Hacking the senses

An article in this month’s Wired looks at how new technology is being developed that crosses over sensory information from one mode to another, to compensate for impairment or disability – or even to extend the body to include completely new senses.

We humans get just the five. But why? Can our senses be modified? Expanded? Given the right prosthetics, could we feel electromagnetic fields or hear ultrasound? The answers to these questions, according to researchers at a handful of labs around the world, appear to be yes.

It turns out that the tricky bit isn’t the sensing. The world is full of gadgets that detect things humans cannot. The hard part is processing the input. Neuroscientists don’t know enough about how the brain interprets data. The science of plugging things directly into the brain ‚Äî artificial retinas or cochlear implants ‚Äî remains primitive.

So here’s the solution: Figure out how to change the sensory data you want ‚Äî the electromagnetic fields, the ultrasound, the infrared ‚Äî into something that the human brain is already wired to accept, like touch or sight. The brain, it turns out, is dramatically more flexible than anyone previously thought, as if we had unused sensory ports just waiting for the right plug-ins. Now it’s time to build them.

The article describes how researchers have built devices to provide pigeon-style magnetoreceptors, so the wearer feels where they are pointing in relation to north, and devices that translate visual information into touch sensation on the tongue.

We previously covered on Mind Hacks how some people have implanted magnets in their fingers to get a sense of touch for magnetic fields.

Link to Wired article ‘Mixed Feelings’.

2007-03-30 Spike activity

Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:

The New York Times asks whether multi-tasking is a myth and explores the psychology of divided attention.

Developing Intelligence highlights 10 important differences between brains and computers.

Body position may affect memory for events, according to a study reviewed by Cognitive Daily

Slate looks at current theories of why we sleep – with podcast.

The BPS Research Digest reports on research indicating that depression is linked to impaired spatial ability.

PsyBlog outlines seven ways in which music influences mood.

The experience of people just diagnosed with Alzheimer’s is explored by the New York Times.

Seed Magazine takes a sceptical look at some popular brain fitness software and investigates another claiming a genuine scientific pedigree.

The Neurophilosopher examines research that induced temporary number difficulties using magnets to influence brain function.

Has AI finally arrived with Numenta’s new software release? An article from Read/Write Web investigates.

Neurofuture covers recent developments in retinal eye implants used to improve or restore vision.

Quirky little flames


Pat: I once heard a funny idea about what will happen when we eventually have intelligent machines. When we try to implant that intelligence into devices we’d like to control, their behaviour won’t be so predictable.

Sandy: They’d have a quirky little “flame” inside, maybe?

Pat: Maybe

Chris: So what’s so funny about that?

Pat: Well, think of military missiles. The more sophisticated their target-tracking computers get, according to this idea, the less predictable they will function. Eventually you’ll have missiles that will decide they are pacifists and will turn around and go home and land quietly without blowing up.

Characters in a whimsical coffee house conversation tackle the idea that artificial intelligence may actually make devices less, not more, reliable.

From p90 in Douglas Hofstadter’s chapter in The Mind’s I (ISBN 0465030912) by Hofstadter and Dennett.

Bedlam Clothing

The word ‘bedlam’ commonly refers to disorder or chaos, but it originally referred to Bethlem Royal Hospital – the world’s oldest psychiatric hospital, founded in 1247 and still operational today.

The modern day Bethlem is the only psychiatric hospital I’ve ever been to that has a souvenir shop, as it has an on-site museum and archives open to the public.

Sadly, they don’t do t-shirts, but it seems a company called Bedlam Clothing may have unintentionally filled the gap in the market.

They produce a range of t-shirts, some of which are just printed with the clothing label’s name and logo on.

They’re currently on sale for only $6 dollars, and they do two female versions and one in black for men.

So if your wardrobe is lacking in history of psychiatry memorabilia, look no further.

Link to Bedlam Clothing.
Link to Royal Bethlem Hospital Museum and Archives.

Looking into beauty, sport and AI

Jonathan Edwards was a physicist, turned Olympic triple-jumper, turned BBC science presenter, and his latest radio series has been distinctly psychological – investigating beauty, sports psychology and artificial intelligence.

The programmes are archived online and are generally a successful look at to the topics, taking an eclectic approach by interviewing philosophers, artists, engineers and sports people as well as psychologists and neuroscientists.

I particularly enjoyed the edition on artificial intelligence where Edwards goes to talk to some of the AI people at Edinburgh Uni that hosts a large and world leading research community.

They have a fantastic centre in a converted church which is well worth visiting if you get the chance.

One of the highlights is the Neuroinformatics Summer School, where students can attend for a week and be trained in creating simulations of neurobiological systems.

They even have bursaries available, so if you’re a postgraduate student in cognitive science, check the webpage and think about applying. The deadline for this year is June 6th.

Link to BBC Radio 4 webpage for ‘Jonathan Edwards looks into…’
Link to Edinburgh Neuroinformatics Summer School info.