaling properties unaltered. This is the first functional study of neuronal synaptic activity using uncoated graphene based materials.”

Prior to experimenting with graphene-based substrates (GBS), scientists implanted microelectrodes based on tungsten and silicon. Proof-of-concept experiments were successful, but these materials seem to suffer from the same fatal flaws. The body’s reaction to the insertion trauma is to form scarring tissue, inhibiting clear electrical signals. The structures were also prone to disconnecting, due to the stiffness of the materials, which were unsuitable for a semi-fluid organic environment.

Pure graphene is promising because it is flexible, non-toxic, and does not impair other cellular activity.

The team’s experiments on rat brain cell cultures showed that the untreated graphene electrodes interfaced well with neurons, transmitting electrical impulses normally with none of the adverse reactions seen previously.

The biocompatibility of graphene could allow it to be used to make graphene microelectrodes that could help measure, harness and control an impaired brain’s functions. It could be used to restore lost sensory functions to treat paralysis, control prosthetic devices such a robotic limbs for amputees and even control or diminish the impact of the out-of-control electrical impulses that cause motor disorders such as Parkinson’s and epilepsy.

“We are currently involved in frontline research in graphene technology towards biomedical applications,” said Professor Maurizio Prato from the University of Trieste. “In this scenario, the development and translation in neurology of graphene-based high-performance bio-devices requires the exploration of the interactions between graphene nano and micro-sheets with the sophisticated signaling machinery of nerve cells. Our work is only a first step in that direction.”

The results of this research were recently published in the journal ACS Nano. The research was funded by the Graphene Flagship, a European initiative that aims to connect theoretical and practical fields and reduce the time that graphene products spend in laboratories before being brought to market.

http://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/graphene-shown-to-safely-interact-with-neurons-in-the-brain

A new DARPA program aims to develop an implantable neural interface able to provide unprecedented signal resolution and data-transfer bandwidth between the human brain and the digital world. The interface would serve as a translator, converting between the electrochemical language used by neurons in the brain and the ones and zeros that constitute the language of information technology. The goal is to achieve this communications link in a biocompatible device no larger than one cubic centimeter in size, roughly the volume of two nickels stacked back to back.

The program, Neural Engineering System Design (NESD), stands to dramatically enhance research capabilities in neurotechnology and provide a foundation for new therapies.

“Today’s best brain-computer interface systems are like two supercomputers trying to talk to each other using an old 300-baud modem,” said Phillip Alvelda, the NESD program manager. “Imagine what will become possible when we upgrade our tools to really open the channel between the human brain and modern electronics.”

Among the program’s potential applications are devices that could compensate for deficits in sight or hearing by feeding digital auditory or visual information into the brain at a resolution and experiential quality far higher than is possible with current technology.

Neural interfaces currently approved for human use squeeze a tremendous amount of information through just 100 channels, with each channel aggregating signals from tens of thousands of neurons at a time. The result is noisy and imprecise. In contrast, the NESD program aims to develop systems that can communicate clearly and individually with any of up to one million neurons in a given region of the brain.

Achieving the program’s ambitious goals and ensuring that the envisioned devices will have the potential to be practical outside of a research setting will require integrated breakthroughs across numerous disciplines including neuroscience, synthetic biology, low-power electronics, photonics, medical device packaging and manufacturing, systems engineering, and clinical testing. In addition to the program’s hardware challenges, NESD researchers will be required to develop advanced mathematical and neuro-computation techniques to first transcode high-definition sensory information between electronic and cortical neuron representations and then compress and represent those data with minimal loss of fidelity and functionality.

To accelerate that integrative process, the NESD program aims to recruit a diverse roster of leading industry stakeholders willing to offer state-of-the-art prototyping and manufacturing services and intellectual property to NESD researchers on a pre-competitive basis. In later phases of the program, these partners could help transition the resulting technologies into research and commercial application spaces.

To familiarize potential participants with the technical objectives of NESD, DARPA will host a Proposers Day meeting that runs Tuesday and Wednesday, February 2-3, 2016, in Arlington, Va. The Special Notice announcing the Proposers Day meeting is available at https://www.fbo.gov/spg/ODA/DARPA/CMO/DARPA-SN-16-16/listing.html. More details about the Industry Group that will support NESD is available at https://www.fbo.gov/spg/ODA/DARPA/CMO/DARPA-SN-16-17/listing.html. A Broad Agency Announcement describing the specific capabilities sought will be forthcoming on http://www.fbo.gov.

NESD is part of a broader portfolio of programs within DARPA that support President Obama’s brain initiative. For more information about DARPA’s work in that domain, please visit: http://www.darpa.mil/program/our-research/darpa-and-the-brain-initiative.

http://www.darpa.mil/news-events/2015-01-19

Thanks to Kebmodee for bringing this to the It’s Interesting community.