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Worm ‘Brain’ Uploaded Into Lego Robot [1018]

de System Administrator - lunes, 15 de diciembre de 2014, 22:08

Worm ‘Brain’ Uploaded Into Lego Robot


Can a digitally simulated brain on a computer perform tasks just like the real thing?

For simple commands, the answer, it would seem, is yes it can. Researchers at the OpenWorm project recently hooked a simulated worm brain to a wheeled robot. Without being explicitly programmed to do so, the robot moved back and forth and avoided objects—driven only by the interplay of external stimuli and digital neurons.


While there are already similarly capable robots using traditional software, the research shows a digitally simulated brain can behave like its biological analog, and the demonstration has implications for big brain projects.

The BRAIN Initiative in the US and the Human Brain Project in Europe aim to map the human brain’s connections and, one day, to simulate the brain digitally. Such a simulation might yield insights into disease or breakthroughs in computer science.

But when it comes to simulating brains in silica—it’s sensible to start simple. The OpenWorm project’s simulated brain is based on the lowly C. elegans roundworm.


C. elegans.

C. elegans is an eminently humble creature, and for that reason, an extensively researched one. Scientists published the first map of the synaptic connections, or connectome, of the brain of C. elegans in 1986 and a refined draft in 2006.

The worm’s brain contains 302 neurons and 7,000 synapses. The human brain, in comparison, has 86 billion neurons and 100 trillion synapses. Whether we’ll ever fully map the human brain (or should) is a hotly debated topic.

But since we’ve already mapped the C. elegans connectome—the researchers at OpenWorm thought they’d feed it stimuli using a few external sensors and give it a robotic body to carry out whatever motor instructions the brain provided.

The robot, as you can see in the video, moves a little like a Roomba, with one critical distinction—the Roomba’s collision avoidance mechanism was written in by programmers. The OpenWorm bot’s movements, on the other hand, were not.

How does it work? The brain cells in the worm’s connectome are labeled sensory neurons, motor neurons, and interneurons (connecting the two). The OpenWorm team simulated these neurons and their connections in software.

The digital neurons sum input signals and fire when they exceed a threshold (similar to but not exactly like the real thing).

Sensory neurons link to the robot’s sensors—a sonar sensor, for example, stands in for the worm’s nose. And the sim’s motor neurons drive the robot’s right and left motors as if they were right and left groups of muscles.

The fascinating thing? The robot behaves much like a real worm would, given similar sensory stimulation—tripping the nose sensor halts forward progress, touching the front and rear sensors makes the robot move forward and back.

Now, the simulation isn’t perfect, and the robot doesn’t have every sensory input the real worm might have, but the OpenWorm bot seems to show that a stimulated digital brain might behave like a biological brain does—and we might not have to understand it in detail to make it work. That is, behaviors might emerge of their own accord.

In this example, we’re talking very simple behaviors. But could the result scale? That is, if you map a human brain with similarly high fidelity and supply it with stimulation in a virtual or physical environment—would some of the characteristics we associate with human brains independently emerge? Might that include creativity and consciousness?

There’s only one way to find out.

 Building the first digital life form. Open source.

 Image Credit: Shutterstock.comKbradnam/Wikimedia Commons

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Would telepathy help? [1178]

de System Administrator - domingo, 29 de marzo de 2015, 19:20

Would telepathy help?


Kat McGowan writes about health, medicine and science for magazines including Nautilus and Quanta, and is a contributing editor at Discover. She lives in New York City and California.

Edited by Pam Weintraub

Will the next generation of telepathy machines make us closer, or are there unforeseen dangers in the melding of minds?

Every modern generation has had its own idiosyncratic obsession with telepathy, the hope that one human being might be able to read another person’s thoughts. In the late 19th century, when spiritualism was in vogue, mind-reading was a parlour game for the fashionable, and the philosopher William James considered telepathy and other psychic phenomena legitimate subjects of study for the new science of psychology. By the 1960s, the Pentagon was concerned about Soviet telepathy research and reports that they had established remote communications with submarine commanders. In the 1970s, one ambitious Apollo 14 astronaut took it upon himself to try broadcasting his brainwaves from the moon.

In our technologically obsessed era, the search for evidence of psychic communication has been replaced by a push to invent computerised telepathy machines. Just last year, an international team of neurobiologists in Spain, France and at Harvard ­set up systems that linked one brain to another and permitted two people to communicate using only their thoughts. The network was basically one massive kludge, including an electroencephalography cap to detect the sender’s neural activity, computer algorithms to transform neural signals into data that could be sent through the internet and, at the receiving end, a transcranial magnetic stimulation device to convert that data into magnetic pulses that cross another person’s skull and activate certain clusters of neurons with an electrical field. With this contraption, the researchers were able to send a signal of 140 bits (the word ‘ciao’) from one person’s brain to another.

This apparatus is complex, expensive and extremely low-bandwidth, achieving a speed of about two bits per minute. Nonetheless, this study and others like it inspire a wave of hope  that it might one day be possible to read another person’s thoughts. It’s easy to see why people won’t give up on the idea. Telepathy promises an intimate connection to other human beings. If isolation, cruelty, malice, violence and wars are fuelled by misunderstandings and communication failures, as many people believe, telepathy would seem to offer the cure.

But findings from affective neuroscience, social psychology and the new neuroscientific study of empathy suggest that tapping directly into other people’s thoughts would be a pretty bad idea. In the past decade or so, this research has revealed that we already have deep insights into what other people feel and think. We really do have a sixth sense, but it’s psychological rather than psychic, made up of an entirely natural and completely human blend of emotional intuition and clever reasoning.

The more we know about empathy and ordinary human mind-reading, the less it looks like a way to achieve world peace. Technologically assisted telepathy could exaggerate flaws in our moral thinking and saddle us with unbearable intimacy, encouraging us to tune out the suffering of the most vulnerable. Emotional-mindreading is no guarantee of kindness; it is also how psychopaths and bullies manipulate and torment their victims. This research suggests an entirely sensible, completely ordinary, not-at-all-clairvoyant prediction about the future: rather than a dreamy bliss of togetherness, artificial telepathy would be a nightmare.

This new appreciation of the limitations of empathy is in part the result of a surprising discovery about brain organisation. One of the general rules of neurobiology is that many mental tasks are handled by dedicated anatomical regions of the brain. The motor cortex, for example, controls body movements. The visual cortex is specialised for processing information from your eyes. Other parts are for remembering, for analysing objects, for feeling emotions, or for functions as specific as verbal fluidity or measuring rewards. So if you watch a ball roll down a hill, for example, parts of your brain involved in recognising objects, analysing movements, and ensuring that your eyes move in sync with an object all become active.

This rule of thumb still holds, but a big asterisk was put next to it in the 1990s, when a group of Italian scientists discovered that primate brains analyse the actions of other similar creatures in a special way. Their discovery was initially made with monkeys, but something similar happens in humans too: as you watch another person do something, your brain responds with a rough mental simulation of the action. When you see the Brazilian footballer Reynaldo kick a ball, for example, the parts of your motor cortex that would be involved in preparing your legs and feet to move and in co‑ordinating that movement also become active. When he runs or falls or leaps in joy, so do you – but only in your mind. Other people’s bodies seem to be inside your head, and that is the way you comprehend their motion. ‘We use ourselves as a heuristic, an approximation of the other,’ says the social neuroscientist Christian Keysers of the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience and the University of Amsterdam, who worked with the Italian team in the late 1990s.

This is how laughter or weeping spreads through a room, or crowds suddenly turn violent or panicky

Keysers and others have since found that the same exception applies to sensations and emotions: you respond to other people’s experiences by recreating them in your own mind. You have a ‘vicarious brain’, he says, ‘a brain that uses a lot of its own private space to represent automatically the actions, sensations and motions of others’.  If you see an angry face, even just momentarily, the neurons that cause you to narrow your eyes and fix your jaw flicker with activity. In one series of neural imaging experiments, Keysers had people taste a disgusting liquid (quinine), listen to an appalling story about finding a maggot-infested dead rat in bed, or look at pictures of actors reacting with disgust. All three situations – seeing, imagining and experiencing – activated some of the same brain regions, albeit in slightly different ways. More recent findings suggest that our brains also simulate other people’s good feelings; seeing someone look pleased by a sugary drink or a happy event causes your own mind to respond in a similar way.

The vicarious experience of emotion might even affect your own mood. A baby often cries when it hears another baby crying, but for adults, this phenomenon of emotional contagion is more subtle. People who heard someone speaking in a sad tone of voice, for example, subsequently rated their moods a bit lower than those who heard neutral or cheerful voices. This is also how laughter or weeping spreads through a room, or crowds suddenly turn violent or panicky.

It’s not clear why our minds work this way, but Keysers and others point out that it is a good way to get fast insights with very little information: just one glance tells you what you need to know. For a social species like ours, anticipating what someone else is about to do can be a major advantage.

This intuitive, automatic fellow-feeling is not the only kind of mind-reading humans do; we also learn more deliberate, strategic methods to infer other people’s thoughts. In the first years of life, children become theorists of desire: they notice that other people’s mental states predict their actions, and they begin figuring out what other people want as a way to anticipate what they will do. By adulthood, we have learned to infer other people’s motives and thought processes, read hidden or mixed emotions, detect when people are faking their feelings, even pick up on irony. The cognitive neuroscientist Uta Frith considers this ‘theory of mind’ to be a hallmark of human cognition.

Together, the intuitive and the strategic components of fellow-feeling enable empathy, the ability to step into someone else’s mind and know what they feel. Being connected to other people in this way is a deep part of our nature; we might be selfish and competitive, but we are also hitched to one another, obliged to take on other people’s pleasures and their suffering. It seems to explain the strange human phenomenon of moral behaviour – the peculiar tendency of people to help one another even when it is risky and difficult. If your joy is my joy, and your pain my pain, this sort of altruism only makes sense.

But in case you hadn’t noticed, the sophisticated, multi-layered capacity for fellow-feeling doesn’t prevent people from behaving terribly towards one another. They fight, murder, abuse and steal. Even those who don’t purposely harm others often ignore other people’s pain and fail to help those who need it.

Maybe our natural ability to empathise just isn’t strong enough. Perhaps machine-assisted telepathy could help, amplifying the faint signal of compassion into an intense blast. For the moment, let’s just assume that the monumental technological and biological challenges could be resolved, and we could invent a device that would effectively transmit one person’s experience to another. What would happen if we turned up the volume on empathy?

To begin with, we might help psychopaths – people who ruthlessly exploit others – be even better at what they do. Research from Keysers and others reveals that these apparently cold-blooded predators are actually good at detecting emotions. In one 2013 study, Keysers asked 20 criminal psychopaths to watch short videos of two people either caressing or striking one another’s hands – a simple way to evoke an emotional response that in ordinary people activates brain regions associated with emotional processing. Initially, these participants did not have much activation in regions involved in feelings or pain. But when Keysers instructed them to empathise while watching, their patterns of neural activity became fairly normal.

a mind-reading machine wouldn’t necessarily turn a psychopath into a creampuff

His interpretation is that these violent predators can feel empathy, but often choose not to. They deploy the ability strategically in order to win over their victims and secure their trust, and then shut it down in order to swindle, rape and kill. So a mind-reading machine wouldn’t necessarily turn a psychopath into a creampuff. Instead, he might become an even more effective manipulator – more cunning, more perceptive, and harder to outwit.

The rest of us aren’t really so different: we also evade or down-regulate our mind-reading abilities when it becomes painful or inconvenient. In one 1988 experiment, psychologists in Canada set up a donation table in a busy corridor and monitored the pathways of passersby. If the table featured a picture of a dejected child, people veered far away from it, in order to avoid getting their heartstrings jerked. In another experiment, people told that a fellow participant had been given electric shocks downgraded their opinion of him – and justified it by concluding that he probably deserved it. Rather than feel his feelings, they found ways to emotionally distance themselves through rationalisations. In similar ways, people frequently underestimate the suffering of foreigners, people of other ethnicities, or prisoners.

These and other findings in the new science of empathy converge upon a new appreciation of how malleable empathy can be. It can be used for good or ill; it can be turned up or down. It is motivated, argues Jamil Zaki, the director of the Stanford Social Neuroscience Laboratory. ‘We tend to view it as something relatively automatic, but people exert control over their experiences of empathy,’ he says. Although it seems self-evident that people who feel more empathy will behave more morally, in practice there is only weak evidence that feeling someone else’s pain induces you to do something about it. Some data even indicates that people who sense others’ emotions most intensely tend to avoid situations that will expose them to deep suffering. Their own pain prevents them from helping those who need it the most.

Amplifying empathy is not even a sure-fire means of building trust or dissolving suspicion; other findings from empathy research suggest that encouraging people to consider the perspectives and thoughts of those they already distrust and dislike can backfire. ‘As a premise, it’s a terrible idea,’ says Zaki. ‘I don’t think that understanding what people are feeling would make you like them.’

He points to studies that instruct rivals to empathise with one another, and have the paradoxical effect of fostering unethical behaviour. In competitive negotiating scenarios devised by the psychologist Adam Galinsky of the Columbia Business School, for example, people who were told to think about the mindset of a rival became more likely to lie or cheat in order to win. Galinsky suspects this is because that act of mind-reading serves as a reminder that a rival is capable of being equally dishonest.

In other experiments, people asked to consider the feelings and perspectives of rival groups were more selfish, more intolerant, and judged outsiders more harshly. In a study pairing Mexican immigrants and white Americans, the neuroscientist Emile Bruneau of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that asking lower-status immigrants to take on the perspective of the dominant group tended to lower their opinions of the higher-status whites.

The more we know about empathy, the less it seems to guarantee moral rectitude. People generally feel more empathy toward members of their own racial, political or social ‘tribe’, and limit the amount they extend to outsider. It directs you to respond to the needs of the person right in front of you and downgrade those who are abstract and far away. Empathy often biases you toward people who look and act like you, at the expense of those who do not. It is easy to manipulate, responding strongly to cuteness, proximity, or particularly heartbreaking details. ‘A morality based on empathy would lead to preferential treatment and grotesque crimes of omission,’ writes Jesse Prinz, a philosopher at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

Once we understand the motivational nature of empathy, we could figure out how to compensate for its biases

A telepathy machine, if it could ever be built, would undoubtedly have wonderful applications. It could allow people who are immobilised by a stroke or neurological disease to communicate, or create incredible opportunities for artists to collaborate. But it seems unlikely that it could broadcast world peace. Empathy is too compromised, too complicated, and too subject to intentions and motivations to be a magic solution for our moral problems. It is far too human.

Zaki considers it extremely unlikely that a mind-reading machine could ever be built. (‘It’s a lot further on the horizon that people realise,’ he says). He has a different invention in mind – a cognitive innovation rather than a technological one. As we come to understand the motivational nature of empathy, we should be able to figure out how to compensate for its limitations and biases. Zaki does not see empathy as a salve for all our moral problems, but he also believes that it is possible to make use of what it can do, which is provide a strong emotional motivation to act on behalf of others.

If we know that empathy favours the specific and familiar over the foreign and abstract, we can seek out, as our inspiration, personal details about someone far away who needs help. If empathy is easily overwhelmed and blocked by intense suffering, we could compensate by regulating how much information about tragedy we consume. In this way, we could hijack it, redirecting it away from in-group bias and toward morally courageous acts. We would strategically harness the power of what nature gave us – the remarkable ability to see into someone else’s mind and to feel what they are feeling – for the service of moral good.

Just as psychopaths turn down their empathy in order to prey upon people, we might learn to up-regulate empathy in exactly the right situations – to inspire us when abstract moral intentions aren’t enough. We can deliberately put ourselves in empathy’s way.

That might sound like a relatively modest goal, compared with past efforts that sought to read ghostly messages from the spiritual realm, or win the Cold War via psychic warfare, or use the internet to let neurons talk directly to one another. But this vision of telepathy – as a way to help people actually live up to the moral standards they believe in – could turn out to be exactly the one we need.

Read more essays on ethics, neuroscience and self-improvement



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Writing the First Human Genome by 2026 Is Synthetic Biology’s Grand Challenge [1705]

de System Administrator - lunes, 17 de octubre de 2016, 01:31

Writing the First Human Genome by 2026 Is Synthetic Biology’s Grand Challenge


A “top secret" meeting of scientists was held at the Langone Medical Center on Halloween 2015. Their aim? To kickstart a new Human Genome Project and build a functional human genome from the base pairs up by 2026.

“There's only one grand challenge in synthetic biology. Only one. And it's to write a human genome. And we have to do that,” said Autodesk Fellow Andrew Hessel at Singularity University’s Exponential Medicine 2016conference.

Like the first Human Genome Project before it — which resulted in the first fully sequenced human genome — writing a human genome from scratch is an audacious goal. Hessel said a number of organizations are already writing DNA, and we can fabricate million-pair DNA constructs. But the human genome contains three billion base pairs.

We’re a long way from writing DNA on that scale.

“It took a year to design the yeast genome, even though there were barely any changes made to [it]. So, we need better design tools,” Hessel said.

Work on the yeast genome is the most advanced thing going on in synthetic biology. It's been pushing the field forward, but not as fast as Hessel would like. His career was hugely influenced by the race to map the first human genome in the 90s and early 2000s, and he thought to himself — now we need something like that for synthetic biology.

That's why Hessel and fellow scientists are pushing for a new Human Genome Project focused on synthetic biology — something to spark people’s imagination. That “top secret” meeting and a subsequent white paper made just the splash they were looking for.

“Two hundred news organizations picked up the story, and we got ninety two million page impressions in the first week,” Hessel said. “Everybody suddenly knew about the secret meeting to synthesize the human genome.”


Andrew Hessel at Exponential Medicine.

Though interest in the project is high,  it’s just the beginning.

“This is really hard work...trying to go from DNA to packaged chromosome put into a cell and functional is hard. I don't want to gloss over the technical challenges,” Hessel said.

Hessel’s work at Autodesk is focused on making more effective design tools. He started writing viruses two years back, and it took weeks to get the DNA. Now, he’s writing more complicated viruses to fight cancer. The larger the amount of DNA, the longer it takes to assemble.

But there are a number of fields, from health and medicine to electronics (DNA is an excellent medium for long-term information storage), creating big incentives to speed development. Hessel is excited at the prospects.

Though it’s still early, he thinks 2026 for a fully engineered human genome is realistic if synthetic biology follows an exponential pace like genome sequencing did.

“So, a new genome race is starting, ladies and gentlemen,” Hessel said. “It's starting now. It's still in the organizational phase, but it is going to accelerate and, guaranteed, by 2026, we're going to succeed.”

As for the more controversial aspects of the project, like the worry the work may result in synthetic humans? The intentions behind this project are not to produce synthetic babies.

"We couldn't advocate that," Hessel said.

It’s more about pushing the science and technology necessary to build a whole human genome — but no more. And he has a personal motivation too.

“I’m doing this because I want my daughter to literally have the best nanomedicine in the future, the best diagnostics, the best treatments,”Hessel said. “I hope you realize that by 2026, it's a completely different game.”


Want to keep up with coverage from Exponential Medicine? Get the latest insights here.

Image credit: Shutterstock


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You can grow new brain cells. Here's how [1495]

de System Administrator - jueves, 8 de octubre de 2015, 15:49

You can grow new brain cells. Here's how


by Sandrine Thuret

Can we, as adults, grow new neurons? Neuroscientist Sandrine Thuret says that we can, and she offers research and practical advice on how we can help our brains better perform neurogenesis—improving mood, increasing memory formation and preventing the decline associated with aging along the way.


0:12 - Can we, as adults, grow new nerve cells? There's still some confusion about that question, as this is a fairly new field of research. For example, I was talking to one of my colleagues, Robert, who is an oncologist, and he was telling me, "Sandrine, this is puzzling. Some of my patients that have been told they are cured of their cancer still develop symptoms of depression." And I responded to him, "Well, from my point of view that makes sense. The drug you give to your patients that stops the cancer cells multiplying also stops the newborn neurons being generated in their brain." And then Robert looked at me like I was crazy and said, "But Sandrine, these are adult patients -- adults do not grow new nerve cells." And much to his surprise, I said, "Well actually, we do." And this is a phenomenon that we call neurogenesis.

1:12 - [Neurogenesis]

1:14 - Now Robert is not a neuroscientist, and when he went to medical school he was not taught what we know now -- that the adult brain can generate new nerve cells. So Robert, you know, being the good doctor that he is, wanted to come to my lab to understand the topic a little bit better. And I took him for a tour of one of the most exciting parts of the brain when it comes to neurogenesis -- and this is the hippocampus. So this is this gray structure in the center of the brain. And what we've known already for very long, is that this is important for learning, memory, mood and emotion. However, what we have learned more recently is that this is one of the unique structures of the adult brain where new neurons can be generated. And if we slice through the hippocampus and zoom in, what you actually see here in blue is a newborn neuron in an adult mouse brain. So when it comes to the human brain -- my colleague Jonas Frisén from the Karolinska Institutet, has estimated that we produce 700 new neurons per day in the hippocampus. You might think this is not much, compared to the billions of neurons we have. But by the time we turn 50, we will have all exchanged the neurons we were born with in that structure with adult-born neurons.

2:54 - So why are these new neurons important and what are their functions? First, we know that they're important for learning and memory. And in the lab we have shown that if we block the ability of the adult brain to produce new neurons in the hippocampus, then we block certain memory abilities. And this is especially new and true for spatial recognition -- so like, how you navigate your way in the city.

3:25 - We are still learning a lot, and [neurons] are not only important for memory capacity, but also for the quality of the memory. And they will have been helpful to add time to our memory and they will help differentiate very similar memories, like: how do you find your bike that you park at the station every day in the same area, but in a slightly different position?

3:51 - And more interesting to my colleague Robert, is the research we have been doing on neurogenesis and depression. So in an animal model of depression, we have seen that we have a lower level of neurogenesis. And if we give antidepressants, then we increase the production of these newborn neurons, and we decrease the symptoms of depression, establishing a clear link between neurogenesis and depression. But moreover, if you just block neurogenesis, then you block the efficacy of the antidepressant. So by then, Robert had understood that very likely his patients were suffering from depression even after being cured of their cancer, because the cancer drug had stopped newborn neurons from being generated. And it will take time to generate new neurons that reach normal functions.

4:48 - So, collectively, now we think we have enough evidence to say that neurogenesis is a target of choice if we want to improve memory formation or mood, or even prevent the decline associated with aging, or associated with stress.

5:07 - So the next question is: can we control neurogenesis? The answer is yes. And we are now going to do a little quiz. I'm going to give you a set of behaviors and activities, and you tell me if you think they will increase neurogenesis or if they will decrease neurogenesis. Are we ready? OK, let's go.

5:31 - So what about learning? Increasing? Yes. Learning will increase the production of these new neurons.

5:39 - How about stress? Yes, stress will decrease the production of new neurons in the hippocampus.

5:47 - How about sleep deprivation? Indeed, it will decrease neurogenesis.

5:53 - How about sex? Oh, wow!

5:56 - (Laughter)

5:57 - Yes, you are right, it will increase the production of new neurons. However, it's all about balance here. We don't want to fall in a situation --

6:06 - (Laughter)

6:08 - about too much sex leading to sleep deprivation.

6:10 - (Laughter)

6:13 - How about getting older? So the neurogenesis rate will decrease as we get older, but it is still occurring.

6:25 - And then finally, how about running? I will let you judge that one by yourself.

6:32 - So this is one of the first studies that was carried out by one of my mentors, Rusty Gage from the Salk Institute, showing that the environment can have an impact on the production of new neurons. And here you see a section of the hippocampus of a mouse that had no running wheel in its cage. And the little black dots you see are actually newborn neurons-to-be. And now, you see a section of the hippocampus of a mouse that had a running wheel in its cage. So you see the massive increase of the black dots representing the new neurons-to-be.

7:07 - So activity impacts neurogenesis, but that's not all. What you eat will have an effect on the production of new neurons in the hippocampus. So here we have a sample of diet -- of nutrients that have been shown to have efficacy. And I'm just going to point a few out to you: Calorie restriction of 20 to 30 percent will increase neurogenesis. Intermittent fasting -- spacing the time between your meals -- will increase neurogenesis. Intake of flavonoids, which are contained in dark chocolate or blueberries, will increase neurogenesis. Omega-3 fatty acids, present in fatty fish, like salmon, will increase the production of these new neurons. Conversely, a diet rich in high saturated fat will have a negative impact on neurogenesis. Ethanol -- intake of alcohol -- will decrease neurogenesis. However, not everything is lost; resveratrol, which is contained in red wine, has been shown to promote the survival of these new neurons. So next time you are at a dinner party, you might want to reach for this possibly "neurogenesis-neutral" drink.

8:20 - (Laughter)

8:23 - And then finally, let me point out the last one -- a quirky one. So Japanese groups are fascinated with food textures, and they have shown that actually soft diet impairs neurogenesis, as opposed to food that requires mastication -- chewing -- or crunchy food.

8:41 - So all of this data, where we need to look at the cellular level, has been generated using animal models. But this diet has also been given to human participants, and what we could see is that the diet modulates memory and mood in the same direction as it modulates neurogenesis, such as: calorie restriction will improve memory capacity, whereas a high-fat diet will exacerbate symptoms of depression -- as opposed to omega-3 fatty acids, which increase neurogenesis, and also help to decrease the symptoms of depression. So we think that the effect of diet on mental health, on memory and mood, is actually mediated by the production of the new neurons in the hippocampus. And it's not only what you eat, but it's also the texture of the food, when you eat it, and how much of it you eat.

9:44 - On our side -- neuroscientists interested in neurogenesis -- we need to understand better the function of these new neurons, and how we can control their survival and their production. We also need to find a way to protect the neurogenesis of Robert's patients. And on your side -- I leave you in charge of your neurogenesis.

10:06 - Thank you.

10:07 - (Applause)

10:13 - Margaret Heffernan: Fantastic research, Sandrine. Now, I told you you changed my life -- I now eat a lot of blueberries.

10:20 - Sandrine Thuret: Very good.

10:22 - MH: I'm really interested in the running thing. Do I have to run? Or is it really just about aerobic exercise, getting oxygen to the brain? Could it be any kind of vigorous exercise?

10:35 - ST: So for the moment, we can't really say if it's just the running itself, but we think that anything that indeed will increase the production -- or moving the blood flow to the brain, should be beneficial.

10:50 - MH: So I don't have to get a running wheel in my office?

10:53 - ST: No, you don't!

10:54 - MH: Oh, what a relief! That's wonderful. Sandrine Thuret, thank you so much.

10:58 - ST: Thank you, Margaret.

10:59 - (Applause)


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Your DNA Is Nothing Special [1107]

de System Administrator - lunes, 16 de febrero de 2015, 21:20

Your DNA Is Nothing Special

It’s time to relax about genetic testing

DNA testing has become very popular among genealogists. The birth certificates, census records, and other documents they usually rely on can be wrong. DNA is never wrong. It can’t be altered, or forged, and you can’t misfile it. You can’t even always destroy it: DNA has been recovered from a frozen, 5,000-year-old corpse and used to identify his living descendants.2 Genetics do not uncover everyday family secrets such as the fact your great-great-grandfather owned slaves (unless he fathered children with some of them) or that a great uncle flunked out of West Point—it reveals the family secret, from whence you came, your begat. And your tree very likely has some invasive branches. As you look further up the tree, the chances of a non-paternal event rise exponentially. After 10 generations, you have 1,024 ancestors—I’m telling you, someone strayed. That’s why it’s prudent to trace families, not pedigrees.

You read these alarming stories once in a while about men who were first enthused about testing but then troubled when they discovered they aren’t who they thought they were, at least biologically, or that they have a half-brother they didn’t know about, or that an unsuspecting, elderly uncle doesn’t match any other male in the family (do you break it to him?). A hyperventilating, cautionary report posted last year at trumpeted that genetic testing can unexpectedly tear families apart with revelations that are especially painful “when users aren’t looking for them in the first place.” As the databases at testing sites such as 23andMe grow, it warned, “there will be more and more family reunions, many of them by users who have no idea they are coming and aren’t prepared for them.”3 The article was accompanied by an essay by a reproductive biologist who had submitted his Y-DNA and that of his father for analysis. After the samples were processed, “George Doe” and his father both opted to see close matches. As George recounted, a user identified only as Thomas was shown to be a 50 percent match to George’s father—a son. George’s father professed to know nothing about Thomas, but George said the revelation unleashed “years of repressed memories and emotions,” presumably because Thomas had been conceived during an affair.4

If a child is found to have a higher risk of skin cancer, can a parent be compelled to keep the child away from the beach?

The Vox report irritated Blaine Bettinger, who blogs as The Genetic Genealogist. He argued it unfairly castigated DNA as a home wrecker. After all, Bettinger pointed out, census records, birth certificates, wills, and many other records also have the same potential. Bettinger discovered this himself when a state census revealed his great-grandmother was adopted, a fact that affected more than 60 living descendents. (Should he have been warned by the census bureau that the data he was requesting was dangerous?) Further, most people are not devastated but overjoyed to discover lost siblings, or birth parents, or re-connect with children given up for adoption.5Startling tales of discovery are also extremely rare: while Vox reported that some 7,000 users at 23AndMe “have discovered that their parents weren’t who they thought they were, or that they had siblings they never knew existed,” a 23andMe spokesman told me that calculation was based on a guess that about 1 percent of its then-700,000 users had discovered a relative they didn’t know about, and that discovering distant cousins was far more common than anything about parents or siblings. The lost relative must also be a member of the site, which makes a match all that more unlikely.

Genetic Surprises

  • The comedian and director Tyler Perry was originally named Emmitt Perry, after his father, although his father was so abusive Tyler wondered about the relationship. His mother reassured him, but after her death, Perry tested his Y-DNA and found it did not match his brother’s. He confirmed the family secret when his father was tested and matched Tyler’s brother but not him. He is now searching for his biological father.
  • A Pennsylvania doctor named Mark Hudson discovered in 2005 through Y-DNA testing that his 12-year-old son was not his. Hudson left his wife but was ordered to pay $1,400 a month in child support. “I still feel like he’s my son,” he told a reporter. “But I think it’s wrong to enrich the person who committed the fraud. The child deserves the truth.”
  • Alan Cumming, best known for his role in the X-Men films, had a troubled relationship with his father. They had not spoken for 16 years when his father revealed that Alan wasn’t his son. He said Alan’s mother had cheated with a family friend, whose name he provided. Cumming was devastated but also wary, so he had Y-DNA tests done that proved he was, in fact, his father’s son. “Whatever the results of the DNA test, even before that, I didn’t think I was my father’s son,” Cummings has said. “I marvel at the fact I am related to this person.”

Bettinger labeled Vox’s sky-is-falling approach as an example of “genetic exceptionalism.” The term caught my eye because I hadn’t seen it in a long while, and never in relation to genealogy, only medicine. It was coined in 1997 by a bioethicist named Thomas Murray to describe the fallacy that our genetic code is so powerful it deserves special protection beyond that given to other kinds of personal information.6 The phrase is a play on the earlier idea of “HIV exceptionalism”—that HIV status needed to be locked behind two steel doors because of the enormous potential for discrimination. While geneticists generally don’t subscribe to the notion that genetic information is exceptional (unless hyping their own research to secure more funding, perhaps), the public is another story. According to public opinion surveys, we vastly overestimate the predictive power of genetics. For instance, in a 1990 survey, 55 percent of respondents believed incorrectly that genetic testing could be used to “predict whether or not a person will have a heart attack.”7 Even as late as 2010, half felt “all children will be tested at a young age to find out what disease they get at a later age.” Further, 38 percent believed a class system would soon develop between those with “good” and “bad” genetic dispositions.8 The public frets especially that employers and insurance companies will use genetic tests to fire them, or hike their rates, or deny coverage. They fear insurers and employers will embrace the power of genetics and use it against them, because those groups believe in the same power—an infinite loop of ignorance.


James Evans, a geneticist at the University of North Carolina, specializes in public policy and attitudes toward genetics. Genetics are indeed powerful, he told me, in that they are “at the heart of our most profound relationships.” (Genealogists would agree.) But too many people believe they define who we are by “determining” our personality, intelligence, appearance, behavior, and health.

C. Thomas Caskey, a doctor at the department of Molecular Genetics at Baylor College of Medicine recalls one example. A young patient visiting his clinic was found to have mutations inBCRA1 that are associated with a fast-growing type of breast and ovarian cancer. The woman had an elderly aunt who had survived breast cancer, and the doctor suggested the aunt be tested forBRCA1. The aunt refused, saying she didn’t want to know because if she had the gene, she might have to tell her daughters they were at risk. Caskey found that attitude unfortunate but not surprising. The aunt may have associated telling her daughters about BRCA1 as the equivalent of a diagnosis of cancer, yet most women with these mutations in BCRA1 never develop breast cancer. The gene is not a death sentence.

The idea that genetic testing somehow reveals dark, infallible secrets about the future puts pressure on politicians to do something about it. Although genetic testing is protected, like medical data, by privacy laws, many states have passed laws that treat genetic test results as super-double-special secret. Congress brought them all together in the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008, which is aimed specifically at employers and insurers. (Notably, long-term disability and life insurance are not covered by the law, so those providers test you for whatever they want. There are also no laws protecting your genealogical data, although sites that provide these services all have privacy policies, however binding those may be.) Ironically, genetic privacy laws discriminate in their own way by singling out people whose diseases can be tied to genetic risks. As two Georgetown law professors wrote in 1999 about state laws: “Why, for example, should medical information about a woman who has developed breast cancer of genetic origin … be given greater protection than a woman who has developed breast cancer because of environmental or behavioral factors (e.g., smoking)?”9 Besides, the professors added, genetic test results usually tell a doctor far less about future risk than a patient’s sex, age, race, occupation, financial status, employment status, and family history—all of which receive only “ordinary” protection from prying eyes.


Scientists deserve some blame for these misconceptions about the power of DNA. “Since the 1950s at least, molecular biologists have been prone to talk of DNA … ascontaining genetic information,” the British bioethicist Neil Manson has written. “But this is to use ‘information’ in a causal sense: … specific DNA sequences (in the right context) will cause those traits or bring about the production of those proteins.”10 In other words, genes don’t operate in a vacuum; environmental influences play a huge role. (It’s worth noting that epigenetics, which studies heritable trait changes not caused by changes in genes, has its own exceptionalist discussion.11) But that’s not always what you hear. James Watson, one of the discoverers of the double helix, said, “We used to think our fate was in the stars. Now we know in large measure, our fate is in our genes.” In 1993 George Annas, a health lawyer at Boston University, described our genes as a “future diary.”12 That shorthand got him in trouble, he told me recently, with some colleagues accusing him of coming off as a “determinist,” which is a geneticist’s way of calling someone a simpleton.

Annas was and is deeply concerned about the potential bureaucratic abuse of genetic markers, and contributed to the 2008 federal privacy law.13 If a child is found by a child protection agency to have a higher risk of skin cancer, he asked in 1993, can a parent be compelled to keep their child away from the beach? Or, as the cost of sequencing an individual’s genome drops (it’s now less than $1,000), will universities ask for samples to check applicants for markers of sufficient intelligence? How about those that point to early death, since so much is being invested in the person’s education? And what about our obligations and responsibilities when it comes to sharing genetic data? Annas told me he believes parents should be prohibited from testing their fetus or child for genetic markers unless there is a way to prevent or cure the disease before the child turns 18. Otherwise, it’s nobody’s business but our own. (Annas concedes, given the legal power parents have over their children, this prohibition is unlikely to happen.)

That’s like saying that because a woman is born with eggs in her ovaries she has a pre-existing pregnancy.

The problem with this line of thinking is a simple one: As the geneticist Eric Juengst has written, genetic testing is not fortune telling, but a weather map, a fallible tool.14 I’m sure health insurers would love to codify genetic exceptionalism and treat specific genes as “pre-existing conditions,” but that’s like saying that because a woman is born with eggs in her ovaries she has a pre-existing pregnancy. “The identification of a risk marker is not a disease,” Caskey explains. “Everyone has five to 10 recessive traits, including some that are potentially very severe.” Further, studies have shown that even if you combine several risk factors for any particular illness, it can’t tell you or a doctor what will happen. As Evans pointed out in one study: “The lifetime risk for an individual in the United States to develop Crohn’s disease is about 1 in 1,000. How helpful is it for clinicians and patients if that risk shifts to 1 in 500 or 1 in 2,000?”15 There is also no evidence that knowing you have a genetic marker (or a lack of one) changes behavior. Finding out their genetics suggest a decreased risk for diabetes doesn’t send most people on a sugar binge.


ACTING LIKE A PARENT: Actor Tyler Perry used a Y-DNA test to determine that the man who raised him was not his biological father. Jeff Kravitz / contributor

Further, there is no “gene for Alzheimer’s” or “gene for breast cancer.” Researchers were focused on single genes early on but have shifted focus to arrays of genes and how they conspire with each other and the environment, rather than scanning for lone assassins in the crowd. For example, the suspicion now is that some people who have a gene associated with a certain disease but never develop it may have other genes that suppress the first one. Gene mutations have been found that prevent HIV from entering cells, reduce the amount of bad cholesterol, or offer partial protection against heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. One effort to find healthy people with genes that increase their propensity for fatal diseases is called The Resilience Project. The researchers analyzed the genetic code of 500,000 test subjects and found 20 people who seem to fit the criteria. One example is Doug Whitney of Port Orchard, Washington, who has a genetic mutation associated with Alzheimer’s. That disease killed his mother and nine of her 13 siblings, most of whom had died by their mid-50s. Whitney is 65 and healthy—and quite popular with geneticists.

You also can’t ignore the role of chance. Earlier this year researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine concluded in a paper published in Science that random mutations in otherwise healthy stem cells may account for two-thirds of the risk in whether a person gets the deadliest types of cancer. (Notably, the study did not look at breast or prostate cancers.)16 “If you go to the American Cancer Society website and you check what are the causes of cancer, you will find a list of either inherited or environmental things,” the lead researcher, Cristian Tomasetti, told Science. “We are saying two-thirds is neither of them.” The researchers said they hoped the results would help people calm down about whether every little lifestyle choice was going to give them a tumor. On the other side of that coin, the fact that so much cancer occurs because of random mutations may mean you can’t do anything to prevent it. Sometimes you’re just unlucky.

It’s been just 12 years since scientists finished sequencing the 3 billion DNA letters in the human genome. It is going to take more time for the public to gain a more nuanced view of what genes are and do—and this includes me. Recently I noticed a store greeter dancing and singing and being generally peppy and optimistic, in distinction to my own default state, which is glum resolve. Yet even after having spent a few days talking with geneticists, after which I should have known better, I thought to myself, “He must have happy genes.”

Chip Rowe is a writer based in New York.


  • 1. Anderson, K.G. How well does paternity confidence match actual paternity? Evidence from worldwide nonpaternity rates. Current Anthropology 47, 513-520 (2006).
  • 2. Ermini, L., et al. Complete mitochondrial genome sequence of the Tryolean Iceman. Current Biology18, 1687-1693, (2008).
  • 3. Belluz, J. Genetic Testing Brings Families Together—And Sometimes Tears Them Apart. (2014).
  • 4. Doe, G. With Genetic Testing, I Gave My Parents the Gift of Divorce. (2014).
  • 5. Bettinger, B. A Response to the Genetic Testing Article in Vox. (2014).
  • 6. Murray, T.H. Genetic Exceptionalism and “Future Diaries”: Is Genetic Information Different From Other Medical Information? In Genetic Secrets: Protecting Privacy and Confidentiality in the Genetic Era Yale University Press, New Haven, CT (1997).
  • 7. Singer, E. Public attitudes toward genetic testing, Population Research and Policy Review10, 235-255 (1991).
  • 8. Henneman, L., et al. Public attitudes towards genetic testing revisited: comparing opinions between 2002 and 2010. European Journal of Human Genetics21, 793-799 (2013).
  • 9. Gostin, L.O. & Hodge J.G. Genetic privacy and the law: an end to genetics exceptionalism.Jurimetrics40, 21-58 (1999).
  • 10. Manson, N.C. How not to think about genetic information. The Hastings Center Report35, 3 (2005).
  • 11. Rothstein, M.A. Epigenetic exceptionalism. Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics41, 733-736 (2013).
  • 12. Annas, G.J. Privacy rules for DNA databanks: Protecting coded “Future Diaries.” Journal of the American Medical Association270, 2346-2350 (1993).
  • 13. Annas, G.J. Drafting the Genetic Privacy Act: policy, and practical considerations. Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics23, 360-366 (1995).
  • 14. Juengst, E.T. FACE facts: Why human genetics will always provoke bioethics. Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics32, 267-275 (2004).
  • 15. Evans, J.P., Meslin, E.M., Marteau, T.M., & Caulfield, T. Deflating the genomic bubble. Science331, 861-862 (2011).
  • 16. Tomasetti, C. & Vogelstein. B. Variation in cancer risk among tissues can be explained by the number of stem cell divisions. Science347, 78-81 (2015).


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Your Robot Replacement Has Arrived [1548]

de System Administrator - sábado, 31 de octubre de 2015, 22:21

Your Robot Replacement Has Arrived

by Thomas Claburn

Robotic process automation can help companies operate more frugally and efficiently, though potentially at the expense of human workers.

When is a robot not a robot? When it's robotic process automation, or RPA.

In a new research paper, "The IT Function and Robotic Process Automation," the Outsourcing Unit at London School of Economics finds that RPA can provide a variety of business benefits, and it anticipates accelerated deployment in the years to come. The paper followed three case studies of customers of RPA-provider Blue Prism. In addition, Blue Prism partly funded the paper.

RPA is similar to business process management, but it doesn't require developers to create code. It's software.

As implemented by firms such as Automation Anywhere or Blue Prism, RPA allows people to generate code through a menu-driven drag-and-drop visual interface. That code can then handle structured, repetitive tasks like onboarding employees at a large company. Think of it as software that can be trained to operate the business applications a human would use for routine clerical or administrative work.


(Image: Blue Prism) 

As the paper explains:

RPA software is ideally suited to replace humans for so called "swivel chair" processes; processes where humans take inputs from one set of systems (for example, email), process those inputs using rules, and then enter the outputs into systems of record (for example, Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems).

Implemented correctly, RPA can make routine human resources work, for example, more efficient and affordable by taking people out of the loop. The report concedes this could reduce the need for human resources employees.

"There would be fewer HR specialists needed overall if the volume of work was constant, but those HR specialists remaining should have more challenging work," the paper says.

This acknowledgement underscores the angst surrounding advancements in automation and artificial intelligence: Technology may allow people to focus on higher-value, less easily automated work, but it's not clear whether there will be enough of these improved jobs to go around. Nor is it obvious that what cannot be automated today will remain the province of people tomorrow.

RPA occupies a middle ground between shadow IT -- tools deployed without the oversight of IT -- and traditional IT. The paper characterizes it as "lightweight IT" in the sense that it can be begin as a project that doesn't require IT involvement, but may need IT support as it spreads through an organization. Though it tends to be business-led, it's clearly an option that IT should evaluate.

[See the real-world application of RPA. Read Using RPA in Banking to Streamline Development.]

Despite its employment implications, there's little doubt that companies can find value in RPA. The paper notes that some companies surveyed have automated more than 35% of their back-office transactions. The benefits include reduced costs, greater process efficiency and accuracy, and improved customer satisfaction.

Having analyzed the financial impact of RPA deployments at Telefonica O2, Xchanging, and an unnamed major utility, the paper cites ROI figures of 650% to 800% over three years for Telefonica OS, 30% per process (14 automated) for Xchanging, and 200% over one year for the utility.

However, the paper doesn't explore the challenge of asking people to train their computers to replace them.

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful ...View Full Bio


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You’d never know it wasn’t Bach (or even human) [1370]

de System Administrator - domingo, 30 de agosto de 2015, 17:35

You’d never know it wasn’t Bach (or even human)

By Eric Gershon and Jim Shelton

In her spare time, when she can find any, Donya Quick composes music, typically jazz, generally on the six-foot baby grand piano that dominates her apartment’s living room. A baby grand isn’t an all-hours option in a multi-unit building, so she also keeps a Yamaha silent guitar on hand, for the days when inspiration strikes late in the evening.

“I like to compose at 11 p.m.,” says Quick, a lecturer in computer science at Yale. “I have been able to use that piano so little, the keys are starting to get sticky.”

For most of the last two years, Quick, who is originally from Virginia, largely subordinated her compositional impulse to the demands of another type of musical project: The fine tuning of a computer program she developed to create music for her — original, never-before-heard music that sophisticated listeners have mistaken for the fruit of a sublime human sensibility.


Donya Quick

In two separate tests, each involving more than 100 human subjects of varied musical experience, participants listened to 40 short musical phrases, some written by humans, others by computer programs, including Quick’s, which she calls Kulitta. The subjects were asked to rate the musical phrases on a seven-point scale ranging from “absolutely human” to “absolutely computer.” In both tests, Kulitta’s compositions rated, on average, on the human side of the scale.

The late Paul Hudak, Quick’s dissertation adviser at Yale, organized a separate series of informal public demonstrations where he juxtaposed a musical phrase composed by Kulitta with a phrase by J.S. Bach, the 17th-century German musical genius famous for his cello suites, fugues and chorales. Hudak then challenged audience members to identify which was which; invariably, even some music sophisticates confused Kulitta’s phrase for work by Bach.

“It really does work, and that judgment isn’t just based on a few people listening to a few of the pieces that have been produced,” says Holly Rushmeier, a Yale computer science professor who has seen the system in action. “I was impressed with the user study that verified how effective the system is. Kulitta produces wonderfully sophisticated compositions.”

Unnerving automation

Automation unnerves some people, and the automation of art has a special power to offend humanity’s view of itself as soulful: How could a thing without psychological or emotional states express itself with the spirit and feeling seemingly necessary for making music? “Before I encountered any of this stuff, I probably would have had a similar reaction,” Quick says. “It’s an adverse reaction to novelty, the same way people first reacted to synthesizers.”

Konrad Kaczmarek, a composer and assistant professor in the Department of Music, says Kulitta and other new technologies are likely to change the way composers write, perform, and listen to music. But the fundamental elements of composition will remain the same, he explains.

“Whether it’s someone with a computer or a guy strumming a guitar, it’s always an algorithmic process,” Kaczmarek says. “You begin with an unlimited palette, and then apply different rules and decision-making strategies to filter it all down. Adding a computer to the equation, with an analysis of every Bach chorale ever written as a data set, influences the entire process in exciting and powerful ways.”

Quick does not want to put human composers out of business. Indeed, she thinks computer music generators can serve as a fresh source of ideas for musicians and as a tool for studying how humans actually experience music. She also thinks programs like Kulitta could allow people without advanced musical skills to engage in composition at a fairly high level — “sort of like being the director of a movie rather than the scriptwriter,” she says.

Viewed this way, programs like Kulitta are a help to human musicians, not a threat. “They’re another tool in the toolbox,” Quick says. “People can use this to do what they already were doing, but better.”

By several accounts, Kulitta is one of the most versatile automated musical composition programs developed to date, surpassing well-known predecessors in its ability to blend dissimilar musical styles to pleasing effect. Even David Cope, the celebrated composer and computer music innovator, was impressed by the demonstration Quick gave him during a visit to Yale. “He was very positive when he heard the Kulitta woodwind piece,” she said.

To be sure, Quick is not the first to create computer programs to write music. Cope, one of Quick’s role models, did it decades ago. His programs “Emily Howell” and “Emmy” have written thousands of classical compositions, from sonatas and concertos to chamber orchestra opuses and pieces for multiple pianos. The programs also helped him complete an opera he began but couldn’t seem to finish. Cope remains a towering figure in the field of computer music. But as Hudak, the Yale computer scientist, saw it, Quick has gone a step further than Cope: With Kulitta, Hudak once said, “You can create sounds that no one’s ever heard before.”

“Top down” approach

It was Hudak, in fact, who suggested that Quick call her program “Kulitta” after a female musician from Hittite mythology. Like existing automated composition systems, Kulitta has the ability tolearn musical properties, such as abstract rules for harmony and pitch mapping, from a corpus of existing compositions (in this case, Bach chorales primarily). Kulitta also has the ability to write music with a “top-down” approach that composes by eliminating musical elements it does not want to use.


The Kulitta software was named after a female musician from Hittite mythology.

“As soon as I heard about it, I decided I had to take it and planned my schedule around it, although I really had no idea what to expect beyond the idea that it somehow involved two things I liked a lot: programming and music,” Quick says. “The subject was intriguing to me, but also completely mysterious at the time. I haven’t looked back.”

Indeed not. She envisioned, developed, and began refining Kulitta, which became the subject of her dissertation in 2014. At the heart of Kulitta is a four-module process that transforms human directives into musical dialogue.

The first module establishes musical properties. In computer programming terms, it would look something like this: p=learn(corpus). The second module produces an abstract musical structure: a=generate(p); the third module creates musical chords: c=harmony(a,h); and the fourth module puts everything into a specific musical framework: music=style(c,chorale).

“Kulitta can produce a piece of music incredibly fast,” Quick says. “For something that would take at least a day for a human, Kulitta can do it in a few seconds or less.”

Metallica and Mozart

Quick’s ambitions for Kulitta will take a bit more time. Now that she’s produced mergers of classical and jazz, she’d like to do something even bolder. “The one I want to try is Metallica and Mozart,” she says. “I’d like Kulitta to do a rock symphony, at some point. That’s my pie-in-the-sky.”

In May, as a tribute to her late mentor, Quick played a Kulitta composition at a memorial service for Hudak. “I found it quite moving,” said Dana Angluin, a Yale computer science professor who attended the service, and who has worked with Quick.

Quick also has allowed a number of Yale students to work with Kulitta for term projects in a class she taught.

Such uses speak to one of the main ways Kulitta can be of service, according to Quick. Kulitta can quickly test a compositional idea for a classical concerto or a jazz harmony and spark an intellectual or emotional response. Not only can Kulitta accomplish this sort of test quickly, it can produce many variations on the same, specific musical idea and tailor them to the physical dimensions of the musician’s hands.

As to what Kulitta cannot do, says Quick, it cannot beat Bach at his own musical game. To say Kulitta composes music that has been confused for works generated by the mind of Bach is not to say the computer is as good a composer as Bach, she notes. “It’s kind of hard to match the gold standard. Bach defined a style, with specific rules. Kulitta will have mistakes, by that definition.”

Kulitta also will evolve. Quick says that if people like what they hear from Kulitta now, they’ll like version 2.0 better. She continues to expand Kulitta’s musical vocabulary and refine its understanding of compositional nuances. She is planning another listening test and has had an academic paper accepted for an international computer music conference.

Someday, Kulitta may even sing.

“This is a life’s work,” Quick says. “I would like to keep building a bigger, better, more proficient Kulitta.”

But Kulitta differs from other composition systems in important ways. Above all, there is its versatility. Where Cope’s justly celebrated programs can produce realistic, enjoyable music that largely works within established styles (using information about chorales to produce more chorales), Kulitta can use the structures of different musical forms and combine them to create music that sounds distinctly like something else altogether.

Firing up a laptop computer in the Euterpea Studio at Yale’s Watson Hall, surrounded by silent guitars, synthesizers, and drum kits, Quick demonstrates the process. She asks Kulitta to compose a 30-second piece in the style of a Bach chorale, but with a middle block that incorporates a jazz harmony. The jazzy block is then run back through the chorale parameters. The result takes less than 10 seconds.

“That wasn’t bad,” Quick says, after human ears have heard the piece for the first time. “I’m going to save that one. You can think of it as, ‘This might be what Bach would have done if he knew about jazz.’”

Beyond bioinformatics

Quick came to Yale from Southern Methodist University, where she received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer science (and a second bachelor’s degree in environmental studies). In 2008, as she anticipated her doctoral studies in New Haven, she planned to continue with the bioinformatics research she’d begun in Texas, which involved analyzing the DNA of nematode worms.

She was interested in computers as a source of music, but had little exposure to it. “I was completely unaware of the potential that existed for automated composition, since the only algorithmic compositions I’d come across were really quite awful sounding,” she says.

In August 2008, she and her husband, a graduate student in psychology at the University of Connecticut, drove from Texas to Connecticut with their load of musical instruments, including three guitars, a keyboard, a theremin, and some other stringed instruments, including an oud and bouzouki. Soon after arriving she saw that Hudak was offering a course in computer music, "Fundamentals of Computer Music: Algorithmic and Heuristic Composition."


Donya Quick performs a piece composed using the Kulitta software.

“As soon as I heard about it, I decided I had to take it and planned my schedule around it, although I really had no idea what to expect beyond the idea that it somehow involved two things I liked a lot: programming and music,” Quick says. “The subject was intriguing to me, but also completely mysterious at the time. I haven’t looked back.”

Indeed not. She envisioned, developed, and began refining Kulitta, which became the subject of her dissertation in 2014. At the heart of Kulitta is a four-module process that transforms human directives into musical dialogue.

The first module establishes musical properties. In computer programming terms, it would look something like this: p=learn(corpus). The second module produces an abstract musical structure: a=generate(p); the third module creates musical chords: c=harmony(a,h); and the fourth module puts everything into a specific musical framework: music=style(c,chorale).

“Kulitta can produce a piece of music incredibly fast,” Quick says. “For something that would take at least a day for a human, Kulitta can do it in a few seconds or less.”

Metallica and Mozart

Quick’s ambitions for Kulitta will take a bit more time. Now that she’s produced mergers of classical and jazz, she’d like to do something even bolder. “The one I want to try is Metallica and Mozart,” she says. “I’d like Kulitta to do a rock symphony, at some point. That’s my pie-in-the-sky.”

In May, as a tribute to her late mentor, Quick played a Kulitta composition at a memorial service for Hudak. “I found it quite moving,” said Dana Angluin, a Yale computer science professor who attended the service, and who has worked with Quick.

Quick also has allowed a number of Yale students to work with Kulitta for term projects in a class she taught.

Such uses speak to one of the main ways Kulitta can be of service, according to Quick. Kulitta can quickly test a compositional idea for a classical concerto or a jazz harmony and spark an intellectual or emotional response. Not only can Kulitta accomplish this sort of test quickly, it can produce many variations on the same, specific musical idea and tailor them to the physical dimensions of the musician’s hands.

As to what Kulitta cannot do, says Quick, it cannot beat Bach at his own musical game. To say Kulitta composes music that has been confused for works generated by the mind of Bach is not to say the computer is as good a composer as Bach, she notes. “It’s kind of hard to match the gold standard. Bach defined a style, with specific rules. Kulitta will have mistakes, by that definition.”

Kulitta also will evolve. Quick says that if people like what they hear from Kulitta now, they’ll like version 2.0 better. She continues to expand Kulitta’s musical vocabulary and refine its understanding of compositional nuances. She is planning another listening test and has had an academic paper accepted for an international computer music conference.

Someday, Kulitta may even sing.

“This is a life’s work,” Quick says. “I would like to keep building a bigger, better, more proficient Kulitta.”




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¿Cómo detectamos las (malas) intenciones de otra persona? [1496]

de System Administrator - jueves, 8 de octubre de 2015, 21:57

¿Cómo detectamos las (malas) intenciones de otra persona?

Hesse, E., Mikulan, E., Decety, J., Sigman, M., Garcia, M., Silva, W., Ciraolo, C., Vaucheret, E., Baglivo, F., Huepe-Artigas, D., Lopez, V., Manes, F., Bekinschtein, T. & Ibanez, A. Early detection of intentional harm in the human amygdala. BRAIN, Accepted.ígdala

Este estudio muestra por primera vez que la amígdala juega un rol crítico en la detección ultrarrápida de la intención de dañar, base del juicio moral y la empatía.

La capacidad de identificar si alguien va a cometer (o comete) una acción malintencionada contra otra persona constituye un componente crítico del juicio y la cognición moral. Más importante, detectar a tiempo si otra persona tiene la intención de agredirnos es una habilidad crítica para la supervivencia.

En general juzgamos cuan bueno o malo es un acto dependiendo principalmente de si hay mala intención (ej., la intención de dañar o agredir) que hay en el actor, más que de si el resultado en sí es malo o no. Por ejemplo, consideramos igualmente inadecuado desde el punto de vista moral si:

(a) una persona quiere matar a otra (supongamos para robarle) y lo hace.

(b) quiere matarla pero no logra hacerlo.

Es decir juzgamos las acciones moralmente a partir de la intención de dañar más que del resultado de dicha acción.

En el sistema de derecho penal anglosajón, la intención de dañar (o mala intención) está altamente sobredimensionada al momento de evaluar el daño y sufrimiento de la víctima. En la vida cotidiana, ocurre algo similar, que se conoce como el efecto “intention-magnifies-harm”.

Cuando una persona inflige una acción que desencadena un sufrimiento o agresión en otra persona, si dicha acción es intencional (a propósito), tendemos a considerar el daño o sufrimiento como más doloroso, sentimos más empatía por la víctima y queremos castigar/condenar más al agresor, que cuando la misma agresión no es intencional (ej., si fue causada por accidente).

Los psicópatas, las personas que ejercen acciones de deshumanización, o pacientes con ciertas enfermedades neurológicas que afectan la impulsividad y la desinhibición, tienden a valorar menos la intención de dañar al momento de juzgar moralmente los actos de otras personas. 

Los niños pequeños (incluso los infantes) son capaces de distinguir acciones de daño intencional de las de daño accidental.

En resumen: la intención (o la mala intención) es detectada muy rápido porque es crítica para la supervivencia, el juicio y la cognición moral.   ¿Como se las arregla nuestro cerebro para facilitar de forma híper-veloz (en unas décimas de segundos) esta hipertrofia de la detección de conducta malintencionada?

Las neurociencias cognitivas no han provisto aun una repuesta clara. Sabemos que en estos procesos se activan diferentes áreas cerebrales (frontales y temporales) involucradas en la capacidad de inferir los estados mentales de otras personas (incluyendo la intencionalidad), la empatía, y otros aspectos de la cognición moral.

Sin embargo, hasta la fecha no se ha podido determinar qué región (o red) es crítica para la detección rápida de la intencionalidad de dañar. Los estudios de neuroimágenes (resonancia magnética funcional o tomografía por emisión de positrones) no poseen la resolución o precisión temporal para poder establecer que áreas o redes detectan en unos pocos cientos de milisegundos si una agresión fue intencional o accidental.

Por otra parte, los estudios de técnicas electromagnéticas, aunque sí brindan información temporal muy precisa, no cuentan con la resolución espacial para determinar fehacientemente que regiones son críticas para esta capacidad.   Para poder develar las bases cerebrales de la identificación de la intención de dañar, en un estudio liderado por el Dr Agustin Ibáñez y ejecutado por la ingeniera Eugenia Hesse (ambos del grupo INECO-CONICET-NUFIN) y diversos colegas del Hospital Italiano y otros centros de investigación, se indagó esta capacidad mediante registros intracraneales invasivos en humanos, que es una técnica excepcional: a algunos pacientes con epilepsia refractaria en los que no se puede detectar el foco epiléptico, se le colocan electrodos directamente a lo largo de múltiples regiones del cerebro, a fin de detectar dónde se genera la epilepsia y poder intervenir mediante cirugía.

Combinando técnicas de electrofisiología y neuroimágenes se puede saber la localización exacta de cada sensor, en el milisegundo exacto en que se produce una respuesta neuronal. Es una técnica exclusivamente implementada para curar al paciente. Pero debido a que los pacientes pasan muchos días con los electrodos en su cerebro, es posible investigar los correlatos cerebrales de diferentes aspectos mentales.

Estos registros constituye uno de los métodos más precisos de las neurociencias cognitivas en humanos ya que permiten determinar mejor que ningún otro donde y cuando el cerebro genera una actividad neuronal asociada a determinado proceso cognitivo. Constituye el único método de medición directa de la actividad cerebral en humanos. En palabras simples: nos permite mirar directamente adentro del cerebro cuando se está realizando alguna actividad cognitiva.   A estos participantes se les presentaron muchos videos (cada video duraba exactamente 1.7 segundos, en realidad son tres imágenes sucesivas que generan la impresión de movimiento). Se presentaban 3 tipos de situaciones  en las que una persona ejercía sobre otra:

(a) un daño de forma intencional (ejemplo: le golpeaba con un palo)

(b) un daño de forma accidental (ejemplo: accidentalmente e inadvertidamente le pegaba con una raqueta)

(c) una acción neutral (ejemplo: le pasaba un cuaderno).

Los participantes debían luego de ver cada video, indicar (mediante dos botones) si había ocurrido (o no) una intención de dañar a otra persona. Así, durante la tarea, se registró la actividad más de 115 áreas diferentes del cerebro.

De forma sorprendentemente sistemática, y en cada uno de los sujetos, una misma región del cerebro (la amígdala) respondía selectivamente cuando la acción implicaba una intención de dañar. Esto se observó de forma ultrarrápida, durante los primeros 200 milisegundos del video (y varios segundos antes de que los sujetos clasificaran la acción como intencional o accidental). Más aún, la respuesta selectiva de la amígdala a cada situación predijo si el participante iba a clasificar posteriormente dicha acción como malintencionada o accidental. En esta ventana ultrarrápida, solo la amígdala (entre cientos de regiones frontales y temporales) discriminó las acciones intencionales y predijo la clasificación que luego decidiría el sujeto varios segundos después.   Adicionalmente, usando técnicas recientes de conectividad cerebral que permiten establecer como se coordinan múltiples áreas cerebrales en una tarea, encontramos que la amígdala se comunicaba selectiva y tempranamente con diversas regiones frontales y del lóbulo temporal, durante la observación de acciones de daño intencional.

"La amígdala y sus redes frontotemporales son decisivas para la detección ultrarrápida de la acciones malintencionadas"

Así, este estudio evidenció por primera vez que la amígdala en humanos no solo procesa aspectos básicos como se pensaba hasta hace poco (como la emoción o el reconocimiento de objetos), sino también procesos de alto nivel como la detección temprana de la intención de dañar mediante un procesamiento rápido y un acoplamiento subsiguiente con diversas regiones frontotemporales. La coordinación de la información de la escena del video (el contexto de la acción que permite inferir si habrá o no una intención de dañar) con la acción específica del agente, fue indexada por redes frontemporales en las cuales la amígdala juega un rol crítico en el procesamiento ultrarrápido de eventos relevantes.   Este estudio determinó entonces que la amígdala y sus redes frontotemporales son decisivas para la detección ultrarrápida de la acciones malintencionadas, un proceso que es crítico para la cognición moral, la empatía y la llamada teoría de la mente (la capacidad de inferir estados, intenciones y creencias en las otras personas).

Estos resultados brindan la primer evidencia directa de que la amigdala no solo posee un rol básico en las emociones aversivas (ej., miedo) o en el reconocimiento de objetos, como fuera tradicionalmente propuesto, sino que esta forma parte de una red múltiple que procesa la saliencia o relevancia de la información (social) e interviene en mecanismos de alto nivel.

Esto es justamente lo que se ha propuesto con una nueva   teoría (llamada “Many Roads View”) de la amígdala, que propone un rol crítico de dicha región en procesos cognitivos de alto nivel (relevancia social) más que puramente emocionales. De esta forma, este estudio da un paso adelante en la dirección de dicha teoría, al determinar que el área más critica para la detección de la (mala) intención es la amígdala (en acoplamiento con redes distribuidas), superando las limitaciones de los trabajos de neuroimágenes que no habían podido dar cuenta de este fenómeno, y abriendo un nueva área de investigación sobre el rol del procesamiento ultrarrápido de las redes cerebrales de la amígdala en procesos de alto nivel como la cognición moral.

Invitación de IntraMed a participar de una nueva investigación

IntraMed junto con el grupo de investigadores que lideraron el estudio que se acaba de describir se han porpuesto investigar acerca de la empatía y el juicio moral en médicos. Para ellos hemos elaborado un protocolo muy riguroso que nos permitirá extraer conclusiones de gran importancia para el desempeño de la profesión. Dada la trascendencia de la información que un estudio como éste podría tener, lo invitamos a particpar del mismo completando una serie breve sencilla de tareas a las que podrá acceder desde acá:

 Acceso a la investigación


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de System Administrator - jueves, 24 de septiembre de 2015, 16:47


Autora: María Teresa Vallejo Laso

Empieza por detectar cuál es la verdadera razón por la que se ha producido la discusión para llegar al fondo del asunto sin dar vueltas u ofender a tupareja. Detectar el centro del problema es primordial para hacer la discusión más breve y no acabar gritando.

Es importante buscar el momento adecuado para hablar del problema en cuestión. Evita las discusiones a última hora de la jornada o en cualquier otro momento en que estés cansado/a.

Fíjate un objetivo concreto, ya que la finalidad de la discusión es resolver un problema, y no tiene porqué ser sinónimo de pelea. Cuando se discute es un fin determinado, céntrate en el objetivo y no grites, intenta guardar la calma y el respeto total por el interlocutor.

Plantea tu punto de vista con lógica y arguméntalo. No debes rehuir el comentar los problemas que tienes aunque eso genere discutir, es mejor hablar que ir guardando hasta explotar de una manera inadecuada.

No hagas imposiciones. Lo más importante es intentar ponerse en el lugar del otro, comprender su punto de vista.

No saques trapos sucios que no construyen, sino que empeoran. Si se discute por algo que sucedió ayer, no te remontes a años atrás en busca de agravios.

No insultes. Desecha las afirmaciones demoledoras y definitivas, esas que nunca se olvidan por mucho que después pidamos perdón (te odio, no te soporto, etc.).

Si realmente te interesa seguir conviviendo con la otra persona, plantéate una discusión constructiva, no destructiva.

Trata de exponer tus ideas con calma, razonándolas, aunque el interlocutor tenga una opinión diferente. No te escuches exclusivamente a ti, escucha lo que dice la otra persona. Siempre escucha a tu pareja cuando defiende sus razones, óyela sin perder la calma y sin irrespetar.

Si la discusión sube de tono, abandona o aplázala hasta que os calméis. Déjate de actitudes violentas como subir el tono de voz, usar palabras ofensivas, denigrar al otro, acercarte demasiado invadiendo su espacio o esforzarte por tener la última palabra.

Es una buena práctica, aunque cueste trabajo en el transcurso de una disputa, decir cosas agradables de la otra persona

Aprende a ceder y negociar. No conviertas una discusión en una batalla campal. Defiende tu punto de vista con coherencia y firmeza, pero al mismo tiempo se flexible. Si ves en el transcurso de la discusión que no tienes razón, cede y reconoce a la otra parte. Mantener las tensiones durante tiempo improcedentemente, para lo único que sirve es para tensionar más aún la relación. Ten en cuenta que una discusión no es una lucha de poder para comprobar que se tiene la razón, sino un diálogo para intentar mejorar las cosas y llegar al mutuo acuerdo. Si en el diálogo con tu pareja consideras que lleva razón en algo, admítelo con humildad.

El orgullo es un mal consejero. Poder admitir que te has equivocado te llena de nobleza. Por el contrario si te mantienes firme de forma testaruda solo aumentará el malestar y os llevará a perder el control.

Cualquier droga puede, (pero sobre todo alcohol, café en exceso) influir negativamente en el proceso de la discusión ya que estas u otras sustancias alteran la percepción de la realidad, por lo cual no sería conveniente empezar una discusión bajo sus efectos.

Si controlas la respiración durante la discusión no te tensionarás y actuarás más tranquilo/a y racionalmente. Para ello respira lenta y profundamente, y expulsa el aire por la boca Si en algún momento sientes que esta discusión te supera y que estás a punto de cruzar la barrera y perder por completo el control, entonces para. Date un respiro, por la salud de ambos pide que se detenga la discusión y sal a tomar aire, date un baño, respira profundo y cuando te hayas calmado aplica estos consejos.

Perder el control al discutir con tu pareja es habitual pues se trata de alguien que te conoce muy bien, tus fortalezas y puntos débiles, por eso no te culpes y más bien intenta buscar soluciones efectivas a los problemas.

Autora: María Teresa Vallejo Laso


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¿Cuál es tu concepto de éxito? Pautas para conseguirlo [1652]

de System Administrator - miércoles, 3 de febrero de 2016, 21:14

¿Cuál es tu concepto de éxito? Pautas para conseguirlo

por Esther Canales Castellanos

“Sólo existe una clase de éxito: lograr vivir a tu manera” - Christopher Morley

Cuando le pregunto a alguno de mis clientes que cual es su concepto de éxito la primera imagen  que les viene a la cabeza es la de tener mucho dinero. Después suelen hablarme de tener un puesto de trabajo buenísimo o de no tener que trabajar, de tener montones de cosas materiales, etc. Normalmente cuando empiezo a indagar un poco más aparecen cosas un poco menos materiales y más trascendentes como pasar tiempo con la familia y los amigos, cultivar aficiones, viajar, y un largo etcétera. Cuando empiezo a rascar un poco más, que es lo que solemos hacer los coaches, y les empiezo a preguntar PARA QUÉ quieren cada una de esas cosas, entonces el motivo principal se resume en PARA SER FELIZ. Y es que el éxito en la vida consiste en ser feliz.


Fotografía de Anthony Delanoix

Claro que, el concepto de felicidad es uno de los más difíciles de definir, precisamente porque para cada persona el concepto de felicidad es muy diferente. Exactamente lo mismo ocurre con el concepto del éxito. El éxito y la felicidad tienen distintas variables dependiendo de quién sea la persona que lo enuncie. Este concepto además va variando según la etapa de nuestra vida en la que nos encontremos, la estación del año, e incluso el día de la semana y hora en la que nos encontremos. Es decir es un concepto vivo, pero que siempre se sustenta en unas líneas generales que se mantienen más o menos estables en el tiempo. Estos pilares son nuestros valores, lo que es importante en nuestras vidas.

“El camino del éxito es tomar acción masiva y determinada” - Anthony Robbins.

Para ayudarte a definir tu concepto de éxito te propongo las siguientes preguntas:

  • ¿Cuáles son las áreas más importantes de tu vida? Estas áreas suelen ser Salud, Familia, Relaciones personales, Profesión, Aficiones , Economía, Espiritualidad, etc. Pero pueden ser diferentes para cada persona.
  • En cada área define cuál es tu situación actual. No lo juzgues, sólo descríbelo.
  • Ahora te pido que te tomes tu tiempo para reflexionar sobre la siguiente pregunta: ¿Cuál sería tu situación ideal en cada área? En este apartado escribe lo que tu intuición te dicte y olvídate por un momento de la “realidad” y de si se “puede o no se puede hacer”. Permítete soñar.
  • ¿Puedes extraer ahora cuál es tu concepto de éxito teniendo en cuenta la respuesta a la pregunta anterior?

¿Sorprendid@? Seguramente te habrás encontrado con que lo que más importancia tiene en la vida para ser feliz no es lo material, sino que lo material facilita en cierta medida que puedas alcanzar el éxito, es algo instrumental.

Después de responder estas preguntas, ¿Podrías escribirlo en forma de uno o dos párrafos? Te sugiero que lo escribas en algún lugar especial: un cuaderno, diario, cartel , cuadro, …lo que tu imaginación te dicte. Esto  es algo especial para ti, indica los componentes básicos para alcanzar tu éxito en la vida. Te invito a que cada día dediques unos instantes a lo que has escrito y a reflexionar sobre si lo que estás haciendo ahora mismo en tu vida está alineado con lo que para tí es el éxito en la vida. Es decir, te invito a reflexionar sobre si lo que haces te conduce o no a la felicidad.

No te pares a juzgar lo que has escrito, confía en tu intuición, que es la que con sus pequeñas señales, voces y sensaciones, te revela información de tu subconsciente revelándote tus verdaderos intereses, lo que realmente de hace feliz. No desprecies tu intuición porque tu mente racional te comienza a recordar los “deberías”, la “realidad”, los “no puedo”… Tu intuición es ajena a todo esto. Las preocupaciones te impiden escuchar tu intuición y te alejan del éxito. No digo que hagamos todo por intuición, pero dale una oportunidad. Todo lo que has escrito que te gustaría alcanzar en cada área de tu vida para alcanzar el éxito te lo ha dictado tu intuición. La intuición está íntimamente conectada con tus emociones  y hay que aprender a escucharlas. Ya vendrá luego la razón a indicarnos cómo debemos conseguir nuestros objetivos. Pero nunca debemos dejar que la razón anule a nuestra voz interior.

“Qué triste cosa sería la vida si sólo la razón gobernara nuestras acciones” - Jacinto Benavente

Y ahora, con lo que sabes, ¿estás dispuesto a darte la oportunidad de alcanzar el éxito en tu vida?

Esther Canales Castellanos - Psicóloga colegiada experta en Coaching .


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