Ray Kurzweil: Get ready for hybrid thinking


Ray Kurzweil is an American author, computer scientist, inventor, futurist, and is a director of engineering at Google.


200 million years ago mammals evolved the neocortex. This allowed them to learn and think around problems, to develop new behaviour. Previous reptiles needed to ‘evolve’ new behaviour over thousands of years, but these early rodents could do so instantly. This helped mammals survive the cretaceous extinction event, and since then the neocortex has gotten larger and larger to enable high level thinking.

The brain is a series of ~300 million modules in hierarchies to work on patterns of data: to recognise, learn, implement a pattern. For example a series of modules might look for the crossbar part of an “A”, then a higher module would decide it is an “A”, then the word, sentence etc. It can also work in reverse, using context of higher levels (the rest of the word) to lower thresholds as if asking “I think it is: could this letter possibly be an A?”. This is similar to a Hierarchical Hidden Markov Model, being used in AI to understand language.

In the future hybrid thinking will evolve: combining human and computer thinking. Google will understand language more than just series of keywords, and could anticipate user problems and keep them up to date on research of interest to them. Ray also predicts that nanobots could interface with out neocortex and connect it to ‘the cloud’ – to massively expand our brainpower using an external computer network. This will expand our neocortex: and remember how powerful it was last time mammals developed their neocortex… This time we will not be restricted by the architecture of our heads – there could be no limit.

My Thoughts

The history of the neocortex is one of the better descriptions I have heard. The models he describes are easy to understand for the layman and also useful enough to apply to reality.

His comments on the future seem a bit too sci-fi though. It isn’t that this won’t happen, but he doesn’t really describe how or why. Thoughts of the AI singularity and similar ideas have been knocking around human culture for 50 years, constantly just around the corner. We are no doubt closer now than before, but the nanobots and ‘brain extension’ he talks about are a long way away. Even if AI is ready for this advancement, medical understanding of the brain is still too far away to connect us into computers.


Daphne Bavelier: Your brain on video games


Daphne Bavelier studies how the brain adapts to changes in experience, either by nature or by training


Fears over children playing video games is leveraged by the media for many headlines. While most children play games, most gamers are adults. Daphne is a brain scientist, so has studied the impact of video games on the brain. She notes that excessive gaming is hazardous to the health, but in reasonable levels is generally beneficial. With the amount of time people can play games, she is looking at ways to leverage this power to solve health problems.

Her main focus for these studies were violent first person shooter action games – such as Call of Duty, which in previous tests showed much greater benefits than other games. Her findings were

  1. Gamers have better vision. This is counter to the old story that too much screen time will harm your eyes – gamers could make out small details better and could distinguish between shades of grey (useful for driving in foggy conditions). Games are now being developed to improve patients with poor vision.
  2. Gamers are better at focussing their attention. Again this is counter to the myths, but gamers can track more objects at a time and focus on tests for longer.
  3. Gamers are better multi-taskers: they can switch from one task to another with minimal cost. They performed better in the multitasking tests than ‘multimedia taskers’ – students who report chatting while listening to music and studying.

Most of these findings fly in the face of common wisdom, and show that scientific testing is necessary to test common knowledge.

Daphne used this to try and improve the brains of non-gamers. She assigned them to play first person shooters for 10hrs over 2wks and tested their ability to mentally rotate shapes before and after. They showed a significant improvement after gaming, and maintained that improvement 5 months after the study.

She is now working with game publishers to better integrate the elements of games that improve our brains while still keeping the games fun. This is not an easy or quick thing to do – since people are wary of past efforts at educational software.

My Thoughts

I must admit I am skeptical of some of the studies shown. During the shape rotation one for example she didn’t mention a control group – is it possible the brain is improving as it gets exposed to the same test multiple times? I had a look through her publications (http://cms.unige.ch/fapse/people/bavelier/publications/publication-video-games/) and couldn’t pick out the exact study she was referring to. I hope I am wrong though – it is an interesting result if it is correct.

I am curious about how her work with the gaming companies will end up. If shooting games are already showing these benefits, is she aiming to tweak the games to focus more on the most beneficial points? Or is she trying to build more of these elements into non-shooter games?

Regardless, love the talk. Gaming often gets a bad rap from the media and other old wives tales (of the sort she debunked). It is good to know this is just another round of fear that strikes every generation as the world changes.


Jeff Iliff: One more reason to get a good night’s sleep


Jeff Iliff is a neuroscientist at Oregon Health & Science University, previously doing research into brain cleansing mechanisms at University of Rochester Medical Centre.


We spend roughly a third of our lives asleep, but it is not clear why the body needs it. 2,000 years ago it was proposed by Galen that the brain sent fluids around the body, and these were returned during sleep to rejuvenate the brain. The idea is ludicrous today, but Jeff still suggests brain activity could account for our need of sleep. The brain uses 25% of our energy but takes only 2% of our mass. The first major issue in any body organ is nutrient intake – which is satisfied by the circulatory system and the network of blood vessels surrounding the brain. The second issue is waste disposal, which in most organs is done through the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system transports waste from the cells to bloodstream, however it does not exist in our heads so cannot be used by the brain. So how does the brain dispose of waste? This was where Jeff started tackling the problem.

The brain is surrounded by cerebral spinal fluid (CSF). Waste is dumped into CSF, which is then transported to the blood. To help this, CSF is pumped along the outside of blood vessels – to clean and penetrate deeper into the brain wherever blood vessels are. However, this action only happens while we sleep. As we sleep the brain cells contract, to open up spaces between them and let the CSF flow more easily. Ironically, this idea of fluid rushing through the brain is similar to Galen’s ideas thousands of years ago.

What sorts of wastes need to be cleaned? One is Amyloid Beta – which is made all the time, but an inability to clear them away is thought to be a factor in getting Alzheimers disease. Studies have found that a decrease in sleep is associated with an increase in Amyloid Beta in the brain.

While we sleep, our brain never rests. It is busily cleaning this important machine, and possibly preventing serious issues later. By understanding these housekeeping functions today, we may be able to prevent serious diseases of the mind tomorrow.

My Thoughts

Interesting talk and interesting research. I learnt a bit about brain activity, sleep and Alzheimers all at once. He summed up a lot in less than 12 minutes.