14 January 2010

Mind Creation, Development, and Restoration

Creating new artificial minds is the holy grail of cognitive science -- that bastard branch of science that borrows shamelessly from psychology, philosophy, neuroscience, linguistics, anthropology, computer science, electrical engineering, physics, nanotechnology -- and any other area of thought that may serve. One interesting approach to mind-creation borrows from the insect world in an attempt to create a "hive mind" or "swarm mind."
With an eye on the potential that swarm intelligence holds for the development of information technology and robotics, the European Research Council (ERC) awarded a $2.9-million ERC Advanced Grant Tuesday to Marco Dorigo to help the research director for the Belgian Funds for Scientific Research (FNRS) and co-director of IRIDIA (the Free University of Brussels's artificial intelligence lab) further his work engineering swarm intelligence systems.

...As far back as 1991 Dorigo used his knowledge of ant behavior to create mathematical procedures that could be used to solve complex human problems, such as routing trucks, scheduling airlines or guiding military robots, Peter Miller wrote in a July 2007 National Geographic article.

The Italian-born researcher is also the founder of the "swarmanoid" project, whose goal is to design, implement and control a distributed robotic system of small heterogeneous, dynamically connected, autonomous robots. "The swarmanoid that we intend to build will be comprised of numerous (about 60) autonomous robots of three types: eye-bots, hand-bots and foot-bots," according to the swarmoid Web site Swarm-Bots. Foot-bots are used to transport things on the ground, and hand-bots climb walls and manipulate objects, whereas eye-bots fly, providing information to the other units, according to Miller. _SciAm
Such a "bottom-up" approach to intelligent behaviour will be incredibly useful to future efforts to create "artificial general intelligence" (AGI). Complex swarm behaviours are evolved rather than programmed -- emerging from simple, low level rules and constraints. Neuronal group behaviours in brains are likely to use many closely analogous mechanisms.

Of course, we have had an excellent working example of the evolution of intelligence (and consciousness) in the human fetus, neo-nate, and infant. In fact, complex learning may take place much earlier in fetal development than scientists previously thought.
In a study published in July in Child Development, researchers from the Netherlands reported short-term memory in 30- to 38-week-old fetuses. First they put a vibrating, honking device on the abdomens of 93 preg­nant women. The fetuses quickly “habituated”—that is, they figured out that the noise was not dangerous. When they heard it again 10 minutes later, they did not squirm and their heart rates did not escalate. “It’s like getting used to a New York train station,” says lead author J. G. Nijhuis, a professor of obstetrics at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. “It is a learning capability to distinguish safe from unsafe stimuli. It is a primitive form of memory.”

The 34-week-old fetuses even recalled the sound four weeks later. “What this study clearly says is at least beginning at 30 weeks and possibly before that, the fetal brain is starting to lay down short-term memories and might even be laying down some long-term memories,” says Rahil Briggs, director of Healthy Steps at Montefiore Medical Center and assistant professor of pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. “This is a sensitive period of development.” _SciAm

One of the most tragic events in life, is the departure of intelligence and /or consciousness from a person whose body goes on living. A great deal of effort is being expended to find ways to restore consciousness and cognition that has been lost.
Now a few hardy pioneers are finding innovative ways to help. Their technology of choice is deep-brain stimulation (DBS). The method has been much in the public eye as a way to ameliorate the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. Electrodes are implanted into a region just below the thalamus, the quail-egg-shaped structure in the center of the brain. When the electric current is turned on, the rigor and tremors of this movement disorder disappear instantly.
Over the past 15 years neurosurgeon Takamitsu Yamamoto and his colleagues at the Nihon University School of Medicine in Tokyo stimulated parts of the intralaminar nuclei (ILN) of the thalamus in VS and MCS patients. These regions were targeted because they are involved in producing arousal and in controlling widespread activity throughout the cortex. Indeed, according to the late neurosurgeon Joseph Bogen of the University of Southern California, the ILN is the one structure absolutely essential to consciousness.

Patients react immediately when the ILN is stimulated in this manner: they open their eyes, their pupils dilate, they make meaningless sounds, their blood pressure increases and their EEG activity desynchronizes. This arousal reaction by itself is not of therapeutic utility and does not predict recovery. But the long-term effect of such stimulation was encouraging: eight of 21 patients transitioned from the unresponsive VS to the more communicative MCS condition, and the five MCS patients who were stimulated emerged from their bedridden state, with four of them able to enjoy life back at home. _SciAm

The only thing worse than the prospect of millions of humans walking around with DBS (deep brain stimulation) electrodes going into their brains, is the prospect of those millions lying in bed mindless and helpless.  No, actually, there are many worse prospects.

The DBS approach will go only so far.  We will need to make use of new "brain-bridging" prosthetic brain implants, which bypass areas of brain damage while new brain tissue is being seeded and scaffolded.  Longer term brain prosthesis which monitor attempts at intra-cerebral communication, and provide automatic routing and transfer functions will also come into use.

This is the age of bastard sciences such as cognitive science.  An inter-disciplinary world that begs, borrows, steals, and collaborates within and between disciplines will be vital to the emergence of the next level.

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