Press-Republican

FYI...

March 13, 2013

How people move things with their minds

(Continued)

TEMPE, Ariz. —

Philosophy aside, for the time being the smartest machines of all are those that humans can control. The challenge lies in how best to control them. From vacuum tubes to the DOS command line to the Mac to the iPhone, the history of computing has been a progression from lower to higher levels of abstraction. In other words, we've been moving from machines that require us to understand and directly manipulate their inner workings to machines that understand how we work and respond readily to our commands. The next step after smartphones may be voice-controlled smart glasses, which can intuit our intentions all the more readily because they see what we see and hear what we hear.

The logical endpoint of this progression would be computers that read our minds, computers we can control without any physical action on our part at all. That sounds impossible. After all, if the human brain is so hard to compute, how can a computer understand what's going on inside it?

It can't. But as it turns out, it doesn't have to — not fully, anyway. What makes brain-computer interfaces possible is an amazing property of the brain called neuroplasticity: the ability of neurons to form new connections in response to fresh stimuli. Our brains are constantly rewiring themselves to allow us to adapt to our environment. So when researchers implant electrodes in a part of the brain that they expect to be active in moving, say, the right arm, it's not essential that they know in advance exactly which neurons will fire at what rate. When the subject attempts to move the robotic arm and sees that it isn't quite working as expected, the person — or rat or monkey — will try different configurations of brain activity. Eventually, with time and feedback and training, the brain will hit on a solution that makes use of the electrodes to move the arm.

Text Only | Photo Reprints
FYI...
  • An alternative diagnosis to ADHD: Schoolchildren need more time to move

    The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tells us that in recent years, there has been a jump in the percentage of young people diagnosed with attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, commonly known as ADHD: 7.8 percent in 2003 to 9.5 percent in 2007 to 11 percent in 2011.

    July 24, 2014

  • Hospitals let patients schedule ER visits

    Three times within a week, 34-year-old Michael Granillo went to the emergency room at Northridge Hospital Medical Center in Los Angeles because of intense back pain. Each time, Granillo, who didn't have insurance, stayed for less than an hour before leaving without being seen by a doctor.

    July 23, 2014

  • Why it's basically impossible to delete those naked selfies you text

    If you're selling an old Android smartphone on an online auction site, you could be giving away rather more than you intend to, according to a recent investigation by anti-malware company Avast.

    July 21, 2014

  • Why does the Vatican need a bank?

    The Vatican Bank's history reads more like Dan Brown than the financial pages, but its worst -- and weirdest -- days may be behind it.

    July 18, 2014

  • Almost half of the world actually prefers instant coffee

    Americans' taste in coffee might be getting more high-end _with a growing fixation on perfectly roasted beans, pricier caffeinated concoctions, and artisan coffee brewers - but it turns out a surprisingly big part of the world is going in the opposite direction: toward instant coffee.

    July 17, 2014

  • ent_taylorswift.jpg There's less good music now — here's why

    Taylor Swift, the seven-time Grammy winner, is known for her articulate lyrics, so there was nothing surprising about her writing a long column for The Wall Street Journal about the future of the music industry. Yet there's reason to doubt the optimism of what she had to say.

    July 14, 2014 1 Photo

  • Can plants hear? Study finds that vibrations prompt some to boost their defenses

    They have no specialized structure to perceive sound as we do, but a new study has found that plants can discern the sound of predators through tiny vibrations of their leaves - and beef up their defenses in response.

    July 12, 2014

  • wheat1.jpg Backlash has begun against gluten-free dieters

    The swelling ranks of Americans adopting gluten-free diets have given rise to another hot trend: people calling the whole thing a bunch of baloney.

    July 11, 2014 1 Photo

  • 140516-recalls_1357_88cb85dbc81b724b4ae9c83db4426fd8.jpg Auto recalls break single-year US record with six months to go

    With six months left in 2014, automakers have already recalled more vehicles in the United States than in any other year on record.

    July 10, 2014 1 Photo

  • The science of shyness

    Shy people have quite a bit to contend with - not least the word itself. It has a number of different meanings, none of which are flattering. To "shy away" from something implies avoidance; to "shy" can also mean to move suddenly in fright; to "be shy of" something can mean to come up short, or be insufficient.

    July 8, 2014