Input Devices

What Will Replace Computer Keyboards? (xconomy.com) 299

jeffengel writes:Computer keyboards will be phased out over the next 20 years, and we should think carefully about what replaces them as the dominant mode of communicating with machines, argues Android co-founder Rich Miner. Virtual reality technology and brain-computer links -- whose advocates include Elon Musk -- could lead to a "dystopian" future where people live their lives inside of goggles, or they jack directly into computers and become completely "de-personalized," Miner worries.

He takes a more "humanistic" view of the future of human-machine interfaces, one that frees us to be more expressive and requires computers to communicate on our level, not the other way around. That means software that can understand our speech, facial expressions, gestures, and handwriting. These technologies already exist, but have a lot of room for improvement.

One example he gives is holding up your hand to pause a video.
Microsoft

Microsoft Employees Can Now Work In Treehouses (cnbc.com) 94

Microsoft's campus now features three outdoor treehouses for its employees. An anonymous reader quotes CNBC: More than 12 feet off the ground, the treehouses feature charred-wood walls, skylights, at least one gas fireplace, Wi-Fi and hidden electrical outlets. Employees can even grab a bite at an outdoor extension of the indoor cafeteria. The "more Hobbit than HQ" treehouses are designed by Pete Nelson of the TV show "Treehouse Masters" and are part of Microsoft's growing "outdoor districts..." The company touts the professional benefits of working in nature -- greater creativity, focus and happiness -- but honestly, the treehouses are just plain cool.
Microsoft touts a Harvard physician who believes nature "stimulates reward neurons in your brain. It turns off the stress response, which means you have lower cortisol levels, lower heart rate and blood pressure, and improved immune response." There's a short video on the "Working at Microsoft" channel on YouTube, but I'm curious what Slashdot readers think about working outdoors. Or, in a tree...
Medicine

Magic Mushrooms 'Reboot' Brain In Depressed People, Study Suggests (theguardian.com) 133

An anonymous reader quotes a report from The Guardian: Magic mushrooms may effectively "reset" the activity of key brain circuits known to play a role in depression, the latest study to highlight the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics suggests. Psychedelics have shown promising results in the treatment of depression and addictions in a number of clinical trials over the last decade. Imperial College London researchers used psilocybin -- the psychoactive compound that occurs naturally in magic mushrooms -- to treat a small number of patients with depression, monitoring their brain function, before and after. Images of patients' brains revealed changes in brain activity that were associated with marked and lasting reductions in depressive symptoms and participants in the trial reported benefits lasting up to five weeks after treatment.

Dr Robin Carhart-Harris, head of psychedelic research at Imperial, who led the study, said: "We have shown for the first time clear changes in brain activity in depressed people treated with psilocybin after failing to respond to conventional treatments. Several of our patients described feeling 'reset' after the treatment and often used computer analogies. For example, one said he felt like his brain had been 'defragged' like a computer hard drive, and another said he felt 'rebooted.' Psilocybin may be giving these individuals the temporary 'kick start' they need to break out of their depressive states and these imaging results do tentatively support a 'reset' analogy. Similar brain effects to these have been seen with electroconvulsive therapy." The study has been published in Scientific Reports.

Medicine

Expert Says You're Deluding Yourself If You Think You're Productive On Six Hours of Sleep (chicagotribune.com) 223

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Chicago Tribune: Getting through the workday on little sleep is a point of pride for some. But skimping on shuteye could be shortening your life and making you a less than stellar employee, according to Matthew Walker, founder and director of the Center for Human Sleep Science at the University of California, Berkeley. "Underslept employees tend to create fewer novel solutions to problems, they're less productive in their work and they take on easier challenges at work," said Walker, author of "Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams," out Tuesday. Operating on short sleep -- anything less than seven hours -- impairs a host of brain and bodily functions, said Walker, who is also a professor of neuroscience and psychology. It increases your risk for heart attack, cancer and stroke, compromises your immune system and makes you emotionally irrational, less charismatic and more prone to lying. When asked, "What do you say to people who sacrifice sleep to work?" Walker said: "I often ask the question in return, 'Is the reason you've still got so much to do because you haven't gotten enough sleep and so you're inefficient while you're working?' We know that efficiency and effectiveness are increased when you're getting sufficient sleep and it will take you longer to do the same thing on an under-slept brain, which means you end up having to stay awake longer. So goes the vicious cycle."
Science

Unselfish People Are More Likely to Wind Up With Depression (vice.com) 238

People with depression are more likely to feel bad in response to perceived inequality, according to a study published this week in Nature Human Behaviour. From a report: Simply, in experiments where participants were tasked with playing a game with a strong element of unfairness, those participants with higher levels of brain activity in depression-linked brain regions -- as recorded via fMRI scans -- were more likely to later demonstrate signs of clinical depression. This is a new test of an old idea, one that's been demonstrated in previous research. People with depression commonly demonstrate increased concern for others, or for the perspectives of others. More precisely, prosocial attitudes predict depression, which is in contrast to individualist attitudes. Individualist here basically just means selfish, or relatively selfish. The researchers behind the current study hypothesized that they would be able to observe these tendencies at the level of actual brain activity. Fortunately, there are some tried and true methods of testing prosocial behavior. One of these takes the form of what's known as an ultimatum game. The general idea is that participants are offered rewards that are to be shared among a group. Each offer differs in how much the participant gets in relation to the rest of the group, with prosocial participants more likely refuse larger personal rewards in favor of larger rewards going to everybody else. Individualists take the offer that best benefits them, while prosocial people are more concerned with other people in the group.
Science

When You Split the Brain, Do You Split the Person? (aeon.co) 124

An anonymous reader shares an article: The brain is perhaps the most complex machine in the Universe. It consists of two cerebral hemispheres, each with many different modules. Fortunately, all these separate parts are not autonomous agents. They are highly interconnected, all working in harmony to create one unique being: you. But what would happen if we destroyed this harmony? What if some modules start operating independently from the rest? Interestingly, this is not just a thought experiment; for some people, it is reality. In so-called 'split-brain' patients, the corpus callosum -- the highway for communication between the left and the right cerebral hemispheres -- is surgically severed to halt otherwise intractable epilepsy. [...] What, then, happens to the person? If the parts are no longer synchronised, does the brain still produce one person? The neuroscientists Roger Sperry and Michael Gazzaniga set out to investigate this issue in the 1960s and '70s, and found astonishing data suggesting that when you split the brain, you split the person as well. Sperry won the Nobel prize in medicine for his split-brain work in 1981. [...] Case closed? Not to me. [...] To try to get to the bottom of things, my team at the University of Amsterdam re-visited this fundamental issue by testing two split-brain patients, evaluating whether they could respond accurately to objects in the left visual field (perceived by the right brain) while also responding verbally or with the right hand (controlled by the left brain). Astonishingly, in these two patients, we found something completely different than Sperry and Gazzaniga before us. Both patients showed full awareness of presence and location of stimuli throughout the entire visual field -- right and left, both.
Open Source

Ask Slashdot: What's The Best Open Source Hardware to Tinker With? 134

This question comes from an anonymous Slashdot reader who just got an Arduino and started tinkering with electronics: I'm quite amazed at the quality of the hardware, software, and the available tutorials and (mostly free) literature. A very exciting and inexpensive way to get a basic understanding of electronics and the art of microcontroller programming.

Now that I'm infected with the idea of Open Source hardware, I'm wondering if the Slashdot community could suggest a few more things to get for a beginner in electronics with experience in programming and a basic understanding of machine learning methods. I was looking at the OpenBCI project [Open Brain Computer Interface], which seems like an interesting piece of hardware, but because of the steep price tag and the lack of reviews or blog posts on the internet, I decided to look for something else.

Leave your best answers in the comments. What's the best open source hardware to tinker with?
IT

Refresh Is Sacred (tbray.org) 193

Several Slashdot readers share a blog post: There are two kinds of client applications: The first kind has a "refresh" or "reload" button to make sure your app's in sync with its server's view of the world. The second kind is broken. Of late, I have to deal regularly with several apps, notably including an emailer and car-sharing service, that lack such a button. I can imagine why -- a customer focused product manager said "Steve Jobs taught us that fewer controls are better and we should just take care of making sure we're in sync with the cloud. So lose the button. Except, it doesn't work. Apparently nobody in the world is smart enough to arrange flawlessly reliable hands-off client/cloud synchronization. There are times when you just know that what you're seeing on the screen is wrong and if the stupid app would just assume everything it knows is wrong and ask for a brain transplant from its server, things would be OK.
AI

Are Companies Overhyping AI? (hackaday.com) 179

When it comes to artificial intelligence, "companies have been overselling the concept and otherwise normal people are taking the bait," writes Hackaday: Not to pick on Amazon, but all of the home assistants like Alexa and Google Now tout themselves as AI. By the most classic definition, that's true. AI techniques include matching natural language to predefined templates. That's really all these devices are doing today. Granted the neural nets that allow for great speech recognition and reproduction are impressive. But they aren't true intelligence nor are they even necessarily direct analogs of a human brain... The danger is that people are now getting spun up that the robot revolution is right around the corner...

[N]othing in the state of the art of AI today is going to wake up and decide to kill the human masters. Despite appearances, the computers are not thinking. You might argue that neural networks could become big enough to emulate a brain. Maybe, but keep in mind that the brain has about 100 billion neurons and almost 10 to the 15th power interconnections. Worse still, there isn't a clear consensus that the neural net made up of the cells in your brain is actually what is responsible for conscious thought. There's some thought that the neurons are just control systems and the real thinking happens in a biological quantum computer... Besides, it seems to me if you build an electronic brain that works like a human brain, it is going to have all the problems a human brain has (years of teaching, distraction, mental illness, and a propensity for error).

Citing the dire predictions of Elon Musk and Bill Gates, the article argues that "We are a relatively small group of people who have a disproportionate influence on what our friends, families, and co-workers think... We need to spread some sense into the conversation."
AI

A New Zealand Company Built An AI Baby That Plays the Piano (bloomberg.com) 87

pacopico writes: A New Zealand company called Soul Machines has built a disturbingly lifelike virtual baby powered by artificial intelligence software. According to a Bloomberg story, the baby has learned to read books, play the piano and draw pictures. The work is built off the research of Mark Sagar, the company's CEO, who is on a quest to mimic human consciousness in a machine. Sagar used to work at Weta creating lifelike faces for films like King Kong and Avatar and is now building these very realistic looking virtual avatars and pumping them full of code that not only handles things like speech but that also replicates the nervous system and brain function. The baby, for example, has virtual dopamine receptors that fire when it feels joy from playing the piano. What could go wrong?
AI

You Might Use AI, But That Doesn't Mean You're an AI Company, Says a Founder of Google Brain (venturebeat.com) 73

As AI space gets crowded, there are a slew of businesses -- new and old -- looking to market themselves as "AI companies." But according to Andrew Ng, a founder of the Google Brain team and a luminary in the space, there's more to being an AI company than just using a neural net. From a report: In his view, while it's possible to create a website for a shopping mall, that doesn't make it an internet company. In the same way, just implementing basic machine learning does not make a standard technology company (or any other business) an AI company. "You're not an AI company because there are a few people using a few neural networks somewhere," Ng said. "It's much deeper than that." First and foremost, AI companies are strategic about their acquisition of data, which is used as the fuel for machine learning systems. Once an AI company has acquired the data, Ng said that they tend to store it in centralized warehouses for processing. Most enterprises have their information spread across multiple different warehouses, and collating that data for machine learning can prove difficult. AI companies also implement modern development practices, like frequent deployments. That means it's possible to change the product and learn from the changes.
Input Devices

Typing By Brain Arrives: No Surgery Necessary (wired.com) 93

mirandakatz writes: 2017 has been a coming-out year of sorts for the brain-machine interface. But the main barrier to adoption is the potentially invasive nature of a BMI: Not many people are going to want to get surgery to have a chip implanted in their brains. A New York company may have found a solution to that. It's created a BMI that works just by an armband -- and it works now, not in some far-off future.
Steven Levy describes a recent demo by the CEO of CTRL-Labs: After [typing] a few lines of text, he pushes the keyboard away... He resumes typing. Only this time he is typing on...nothing. Just the flat tabletop. Yet the result is the same: The words he taps out appear on the monitor... The text on the screen is being generated not by his fingertips, but rather by the signals his brain is sending to his fingers. The armband is intercepting those signals, interpreting them correctly, and relaying the output to the computer, just as a keyboard would have...

CTRL-Labs, which comes with both tech bona fides and an all-star neuroscience advisory board, bypasses the incredibly complicated tangle of connections inside the cranium and dispenses with the necessity of breaking the skin or the skull to insert a chip -- the Big Ask of BMI. Instead, the company is concentrating on the rich set of signals controlling movement that travel through the spinal column, which is the nervous system's low-hanging fruit. Reardon and his colleagues at CTRL-Labs are using these signals as a powerful API between all of our machines and the brain itself.

Education

2017 'Ig Nobel' Prizes Recognize Funny Research On Cats, Crocodiles, and Cheese (improbable.com) 20

An anonymous reader writes: "The 27th First Annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony" happened Thursday at Harvard's Sanders theatre, recognizing real (but unusual) research papers from all over the world "that make people laugh, then think." This year's prize in the physics category went to Marc-Antoine Fardin, who used fluid dynamics to probe the question "Can a cat be both a solid and a liquid?"

Six prize-winning Swiss researchers also demonstrated that regular playing of a didgeridoo is an effective treatment for obstructive sleep apnoea and snoring, while two Australians tested how contact with a live crocodile affects a person's willingness to gamble. And five French researchers won the medicine prize for their use of advanced brain-scanning technology to investigate "the neural basis of disugst for cheese."

You can watch the ceremony online -- and Reuters got an interesting quote from the editor of the Annals of Improbable Research, who founded the awards ceremony 27 years ago. "We hope that this will get people back into the habits they probably had when they were kids of paying attention to odd things and holding out for a moment and deciding whether they are good or bad only after they have a chance to think."
The Military

Mystery of Sonic Weapon Attacks At US Embassy In Cuba Deepens (theguardian.com) 215

An anonymous reader quotes a report from The Guardian: The blaring, grinding noise jolted the American diplomat from his bed in a Havana hotel. He moved just a few feet, and there was silence. He climbed back into bed. Inexplicably, the agonizing sound hit him again. It was as if he'd walked through some invisible wall cutting straight through his room. Soon came the hearing loss, and the speech problems, symptoms both similar and altogether different from others among at least 21 U.S. victims in an astonishing international mystery still unfolding in Cuba. The top U.S. diplomat has called them "health attacks." New details learned by the Associated Press indicate at least some of the incidents were confined to specific rooms or even parts of rooms with laser-like specificity, baffling U.S. officials who say the facts and the physics don't add up.

Suspicion initially focused on a sonic weapon, and on the Cubans. Yet the diagnosis of mild brain injury, considered unlikely to result from sound, has confounded the FBI, the state department and U.S. intelligence agencies involved in the investigation. Some victims now have problems concentrating or recalling specific words, several officials said, the latest signs of more serious damage than the U.S. government initially realized. The United States first acknowledged the attacks in August -- nine months after symptoms were first reported.

Earth

Mind-Altering Cat Parasite Linked To a Whole Lot of Neurological Disorders (sciencealert.com) 209

schwit1 shares a report from ScienceAlert: The brain-dwelling parasite Toxoplasma gondii is estimated to be hosted by at least 2 billion people around the world, and new evidence suggests the lodger could be more dangerous than we think. While the protozoan invader poses the greatest risk to developing fetuses infected in the womb, new research suggests the parasite could alter and amplify a range of neurological disorders, including epilepsy, Alzheimer's, and Parkinson's, and also cancer. "This study is a paradigm shifter," says one of the team, neuroscientist Dennis Steindler from Tufts University. "We now have to insert infectious disease into the equation of neurodegenerative diseases, epilepsy, and neural cancers." The findings are part of an emerging field of research looking into how T. gondii, which is usually transmitted to humans via contact with cat faeces (or by eating uncooked meat), produces proteins that alter and manipulate the brain chemistry of their infected hosts.
Medicine

Researchers Find Antidepressants Increase Risk of Death (medicalxpress.com) 125

Artem Tashkinov shares a report from Medical Xpress: Antidepressant medications, most commonly prescribed to reduce depression and anxiety, increase the risk of death, according to new findings by a McMaster-led team of researchers. It's widely known that brain serotonin affects mood, and that most commonly used antidepressant treatment for depression blocks the absorption of serotonin by neurons. It is less widely known, though, that all the major organs of the body -- the heart, kidneys, lungs, liver -- use serotonin from the bloodstream. Antidepressants block the absorption of serotonin in these organs as well, and the researchers warn that antidepressants could increase the risk of death by preventing multiple organs from functioning properly.

Interestingly, the news about antidepressants is not all bad. The researchers found that antidepressants are not harmful for people with cardiovascular diseases such as heart disease and diabetes. This makes sense since these antidepressants have blood-thinning effects that are useful in treating such disorders. Unfortunately, this also means that for most people who are in otherwise good cardiovascular health, antidepressants tend to be harmful.
The study has been published in the journal Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics.
Music

Happy Music Boosts Brain's Creativity, Study Says (newscientist.com) 102

An anonymous reader quotes a report from New Scientist: Need inspiration? Happy background music can help get the creative juices flowing. Simone Ritter, at Radboud University in the Netherlands, and Sam Ferguson, at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia, have been studying the effect of silence and different types of music on how we think. They put 155 volunteers into five groups. Four of these were each given a type of music to listen to while undergoing a series of tests, while the fifth group did the tests in silence. The tests were designed to gage two types of thinking: divergent thinking, which describes the process of generating new ideas, and convergent thinking, which is how we find the best solutions for a problem. Ritter and Ferguson found that people were more creative when listening to music they thought was positive, coming up with more unique ideas than the people who worked in silence. However, happy music -- in this instance, Antonio Vivaldi's Spring -- only boosted divergent thinking. No type of music helped convergent thinking, suggesting that it's better to solve problems in silence. The study was published in the journal PLoS One.
Input Devices

A Game You Control With Your Mind (nytimes.com) 56

A startup recently demoed their prototype for a VR headset using sensors that read brain waves. An anonymous reader quotes the New York Times: There is no joystick or game pad. You must use your thoughts. You turn toward a ball on the floor, and your brain sends a command to pick it up. With another thought, you send the ball crashing into a mirror, breaking the glass and revealing a few numbers scribbled on a wall. You mentally type those numbers into a large keypad by the door. And you are out. Designed by Neurable, a small start-up founded by Ramses Alcaide, an electrical engineer and neuroscientist, the game offers what you might call a computer mouse for the mind, a way of selecting items in a virtual world with your thoughts...

The prototype is among the earliest fruits of a widespread effort to embrace technology that was once science fiction -- and in some ways still is. Driven by recent investments from the United States government and by the herd mentality that so often characterizes the tech world, a number of a start-ups and bigger companies like Facebook are working on ways to mentally control machines... Although sensors can read electrical brain activity from outside the skull, it is very difficult to separate the signal from the noise. Using computer algorithms based on research that Mr. Alcaide originally published as a doctoral student at the University of Michigan, Neurable works to read activity with a speed and accuracy that is not typically possible.

The Almighty Buck

Elon Musk's Neuralink Gets $27 Million To Build Brain Computers (bloomberg.com) 76

An anonymous reader writes: Neuralink, the startup co-founded by billionaire Elon Musk, has taken steps to sell as much as $100 million in stock to fund the development of technology that connects human brains with computers. The San Francisco-based company has already gotten $27 million in funding, according to a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Musk said via Twitter on Friday that Neuralink isn't seeking outside investors. In June, Musk said Neuralink is a priority after much more demanding commitments to his automotive and rocket companies. "Boring Co. is maybe 2 percent of my time; Neuralink is 3 percent to 5 percent of my time; OpenAI is going to be a couple of percent; and then 90-plus percent is divided between SpaceX and Tesla," said Musk at the electric-car maker's annual shareholder meeting.
Communications

Engineers Discover How To Make Antennas For Wireless Communication 100x Smaller Than Their Current Size (sciencemag.org) 129

Engineers have figured out how to make antennas for wireless communication 100 times smaller than their current size, an advance that could lead to tiny brain implants, micro-medical devices, or phones you can wear on your finger. Science Magazine reports: The new mini-antennas play off the difference between electromagnetic (EM) waves, such as light and radio waves, and acoustic waves, such as sound and inaudible vibrations. EM waves are fluctuations in an electromagnetic field, and they travel at light speed -- an astounding 300,000,000 meters per second. Acoustic waves are the jiggling of matter, and they travel at the much slower speed of sound -- in a solid, typically a few thousand meters per second. So, at any given frequency, an EM wave has a much longer wavelength than an acoustic wave. Antennas receive information by resonating with EM waves, which they convert into electrical voltage. For such resonance to occur, a traditional antenna's length must roughly match the wavelength of the EM wave it receives, meaning that the antenna must be relatively big. However, like a guitar string, an antenna can also resonate with acoustic waves. The new antennas take advantage of this fact. They will pick up EM waves of a given frequency if its size matches the wavelength of the much shorter acoustic waves of the same frequency. That means that that for any given signal frequency, the antennas can be much smaller. The trick is, of course, to quickly turn the incoming EM waves into acoustic waves.

The team created two kinds of acoustic antennas. One has a circular membrane, which works for frequencies in the gigahertz range, including those for WiFi. The other has a rectangular membrane, suitable for megahertz frequencies used for TV and radio. Each is less than a millimeter across, and both can be manufactured together on a single chip. When researchers tested one of the antennas in a specially insulated room, they found that compared to a conventional ring antenna of the same size, it sent and received 2.5 gigahertz signals about 100,000 times more efficiently, they report in Nature Communications.

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