Will machines one day control our decisions?

New research suggests it’s possible to detect when our brain is making a decision and nudge it to make the healthier choice.

In recording moment-to-moment deliberations by macaque monkeys over which option is likely to yield the most fruit juice, scientists have captured the dynamics of decision-making down to millisecond changes in neurons in the brain’s orbitofrontal cortex.

“If we can measure a decision in real time, we can potentially also manipulate it,” says senior author Jonathan Wallis, a neuroscientist and professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. “For example, a device could be created that detects when an addict is about to choose a drug and instead bias their brain activity towards a healthier choice.”

Located behind the eyes, the orbitofrontal cortex plays a key role in decision-making and, when damaged, can lead to poor choices and impulsivity.

While previous studies have linked activity in the orbitofrontal cortex to making final decisions, this is the first to track the neural changes that occur during deliberations between different options.

“We can now see a decision unfold in real time and make predictions about choices,” Wallis says.

Measuring the signals from electrodes implanted in the monkeys’ brains, researchers tracked the primates’ neural activity as they weighed the pros and cons of images that delivered different amounts of juice.

A computational algorithm tracked the monkeys’ orbitofrontal activity as they looked from one image to another, determining which picture would yield the greater reward. The shifting brain patterns enabled researchers to predict which image the monkey would settle on.

For the experiment, they presented a monkey with a series of four different images of abstract shapes, each of which delivered to the monkey a different amount of juice. They used a pattern-recognition algorithm known as linear discriminant analysis to identify, from the pattern of neural activity, which picture the monkey was looking at.

Next, they presented the monkey with two of those same images, and watched the neural patterns switch back and forth to the point where the researchers could predict which image the monkey would choose based on the length of time that the monkey stared at the picture.

The more the monkey needed to think about the options, particularly when there was not much difference between the amounts of juice offered, the more the neural patterns would switch back and forth.

“Now that we can see when the brain is considering a particular choice, we could potentially use that signal to electrically stimulate the neural circuits involved in the decision and change the final choice,” Wallis says.

Erin Rich, a researcher at the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute, is lead author of the study published in the journal Nature Neuroscience. The National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Institute of Mental Health funded the work.

Could a device tell your brain to make healthy choices?

Bacteria can be turned into living hard drives

When scientists add code to bacterial DNA, it’s passed on to the next generation.

By Bryan Nelson

The way DNA stores genetic information is similar to the way a computer stores data. Now scientists have found a way to turn this from a metaphorical comparison into a literal one, by transforming living bacteria into hard drives, reports Popular Mechanics.

A team of Harvard scientists led by geneticists Seth Shipman and Jeff Nivala have devised a way to trick bacteria into copying computer code into the fabric of their DNA without interrupting normal cellular function. The bacteria even pass the information on to their progeny, thus ensuring that the information gets “backed up,” even when individual bacteria perish.

So far the technique can only upload about 100 bytes of data to the bacteria, but that’s enough to store a short script or perhaps a short poem — say, a haiku — into the genetics of a cell. For instance, here’s a haiku that would work:

Bacteria on
your thumb
might someday become
a real thumb drive

As the method becomes more precise, it will be possible to encode longer strings of text into the fabric of life. Perhaps some day, the bacteria living all around us will also double as a sort of library that we can download.

The technique is based on manipulation of an immune response that exists in many bacteria known as the CRISPR/Cas system. How the system works is actually fairly simple: when bacteria encounter a threatening virus, they physically cut out a segment of the attacking virus’s DNA and paste it into a specific region of their own genome. The bacteria can then use this section of viral DNA to identify future virus encounters and rapidly mount a defense. Copying this immunity into their own genetic code allows the bacteria to pass it on to future generations.

To get the bacteria to copy strings of computer code instead, researchers just book-ended the information with segments that look like viral DNA. The bacteria then got to work, conveniently cutting and pasting the relevant section into their genes.

The method does have a few bugs. For instance, not all of the bacteria snip the full section, so only part of the code gets copied. But if you introduce the code into a large enough population of bacteria, it becomes easy to deduce the full message from a sufficient percentage of the colony.

The amount of information that can be stored also depends on the bacteria doing the storing. For this experiment, researchers used E. coli, which was only efficient at storing around 100 bytes. But some bacteria, such as Sulfolobus tokodaii, are capable of storing thousands of bytes. With synthetic engineering, these numbers can be increased exponentially.


Astronomer Sir Martin Rees believes aliens have transitioned from organic forms to machines – and that humans will do the same.

British astrophysicist and cosmologist, Sir Martin Rees, believes if we manage to detect aliens, it will not be by stumbling across organic life, but from picking up a signal made by machines.

It’s likely these machines will have evolved from organic alien beings, and that humans will also make the transition from biological to mechanical in the future.

Sir Martin said that while the way we think has led to all culture and science on Earth, it will be a brief precursor to more powerful machine ‘brains’.

He thinks that life away from Earth has probably already gone through this transition from organic to machine.

On a planet orbiting a star far older than the sun, life ‘may have evolved much of the way toward a dominant machine intelligence,’ he writes.

Sir Martin believes it could be one or two more centuries before humans are overtaken by machine intelligence, which will then evolve over billions of years, either with us, or replacing us.

‘This suggests that if we were to detect ET, it would be far more likely to be inorganic: We would be most unlikely to “catch” alien intelligence in the brief sliver of time when it was still in organic form,’ he writes.

Despite this, the astronomer said Seti searches are worthwhile, because the stakes are so high.

Seti seeks our electromagnetic transmissions thought to be made artificially, but even if it did hit the jackpot and detect a possible message sent by aliens, Sir Martin says it is unlikely we would be able to decode it.

He thinks such a signal would probably be a byproduct or malfunction of a complex machine far beyond our understanding that could trace its lineage back to organic alien beings, which may still exist on a planet, or have died out.

He also points out that even if intelligence is widespread across the cosmos, we may only ever recognise a fraction of it because ‘brains’ may take a form unrecognisable to humans.

For example, instead of being an alien civilisation, ET may be a single integrated intelligence.

He mused that the galaxy may already teem with advanced life and that our descendants could ‘plug in’ to a galactic community.

Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-3285966/Is-ET-ROBOT-Astronomer-Royal-believes-aliens-transitioned-organic-forms-machines-humans-same.html#ixzz3pOiCcJY8