Philosophical Zombies

Under the influence of e.g. Guy Claxton’s Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind, I increasingly think that David Chalmers is wrong and that in fact we do live in his parallel thought experiment universe of philosophical zombies.

Or like the various proxies of the Puppet Master in Ghost in the Shell, we have all been ghost-hacked and are in fact shell-selves who vanish under scrutiny.

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A Hive Mind of One

My friend Mick alerted me that Carl Zimmer was featured in a recent episode of RadioLab dedicated to the subject of parasites (Abumrad, Jad and Robert Krulwich, “Parasites,” 7 September 2009). Despite being somewhat annoying in format and low-density in it’s information presentation, the show contains a number of points interesting to my project.

Hookworms

In the second part of the second segment (starting at 31:25), they deal with the symbiosis between hookworms and the human immune system. The segment consists of a profile of Jasper Lawrence, a man who had severe allergies and — having chased down a certain direction of research — decided to travel to Cameroon to infect himself with hookworms. The research in question is that of the hygiene hypothesis: the notion that many developed world afflictions, including allergies, result in part from the excessively sterile human environment. Asthma is 50 percent less likely in a person who has had a hookworm and in Africa allergies are almost entirely unknown. It is theorized that similar to the dependence of digestion upon a symbiotic relationship with non-human microflora of the digestive tract, the immune system is dependent on certain microorganisms for regulation and calibration of the immunoresponse. The complex chain of events that is the immunoresponse evolved in the constant presence of parasites, evolved around parasites; they have co-evolved to the point where their presence became necessary. “We function like rainforests; we’re ecosystems,” Mr. Lawrence says. This is the hypersea washing through humanity.

Toxoplasma Gondii

The final segment is on Toxoplasma Gondii (starting at 47:55), a parasite that lives in cats and makes their feces dangerous to pregnant women. Like many parasites, it has a multi-phase lifecycle that takes place in a multiple hosts. It only reproduces in members of the Felidae family (cats), but can live the remainder of its life in any warm-blooded creature. T. gondii is expelled by cats when they shit and the cat shit is ingested by other creatures (consumption of unwashed vegetables, inhaled while digging close to the ground — which is why pregnant women are advised against gardening). T. gondii needs to get back into the digestive tract of a cat to reproduce, so it wriggles its way to the amygdale, the part of the brain responsible for emotional reaction, and causes the host to become attracted to cats, thus, in the case of small mammals or birds, becoming easy prey for cats (it is Carl Zimmer’s argument in his book, Parasite Rex that in this way parasites are like ecological catalysts, spinning food webs ever more tightly together).

But then there is the question of humans. It is one thing to say that T. gondii might make a bird or a rat suicidal. But T. gondii infects humans too. What then?

The scientific interviewee for the segment is Robert Sapolsky, a professor of neurology at Stanford University. On the question of T. gondii altering human behavior, he declares it highly plausible:

Sapolsky: Pure speculation, but people who think about this stuff view it as not purely speculative. The notion that toxo can produce some sort of attraction to cats in humans: they don’t think it’s all that crazy.

That’s right: crazy cat lady is that way because she’s been body-snatched by toxoplasma gondii.

Less controversial than the idea that T. gondii might be making crazy cat people out of us is the idea that it can make people more prone to engage in risky behavior. Dr. Sapolsky mentions two independent studies that show that people infected with T. gondii are two to six times more likely to get in a car crash than those not infected. With this information in hand, host and guest make the larger point:

Ellen Horne: It might be possible — might be possible — that toxo is guiding our emotions, changing who we are in some basic way. And if you consider that toxo might just be one of thousands of tiny little parasites inside us, pulling our strings from the inside, well that thought is pretty creepy.

Sapolsky: Even if the entire lesson with toxo is that a small subset of infected people now have one half of one percent more likelihood of wanting to drive really recklessly, even lurking in that one half of one percent are some serious implications for thinking about free will. We haven’t a clue the biology lurking in the background that makes free will seem a little bit suspect.

I’m less concerned with that old philosophical saw of free will versus determinism, than with extending an idea from segment on the hookworms. Mr. Lawrence says, “We function like rainforests; we’re ecosystems.” Presumably he is referring to our bodies. But the implication of toxoplasma gondii is that we are ecosystems in out minds as well. To the naïve sort of homunculus, Herman’s Head notion of consciousness, we must now add a few animal spirits.

Update, 23 October 2009: For instance this woman must have a pretty severe infection of T. gondii.

Update no. 2, 5 June 2010: Parasitogenic felinophilia (Toxoplasma gondii) may be treatable with haloperidol, an antipsychotic (“A Game of Cat and Mouse,” The Economist, 3 June 2010). Repost from my twitter feed.

Two Recluses on Cosmos and Psyche

Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and reverence, the more often and more steadily one reflects on them: the starry heavens above and the moral law within.

~ Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason (1788)

The Brain — is wider than the Sky—
For — put them side by side—
The one the other will contain
With ease — and You — beside—

~ Emily Dickinson, 632

Reconstructing Hegelianism

Here’s why Charles Mudede has become one of my most closely followed blogger-thinkers: because his project is my project (“The End of Internalism,” SLOG, The Stranger, 9 June 2009):

I’m quietly building a case for the importance of Hegel in an age that cares neither for him or his direct descendant, Marx. A part of the case will, one, link Hegel’s concept of geist and its movement in time (world history) with the idea of the evolution of noosphere in Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s Phenomenon of Man; and, two, link Hegel’s idea of absolute spirit with the ideas expressed in Alva Noë’s new book Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness — some of these ideas can be heard on the Brain Science Podcast.

I am very interested in using contemporary information economy concepts such as the noosphere or general systems theory to reconstruct the Hegelian system. I’m less sure where Mr. Mudede is going with the second part of this, but Out of Our Heads is on my list now.

The First Non-Trivial Cyborg

There are all sorts of cyborgs already among us: my dad has plastic irises, my mom has a metal hip. But these are trivial. A team of researchers at the University of Reading, United Kingdom has produced the first non-trivial cyborg, a robot controlled entirely by neural circuitry (“A ‘Frankenrobot’ with a Biological Brain,” Agence France-Presse, 13 August 2008):

… Gordon has a brain composed of 50,000 to 100,000 active neurons. Once removed from rat foetuses and disentangled from each other with an enzyme bath, the specialised nerve cells are laid out in a nutrient-rich medium across an eight-by-eight centimetre (five-by-five inch) array of 60 electrodes.

This “multi-electrode array” (MEA) serves as the interface between living tissue and machine, with the brain sending electrical impulses to drive the wheels of the robots, and receiving impulses delivered by sensors reacting to the environment. Because the brain is living tissue, it must be housed in a special temperature-controlled unit — it communicates with its “body” via a Bluetooth radio link. The robot has no additional control from a human or computer.

From the very start, the neurons get busy. “Within about 24 hours, they start sending out feelers to each other and making connections,” said Warwick. “Within a week we get some spontaneous firings and brain-like activity” similar to what happens in a normal rat — or human — brain, he added. But without external stimulation, the brain will wither and die within a couple of months.

“Now we are looking at how best to teach it to behave in certain ways,” explained Warwick. To some extent, Gordon learns by itself. When it hits a wall, for example, it gets an electrical stimulation from the robot’s sensors. As it confronts similar situations, it learns by habit. To help this process along, the researchers also use different chemicals to reinforce or inhibit the neural pathways that light up during particular actions.

Gordon, in fact, has multiple personalities — several MEA “brains” that the scientists can dock into the robot. “It’s quite funny — you get differences between the brains,” said Warwick. “This one is a bit boisterous and active, while we know another is not going to do what we want it to.” [reparagraphed]

See also Marks, Paul, “Rise of the Rat-Brained Robots,” New Scientist, 13 August 2008, pp. 22-23.

One of the possibilities mentioned without being entirely explicit about it is that these small brain models will hasten the pace of discovery in brain research. One of the obstacles of neurology is the sheer scale of the problem. With options like this, neurology becomes considerably more experimental then observational. And it potentially unleashes the hacker ethic on the problem: the challenge of creation can be a powerful addition to that of unalloyed comprehension. One wonders when the first trained rather than remote-controlled BattleBot will make its debut or when Survival Research Labs will get in on the act.

Its also worth noting that the lead scientist on the project is Kevin Warwick of Project Cyborg and that they will be writing up some results in the Journal of Neural Engineering. Can you believe that such a journal even exists? Following on this, neural engineering will be a growth field.

Enough of the messianism, time for the snark.

1991, Terminator II: Judgment Day, Linda Hamilton

They just should have made it look more like a T-800 than Wall-E. But when you see research like this ya gotta wonder if these people have ever watched any of the Terminator films. And I guess the Wall-E-like exterior is necessary for the next round of grants. And if you make it look like a T-800 then some Linda Hamilton / Ted Kaczynski type is going to show up at your door with an AK-47 and a grenade belt across her chest. On the other hand, if I could concoct a plan whereby Linda Hamilton would show up at my door with a grenade belt strapped across her chest that would be awesome.

The Thinking Cap

Scientific American has an article on how the mind-machine interface is about to go commercial with a wearable EEG game controller that reads your mind (Sergo, Peter, “Head Games: Video Controller Taps into Brain Waves,” 14 April 2008). How’d they do it? Exactly the way the people at Wired would imagine. Rather than developing a series of hard-won determinate correlations between identified brain waves and intentions they just brute forced it. They recorded a gigantic quantity of sample data and processed it using a cloud computer to find the patterns:

Emotiv solved this brain-computer interface problem with the help of a multidisciplinary team that included neuroscientists, who understood the brain at a systems level (rather than individual cells), and computer engineers with a knack for machine learning and pattern recognition. Over the last four years, the company has conducted thousands of EEG recordings on hundreds of volunteers — not all gamers — as they experienced virtual scenarios that elicited various emotions, facial expressions and cognitive demands. The aim was to find a revealing brain activity that many people shared — a needle in a haystack of frenzied signals. Now, the EPOC allows users to fine-tune settings that allow it to pick up on even the subtlest of smirks.

When building these algorithms commenced two years ago, it had taken up to 72 hours for a bank of powerful computers to run through a mere 10 seconds of individual brain data and extract important features. Sorting through a seemingly endless stream of recordings eventually led Emotiv to find consistent signal patterns that revealed specific mental experiences. “Through a large enough sample size,” Le says, “we were able to get some consistency around the population to attain a high degree of confidence that it accurately measures an emotional state.”

And in dispensing with theoretical purity and just going with base correlation, the engineers at Emotive didn’t even have to concern themselves with the signal to noise ratio of the data:

Buch also suspects that the facial expressions that the EPOC detects are based more on the electrical activity of facial and scalp muscles than the brain per se. Although the electrical activity of muscles, he explained, is normally considered as artifact noise that needs to be filtered out to attain clean EEG signals that are of interest, they are still informative about how facial muscles move, such as during a wink. Tan agrees, saying that in their classification strategy some of the EPOC’s detections are based on muscle movements.

It’s all just correlation and if the noise helps identify the correlation, than it’s just as good as signal. In the petabyte age there is no phenomenon under consideration, not phenomenon under consideration issue. Any possible interference will be defeated by the size of the data set.

Now if they would just make a model that looks like this:

Robotech, Rick Hunter in the thinking cap

And maybe control an F-14 that transforms into a 50 foot tall robot instead of stupid games.