Chapter 1. An Introduction to Brain and Behavior
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Christian Jarrett November 2013, I proudly launched the Brain Watch blog here at WIRED. This will be my final post. For seventeen months I’ve used the blog to report on new neuroscience findings, to reflect on how neuroscience is influencing the public and media, to investigate the claims of brain products, to explore neurological abnormality and death, and to debunk misconceptions about the brain. I loved reading your comments and I was thrilled when I found my ideas from here quoted in other publications. It’s been a lot of fun. Here’s some of what I learned: Brain myths die hard When the movie Lucy came out last year, it provided me an opportunity to challenge the 10% brain myth and explore its origins (the idea we only use 10% of our brains is a premise of the film). With such tired myths, it’s easy to wonder if anybody believes them anymore. Writing this blog, I learned not to underestimate their staying power! Consider the vitriol my 10% post attracted from a neuroscience grad student at Yale. In an email dripping with disdain she told me “You … should feel ashamed for releasing such a misinformed article. … There are misinformed and uneducated people all over the internet trying to disprove this 10% notion, but that is expected. This is certainly NOT something I expected from someone allegedly as well educated as yourself.” Brain science is confusing and complicated Hardly a revelation, you might say. But writing this blog brought home to me the messy reality of neuroscience. Consider how tabloid papers like dividing the world into those activities and technologies that cause brain shrinkage and those that cause brain growth – the implicit assumption always being that growth is good and shrinkage bad.
Link ID: 20706 - Posted: 03.21.2015
A long-term study has pointed to a link between breastfeeding and intelligence. The research in Brazil traced nearly 3,500 babies, from all walks of life, and found those who had been breastfed for longer went on to score higher on IQ tests as adults. Experts say the results, while not conclusive, appear to back current advice that babies should be exclusively breastfed for six months. But they say mothers should still have a choice about whether or not to do it. Regarding the findings - published in The Lancet Global Health - they stress there are many different factors other than breastfeeding that could have an impact on intelligence, although the researchers did try to rule out the main confounders, such as mother's education, family income and birth weight. Dr Bernardo Lessa Horta, from the Federal University of Pelotas in Brazil, said his study offers a unique insight because in the population he studied, breastfeeding was evenly distributed across social class - not something just practised by the rich and educated. Most of the babies, irrespective of social class, were breastfed - some for less than a month and others for more than a year. Those who were breastfed for longer scored higher on measures of intelligence as adults. They were also more likely to earn a higher wage and to have completed more schooling. Dr Horta believes breast milk may offer an advantage because it is a good source of long-chain saturated fatty acids which are essential for brain development. But experts say the study findings cannot confirm this and that much more research is needed to explore any possible link between breastfeeding and intelligence. © 2015 BBC.
If you missed the great dress debate of 2015 you were probably living under a rock. Staffrooms across the globe threatened to come to a standstill as teachers addressed the all-important question – was the dress white and gold or blue and black? This is just one example of how our brains interpret things differently. So, with the 20th anniversary of Brain Awareness Week from 16 to 22 March, this week we bring you a collection of ideas and resources to get students’ synapses firing. The brain is one of our most interesting organs, and advances in technology and medicine mean we now know more about it than ever before. Brain Awareness Week is a global campaign to raise awareness of the progress and benefits of brain research. The organisers, the Dana Foundation, have put together an assortment of teaching materials for primary and secondary students. For children aged five to nine, the Mindboggling Workbook is a good place to start. It includes information on how the brain works, what it does and how to take care of it. There’s also a section on the nervous system, which you could turn into a fun group activity. Ask one student to lie down on a large sheet of paper while others trace around them. Add a drawing of the brain and the spinal cord. Use different coloured crayons to illustrate how neurons send messages around your body when you a) touch something hot, b) get stung on the leg by a wasp, and c) wriggle your toes after stepping in sand. Can students explain why the brain is described as being more powerful than a computer? © 2015 Guardian News and Media Limited
Link ID: 20673 - Posted: 03.10.2015
By Neuroskeptic There is a popular view that all of the natural sciences can be arranged in a chain or ladder according to the complexity of their subjects. On this view, physics forms the base of the ladder because it deals with the simplest building-blocks of matter, atoms and subatomic particles. Chemistry is next up because it studies interacting atoms i.e. molecules. Biology studies complex collections of molecules, i.e. cells. Then comes neuroscience which deals with a complex collection of interacting cells – the brain. Psychology, perhaps, can be seen as the next level above neuroscience, because psychology studies brains interacting with each other and with the environment. So this on this model, we have a kind of Great Chain of Science, something like this: This is an appealing model. But is biology really basic to neuroscience (and psychology)? At first glance it seems like biology – most importantly cell and molecular biology – surely is basic to neuroscience. After all, brains are comprised of cells. All of the functions of brain cells, like synaptic transmission and plasticity, are products of biological machinery, i.e. proteins and ultimately genes. This doesn’t imply that neuroscience could be ‘reduced to’ biology, any more than biology will ever be reduced to pure chemistry, but it does seem to imply that biology is the foundation for neuroscience.
Link ID: 20664 - Posted: 03.09.2015
By Michael Erard Freckle, a male rhesus monkey, was greeted warmly by his fellow monkeys at his new home in Amherst, Massachusetts, when he arrived in 2000. But he didn’t return the favor: He terrorized his cagemate by stealing his fleece blanket and nabbed each new blanket the researchers added, until he had 10 and his cagemate none. After a few months, Freckle had also acquired a new name: Ivan, short for Ivan the Terrible. Freckle/Ivan, now at Melinda Novak’s primate research lab at the University of Massachusetts, may be unusual in having two names, but all of his neighbors have at least one moniker, Novak says. “You can say, ‘Kayla and Zoe are acting out today,’ and everybody knows who Kayla and Zoe are,” Novak says. “If you say ‘ZA-56 and ZA-65 are acting up today,’ people pause.” Scientists once shied away from naming research animals, and many of the millions of mice and rats used in U.S. research today go nameless, except for special individuals. But a look at many facilities suggests that most of the other 891,161 U.S. research animals have proper names, including nonhuman primates, dogs, pigs, rabbits, cats, and sheep. Rats are Pia, Splinter, Oprah, Persimmon. Monkeys are Nyah, Nadira, Tas, Doyle. One octopus is called Nixon. Breeder pairs of mice are “Tom and Katie,” or “Brad and Angelina.” If you’re a mouse with a penchant for escape, you’ll be Mighty Mouse or Houdini. If you’re a nasty mouse, you’ll be Lucifer or Lucifina. Animals in research are named after shampoos, candy bars, whiskeys, family members, movie stars, and superheroes. They’re named after Russians (Boris, Vladimir, Sergei), colors, the Simpsons, historical figures, and even rival scientists. These unofficial names rarely appear in publications, except sometimes in field studies of primates. But they’re used daily. © 2015 American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Keyword: Animal Rights
Link ID: 20625 - Posted: 02.27.2015
By Jocelyn Kaiser The number of animals used by the top federally funded U.S. biomedical research institutions has risen 73% over 15 years, a “dramatic increase” driven mostly by more mice, concludes an animal rights group. They say researchers are not doing enough to reduce their use of mice, which are exempt from some federal animal protection laws. The National Institutes of Health (NIH), which collected the data, says the analysis by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is “inappropriate.” The analysis was published online today in the Journal of Medical Ethics. Although the Animal Welfare Act requires that the U.S. Department of Agriculture track research labs’ use of cats, dogs, and nonhuman primates, smaller vertebrates—including mice, rats, fish, and birds bred for research—are exempt. To get a sense of the trends, PETA filed Freedom of Information Act requests for data from inventories that NIH-funded institutions must submit to NIH every 4 years to receive an “assurance” allowing them to do animal research. Looking at the 25 top NIH-funded institutions, PETA found these institutions housed a daily average of about 74,600 animals between 1997 and 2003; that leaped to an average of about 128,900 a day by 2008 to 2012, a 73% increase. (Because institutions don’t report at the same time, PETA combined figures over three time periods.) © 2015 American Association for the Advancement of Science
Keyword: Animal Rights
Link ID: 20616 - Posted: 02.26.2015
Alison Abbott German police seized documents in a raid on Tuesday on the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen, as part of an investigation into alleged violations of animal-protection laws. The investigation was launched last year after a video shot by an animal-rights activist who infiltrated the institute was broadcast on television in September. An independent investigation carried out by the Max Planck Society found no systematic problems, and this month the state government of Baden-Württemberg said that, following its own investigations, it saw no reason to revoke any animal licences. A spokesperson for the Max Planck Society in Munich, who asked not to be named, told Nature that activists were carrying out an unjustified campaign against the institute, where some scientists use monkeys in their research on how the brain works. “There is an agreed consensus within society about how much research can be done with animals and in what conditions,” the spokesperson said, adding that society wants researchers to tackle diseases such as dementia — but that this cannot be done without using animals. “The work is carried out correctly in Tübingen — we have nothing to hide.” Friedrich Mülln, head of the Augsburg-based activist group SOKO Tierschutz — which last year pledged to continue actions against the institute until it stopped its monkey research — says that the Max Planck Society is lying about the animals' treatment, and that the Tübingen institute is a “black mark on an otherwise admirable organization”. He added that his group is working closely with police. © 2015 Nature Publishing Group,
Keyword: Animal Rights
Link ID: 20539 - Posted: 02.02.2015
By Michael Balter Our ancestors likely had sex with Neandertals, but when and where did these encounters take place? The discovery of a 55,000-year-old partial skull of a modern human in an Israeli cave, the first sighting of Homo sapiens in this time and place, offers skeletal evidence to support the idea that Neandertals and moderns mated in the Middle East between 50,000 and 60,000 years ago. What’s more, the skull could belong to an ancestor of the modern humans who later swept across Europe and Asia and replaced the Neandertals. The find supports a raft of recent genetic studies. A 2010 analysis, for example, found that up to 2% of the genomes of today’s Europeans and Asians consist of Neandertal DNA, a clear sign of at least limited interbreeding in the past. Two years later, scientists compared ancient DNA extracted from Neandertal fossils to that of contemporary modern human populations around the world, concluding that this interbreeding took place in the Middle East, most likely between 47,000 and 65,000 years ago. And last year, a 45,000-year-old modern human found in Siberia, the oldest modern to have its genome sequenced, was revealed to have harbored a little more than 2% Neandertal DNA, allowing researchers to refine the interbreeding event to roughly 50,000 to 60,000 years ago. From the Neandertal side, this time and place make sense. That’s because numerous skeletons dated to that time period have been found in caves in Israel and other parts of the Middle East over the years, and Neandertals were still living in the region as late as 49,000 years ago. Yet the other side of this mating partnership has been conspicuously absent from the fossil record of the Middle East. © 2015 American Association for the Advancement of Science
Link ID: 20532 - Posted: 01.29.2015
Sara Reardon The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) has modified the way a controversial lab studies stress in monkeys in response to criticism by animal-rights activists and members of Congress who say that the research is inhumane. At issue are experiments led by Stephen Suomi, a psychologist at the US National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) in Poolesville, Maryland. Suomi’s lab studies how removing newborn rhesus macaques from their mothers affects biological processes such as brain activity and gene expression, and behaviours such as alcohol consumption in the infants. He has performed similar experiments for about three decades, and has received roughly US$30 million over the past seven years for the work, according to the activist group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which obtained documents and videos from the lab through a freedom-of-information request. In September, PETA began posting ads in the subway station near NIH’s Bethesda, Maryland, campus, and in newspapers condemning the experiments as “cruel and archaic”, and arguing that they yielded results that were not relevant to human health. The group also posted video of NIH monkey experiments on its website. PETA’s campaign drew the attention of Congress. In December, four Democratic members of the House of Representatives wrote to the NIH, demanding that the agency’s Bioethics Commission investigate the Suomi lab’s practices and the justification for the experiments. “We know what the impact is when children are taken from their parents,” says one of the lawmakers, Lucille Roybal-Allard (Democrat, California). “While [animal] research is necessary in many cases, we can’t just do it without evaluation and having a clear purpose.” © 2015 Nature Publishing Group
By Elizabeth Pennisi In the animal kingdom, humans are known for our big brains. But not all brains are created equal, and now we have new clues as to why that is. Researchers have uncovered eight genetic variations that help determine the size of key brain regions. These variants may represent “the genetic essence of humanity,” says Stephan Sanders, a geneticist and pediatrician at the University of California, San Francisco, who was not involved in the study. These results are among the first to come out of the ENIGMA (Enhancing Neuro Imaging Genetics through Meta-Analysis) collaboration, involving some 300 scientists from 33 countries. They contributed MRI scans of more than 30,000 people, along with genetic and other information, most of which had been collected for other reasons. “This paper represents a herculean effort,” Sanders says. Only by pooling their efforts could the researchers track down subtle genetic influences on brain size that would have eluded discovery in smaller studies. “We were surprised we found anything at all,” says Paul Thompson, a neuroscientist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. But in the end, “we were able to identify hot points in the genome that help build the brain.” For the analyses, Thompson and his colleagues looked for single-letter (nucleotide base) changes in DNA that correspond to the sizes of key brain regions. One region, the hippocampus, stores memories and helps one learn. Another, called the caudate nucleus, makes it possible to ride a bike, play an instrument, or drive a car without really thinking about it. A third is the putamen, which is involved in running, walking, and moving the body as well as in motivation. The researchers did not try to examine the neocortex, the part of the brain that helps us think and is proportionally much bigger in humans than in other animals. The neocortex has crevices on its surface that look so different from one individual to the next that it’s really hard to measure consistently across labs. © 2015 American Association for the Advancement of Science
John Markoff MENLO PARK, CALIF. — Ann Lam delicately places a laboratory slide holding a slice of brain from a living human onto a small platform in a room the size of a walk-in refrigerator. She closes a heavy door and turns to a row of computers to monitor her experiments. She is using one of the world’s most sophisticated and powerful microscopes, the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource, to learn about the distribution of metals in the brains of epilepsy patients. But she has another reason for being here as well. Traditional techniques for staining brain tissue produce byproducts and waste that are hazardous to the environment. And often, this sort of research is performed on animals, something Dr. Lam insists on avoiding. The radiation that illuminates the Stanford microscope was once a waste product produced by the particle accelerators. Now that it has been harnessed — recycled, in a sense — she is able to use it to examine tissue removed from living human patients, not animals. For Dr. Lam, those are important considerations. Indeed, scientists like her worry that neuroscience has become a dirty business. Too often, they say, labs are stocked with toxic chemicals, dangerous instruments and hapless animal subjects. Funding often comes from the military, and some neuroscientists fear their findings may soon be applied in ways that they never intended, raising moral questions that are seldom addressed. In 2012, Dr. Lam and Dr. Elan Ohayon, her husband, founded the Green Neuroscience Laboratory in a former industrial building in the Convoy District, an up-and-coming San Diego neighborhood. Solar panels rest on the roof, and a garden is lovingly tended on the second floor. © 2015 The New York Times Company
Alison Abbott Activists calling for an end to research using non-human primates have stepped up activities in Germany and Italy. An estimated 800 animal-rights activists demonstrated in front of the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen, Germany, on 20 December, calling for an end to the research with monkeys that takes place there. A smaller group maintained an all-night vigil. Friedrich Mülln, head of the activist group SOKO Tierschutz, which organized the action, told Nature that the group would continue actions against the institute next year “until the department that does this research is closed down.” In September, SOKO Tierschutz, which is based in Augsburg, Germany, posted a video on its website that included material filmed secretly in the institute by a former animal carer. The footage was used in a television report that claimed malpractice in the laboratory, but a preliminary investigation commissioned in response by the Max Planck Society did not reveal systematic problems in animal welfare. The society says that the Tübingen scientists contribute importantly to global research efforts to understand the human brain. In a similar undercover operation, an anonymous person took smartphone footage of caged monkeys in a primate laboratory at the Sapienza University of Rome. The popular show Striscia la Notizia, which mixes exposé with entertainment, used the footage in an 18 December report which claimed that scientists at the university conducted their work in secret and without oversight. The TV report also said that its producers contacted the Italian ministry of health and the local health office, and that neither was able to explain what the lab's experiments are about. © 2014 Nature Publishing Group
Keyword: Animal Rights
Link ID: 20437 - Posted: 12.23.2014
By Gail Sullivan Chemicals found in food and common household products have been linked to lower IQ in kids exposed to high levels during pregnancy. Previous research linked higher exposure to chemicals called "phthalates" to poor mental and motor development in preschoolers. This study was said to be the first to report a link between prenatal exposure to the chemicals and childhood development. Researchers from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health studied exposure to five types of phthalates, which are sometimes referred to as “hormone disruptors” or “endocrine disruptors.” Among these, di-n-butyl phthalate (DnBP) is used in shower curtains, raincoats, hairspray, food wraps, vinyl and pill coating, among other things — but according to the EPA, the largest source of exposure may be seafood. Di-isobutyl phthalate (DiBP) and Butylbenzyl phthalate (BBzP) are added to plastics to make them flexible. These chemicals may also used in makeup, nail polish, lacquer and explosives. The researchers linked prenatal exposure to phthalates to a more than six-point drop in IQ score compared with kids with less exposure. The study, “Persistent Associations between Maternal Prenatal Exposure to Phthalates on Child IQ at Age 7 Years," was published Wednesday in the journal PLOS One. "The magnitude of these IQ differences is troubling," one of the study’s authors, Robin Whyatt, said in a press release. "A six- or seven-point decline in IQ may have substantial consequences for academic achievement and occupational potential."
By Anna North The idea that poverty can change the brain has gotten significant attention recently, and not just from those lay readers (a minority, according to recent research) who spend a lot of time thinking about neuroscience. Policy makers and others have begun to apply neuroscientific principles to their thinking about poverty — and some say this could end up harming poor people rather than helping. At The Conversation, the sociologist Susan Sered takes issue with “news reports with headlines like this one: ‘Can Brain Science Help Lift People Out Of Poverty?’” She’s referring to a June story by Rachel Zimmerman at WBUR, about a nonprofit called Crittenton Women’s Union that aims to use neuroscience to help get people out of poverty. Elisabeth Babcock, Crittenton’s chief executive, tells Ms. Zimmerman: “What the new brain science says is that the stresses created by living in poverty often work against us, make it harder for our brains to find the best solutions to our problems. This is a part of the reason why poverty is so ‘sticky.’” And, she adds: “If we’ve been raised in poverty under all this stress, our executive functioning wiring, the actual neurology of our brains, is built differently than if we’re not raised in poverty. It is built to react quickly to danger and threats and not built as much to plan or execute strategies for how we want things to be in the future because the future is so uncertain and planning is so pointless that this wiring isn’t as called for.” Dr. Sered, however, says that applying neuroscience to problems like poverty can sometimes lead to trouble: “Studies showing that trauma and poverty change people’s brains can too easily be read as scientific proof that poor people (albeit through no fault of their own) have inferior brains or that women who have been raped are now brain-damaged.” © 2014 The New York Times Company
By Neuroskeptic An attempt to replicate the results of some recent neuroscience papers that claimed to find correlations between human brain structure and behavior has drawn a blank. The new paper is by University of Amsterdam researchers Wouter Boekel and colleagues and it’s in press now at Cortex. You can download it here from the webpage of one of the authors, Eric-Jan Wagenmakers. Neuroskeptic readers will know Wagenmakers as a critic of statistical fallacies in psychology and a leading advocate of preregistration, which is something I never tire of promoting either. Boekel et al. attempted to replicate five different papers which, together, reported 17 distinct positive results in the form of structural brain-behavior (‘SBB’) correlations. An SBB correlation is an association between the size (usually) of a particular brain area and a particular behavioral trait. For instance, one of the claims was that the amount of grey matter in the amygdala is correlated with the number of Facebook friends you have. To attempt to reproduce these 17 findings, Boekel et al. took 36 students whose brains were scanned with two methods, structural MRI and DWI. The students then completed a set of questionnaires and psychological tests, identical to ones used in the five papers that were up for replication. The methods and statistical analyses were fully preregistered (back in June 2012); Boekel et al. therefore had no scope for ‘fishing’ for positive (or negative) results by tinkering with the methodology. So what did they find? Nothing much. None of the 17 brain-behavior correlations were significant in the replication sample.
Keyword: Brain imaging
Link ID: 20330 - Posted: 11.20.2014
By DENISE GRADY An electrical device glued to the scalp can slow cancer growth and prolong survival in people with the deadliest type of brain tumor, researchers reported on Saturday. The device is not a cure and, on average, adds only a few months of life when used along with the standard regimen of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. Some doctors have questioned its usefulness. But scientists conducting a new study said the device was the first therapy in a decade to extend life in people with glioblastomas, brain tumors in which median survival is 15 months even with the best treatment. The disease affects about 10,000 people a year in the United States and is what killed Senator Edward M. Kennedy in 2009. It is so aggressive and hard to treat that even seemingly small gains in survival are considered important. The new findings mean the device should become part of the standard care offered to all patients with newly diagnosed glioblastomas, the researchers conducting the study said. The equipment consists of four pads carrying transducer arrays that patients glue to their scalps and change every few days. Wires lead to a six-pound operating system and power supply. Except for some scalp irritation, the device has no side effects, the study found. But patients have to wear it more or less around the clock and must keep their heads shaved. It generates alternating, low-intensity electrical fields — so-called tumor-treating fields — that can halt tumor growth by stopping cells from dividing, which leads to their death. The researchers said the technology might also help treat other cancers, and would be tested in mesothelioma and cancers of the lung, ovary, breast and pancreas. © 2014 The New York Times Company
Link ID: 20319 - Posted: 11.17.2014
By Anna North Do you devour the latest neuroscience news, eager to learn more about how your brain works? Or do you click past it to something else, something more applicable to your life? If you’re in the latter camp, you may be in the majority. A new study suggests that many people just don’t pay that much attention to brain science, and its findings may raise a question: Is “neuro-literacy” really necessary? At Wired, Christian Jarrett writes, “It feels to me like interest in the brain has exploded.” He cites the prevalence of the word “brain” in headlines as well as “the emergence of new fields such as neuroleadership, neuroaesthetics and neuro-law.” But as a neuroscience writer, he notes, he may be “heavily biased” — and in fact, some research “suggests neuroscience has yet to make an impact on most people’s everyday lives.” For instance, he reports, Cliodhna O’Connor and Helene Joffe recently interviewed 48 Londoners about brain science for a paper published in the journal Science Communication. Anyone who thinks we live in an era of neuro-fixation may find the results a bit of a shock. Said one participant in the research: “Science of the brain? I haven’t a clue. Nothing at all. I’d be lying if I said there was.” Another: “Brain research I understand, an image of, I don’t know, a monkey or a dog with like the top of their head off and electrodes and stuff on their brain.” And another: “I might have seen it on the news or something, you know, some report of some description. But because they probably mentioned the word ‘science,’ or ‘We’re going to go now to our science correspondent Mr. Lala,’ that’s probably when I go, okay, it’s time for me to make a cup of tea.” According to the study authors, 71 percent of respondents “took pains to convey that neuroscience was not salient in their day-to-day life: it was ‘just not really on my radar.’” Some respondents associated brain research with scientists in white coats or with science classes (asked to free-associate about the term “brain research,” one respondent drew a mean-faced stick figure labeled “cross teacher”). And 42 percent saw science as something alien to them, removed from their own lives. © 2014 The New York Times Company
Link ID: 20315 - Posted: 11.15.2014
By Agata Blaszczak-Boxe When it comes to lab animal welfare, rats and mice aren’t the only creatures of concern. In 2013, the European Union mandated that cephalopods—a group that includes octopuses and squid—be treated humanely when used for scientific research. In response, researchers have figured out how to anesthetize octopuses so the animals do not feel pain while being transported and handled during scientific experiments, for instance those examining their behavior, physiology, and neurobiology, as well as their use in aquaculture. In a study published online this month in the Journal of Aquatic Animal Health, researchers report immersing 10 specimens of the common octopus (Octopus vulgaris) in seawater with isoflurane, an anesthetic used in humans. They gradually increased the concentration of the substance from 0.5% to 2%. The investigators found that the animals lost the ability to respond to touch and their color paled, which means that their normal motor coordination of color regulation by the brain was lost, concluding that the animals were indeed anesthetized. The octopuses then recovered from the anesthesia within 40 to 60 minutes of being immersed in fresh seawater without the anesthetic, as they were able to respond to touch again and their color was back to normal. The researchers captured the anesthetization process on video, shown above. © 2014 American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Keyword: Animal Rights
Link ID: 20311 - Posted: 11.15.2014
By NICK BILTON Ebola sounds like the stuff of nightmares. Bird flu and SARS also send shivers down my spine. But I’ll tell you what scares me most: artificial intelligence. The first three, with enough resources, humans can stop. The last, which humans are creating, could soon become unstoppable. Before we get into what could possibly go wrong, let me first explain what artificial intelligence is. Actually, skip that. I’ll let someone else explain it: Grab an iPhone and ask Siri about the weather or stocks. Or tell her “I’m drunk.” Her answers are artificially intelligent. Right now these artificially intelligent machines are pretty cute and innocent, but as they are given more power in society, these machines may not take long to spiral out of control. In the beginning, the glitches will be small but eventful. Maybe a rogue computer momentarily derails the stock market, causing billions in damage. Or a driverless car freezes on the highway because a software update goes awry. But the upheavals can escalate quickly and become scarier and even cataclysmic. Imagine how a medical robot, originally programmed to rid cancer, could conclude that the best way to obliterate cancer is to exterminate humans who are genetically prone to the disease. Nick Bostrom, author of the book “Superintelligence,” lays out a number of petrifying doomsday settings. One envisions self-replicating nanobots, which are microscopic robots designed to make copies of themselves. In a positive situation, these bots could fight diseases in the human body or eat radioactive material on the planet. But, Mr. Bostrom says, a “person of malicious intent in possession of this technology might cause the extinction of intelligent life on Earth.” © 2014 The New York Times Company
By Christian Jarrett It feels to me like interest in the brain has exploded. I’ve seen huge investments in brain science by the USA and Europe (the BRAIN Initiative and the Human Brain Project), I’ve read about the rise in media coverage of neuroscience, and above all, I’ve noticed how journalists and bloggers now often frame stories as being about the brain as opposed to the person. Look at these recent headlines: “Why your brain loves storytelling” (Harvard Business Review); “How Netflix is changing our brains” (Forbes); and “Why your brain wants to help one child in need — but not millions” (NPR). There are hundreds more, and in each case, the headline could be about “you” but the writer chooses to make it about “your brain”. Consider too the emergence of new fields such as neuroleadership, neuroaesthetics and neuro-law. It was only a matter of time before someone announced that we’re in the midst of a neurorevolution. In 2009 Zach Lynch did that, publishing his The Neuro Revolution: How Brain Science is Changing Our World. Having said all that, I’m conscious that my own perspective is heavily biased. I earn my living writing about neuroscience and psychology. I’m vigilant for all things brain. Maybe the research investment and brain-obsessed media headlines are largely irrelevant to the general public. I looked into this question recently and was surprised by what I found. There’s not a lot of research but that which exists (such as this, on the teen brain) suggests neuroscience has yet to make an impact on most people’s everyday lives. Indeed, I made Myth #20 in my new book Great Myths of the Brain “Neuroscience is transforming human self-understanding”. WIRED.com © 2014 Condé Nast.
Link ID: 20282 - Posted: 11.06.2014