The hacker group Anonymous has been on a tear lately, successfully hacking the Tunisian government, Sony, federal cybersecurity contractors, and after suffering from several raids, is now even eyeing the FBI.
It's an interesting era for extreme cyber activism, with the hacker community seemingly finding its voice and becoming very creative in extracting vengeance upon organizations it sees as oppressive. Much has been said about whether this is ethical, if Anonymous can maintain effectiveness, and how things will develop from here. But I think most commentators have missed the point:
Anonymous has already won. And it boils down to one word: insurance.
It looks probable that cybersecurity insurance will become required for many sorts of companies-- the proverbial cat is out of the bag, and even if Anonymous isn't behind the keyboard, so-called "ethical hacking" is likely to increase in popularity. Given this, it'll become as common to hedge your risk from hacking as it is to hedge your risk from fire or flooding. But insurance companies aren't dumb, and it's likely that the premium on cybersecurity insurance will strongly reflect how much of a high-profile hacker target a company is. Just like it's more expensive to insure a mud-foundation coastal house from hurricanes, so too it'll be more expensive to insure a company popularly seen as brazenly greedy against hackers. Companies will have a powerful and quantifiable incentive to not engage in activities that make them a target.
To put this a different way, sometimes companies do things that are legal but unethical. Vigilante justice can 'reinternalize' the externalized costs of these behaviors.
Granted, I'm not saying illegally hacking companies is a good thing, just that Anonymous has the potential to be a very potent market force. They could still snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by being capricious with their targets: if there's little correlation between deed and penalty, insurance premiums will be high across the board. It'll be interesting to see how things turn out.
It’s wonderful that writers can access medieval manuscripts, Swahili dictionaries and collections of 19th-century daguerreotypes at any moment. But the downside is that it’s almost impossible to finish a sentence without interruption. I confess that even those last 15 words were stalled by a detour, via Wikipedia, to various health Web sites, where I learned that concern was aroused last year by a report that Wi-Fi radiation was causing trees to shed their bark in a Dutch town, and that our excessive Web browsing and e-mailing may also be having ill effects on bees and British children. After an hour of this, I concluded that perhaps an equally urgent scientific study might be conducted on the devastation Wi-Fi has caused to world literature. The damage is surely incalculable.
Mind training is based on the idea that two opposite mental factors cannot happen at the same time. You could go from love to hate, but you cannot at the same time, toward the same object, the same person, want to harm and want to do good. You cannot in the same gesture shake a hand, and give a blow. So there are natural antidotes to emotion that are destructive to our inner well-being.
If we grant that this is possible, the only real debate is when. 10 years? 15? 50? 100? The gears of capitalism and human nature ensure that it'll come, sooner or later. And I think the only way this won't end in certain disaster is to develop, formalize, and enforce a new social contract regarding human enhancement.
My suggestion? If you want to use biotechnology to make yourself smarter, you also have to use it to make yourself nicer.
If we don't make this the accepted contract, I fear we'll ping-pong between two unpalatable scenarios: either open things up to an enhancement free-for-all (and there's likely a strong correlation between people who most want to be cognitively enhanced and people for whom it's not in society's best interests to grant a competitive advantage), or criminalize enhancement (and if we outlaw enhancement, only outlaws will be enhanced).
In 1848, an explosion drives a steel tamping bar through the skull of a twenty-five-year-old railroad foreman named Phineas Gage, obliterating a portion of his frontal lobes. He recovers, and seems to possess all his earlier faculties, with one exception: The formerly mild-mannered Gage is now something of a hellion, an impulsive shit-starter. Ipso facto, the frontal lobes must play some function in regulating and restraining our more animalistic instincts.
In 1861, a French neurosurgeon named Pierre-Paul Broca announces that he has found the root of speech articulation in the brain. He bases his discovery on a patient of his, a man with damage to the left hemisphere of his inferior frontal lobe. The man comes to be known as "Monsieur Tan," because, though he can understand what people say, "tan" is the only syllable he is capable of pronouncing.
Thirteen years later, Carl Wernicke, a German neurologist, describes a patient with damage to his posterior left temporal lobe, a man who speaks fluently but completely nonsensically, unable to form a logical sentence or understand the sentences of others. If "Broca's area," as the damaged part of Monsieur Tan's brain came to be known, was responsible for speech articulation, then "Wernicke's area" must be responsible for language comprehension.
And so it goes. The broken illuminate the unbroken.
Edit, 5-25-11: There's been some interesting research on using brain stimulation to aid learning: essentially using tiny amounts of electricity to induce changes in rats' brains that makethem better learners. After the current is shut off, the rats' brains go back to normal but they keep their learned skills. We don't know what the specific trade-offs may be, but between this approach and approaches which could mimic developmental neuroplasticity triggers, we may have the basis for a very desirable form of cognitive enhancement.
Here's "Scienceblog" on the a theory on how the brain picks which of its neural networks to use for a new skill:
Edit, 7-28-11: Scientists have traced the recall of a specific memory and found it partially activates other memories from around the same time. Unsurprising, given it's common to experience memories as strongly linked, but still good science, and perhaps it supports the viewpoint that all memory is ultimately episodic in some real sense.
Researchers have long known that the brain links all kinds of new facts, related or not, when they are learned about the same time. Just as the taste of a cookie and tea can start a cascade of childhood memories, as in Proust, so a recalled bit of history homework can bring to mind a math problem — or a new dessert — from that same night.
For the first time, scientists have recorded traces in the brain of that kind of contextual memory, the ever-shifting kaleidoscope of thoughts and emotions that surrounds every piece of newly learned information. The recordings, taken from the brains of people awaiting surgery for epilepsy, suggest that new memories of even abstract facts — an Italian verb, for example — are encoded in a brain-cell firing sequence that also contains information about what else was happening during and just before the memory was formed, whether a tropical daydream or frustration with the Mets.
The new study suggests that memory is like a streaming video that is bookmarked, both consciously and subconsciously, by facts, scenes, characters and thoughts.
...“When you activate one memory, you are reactivating a little bit of what was happening around the time the memory was formed,” Dr. Kahana said[.]
Cross-species data analysis strongly suggests that most age-associated disease and death is due to "antagonistic pleiotropy" -- destructive interference between adaptations specialized for different age ranges. The result is that death rate increases through old age, and then stabilizes at a high constant rate in late life.
different types of BCIs-- one way vs two way (open or closed loop)- invasiveness (non, partial, very) (influences bandwidth)- spacial scale (topology, degrees of freedom)- temporal scale (precision)levels of organization- where to interact with the brain?- neuron- cortical column- nuclei- functional networks- cortical regionsafferent BCIs (inject a signal)- map the network- choose 'connection' site- inject a signal (MUST contain information)- "neuroplasticity" helps interprets over time- performance = f (information quality, accessibility, bandwidth…)efferent BCIs (find signal, take it out)- map the network- find a recording site- transduce a signal- algorithms 'interpret'- 'neuroplasticity' (but you get less help from the brain going out than going in)- performance=f (resolution, signal quality, algorithms, information)major challenges in BCIs:data dimensionalitydata rates- up to 25 bits/min in 2000 (almost double now)biocompatabilitytissue/electrode interfacemapping circuits for meaningful injection/extraction pointsstate of the art for electrodes is bad…12 million neurons gets represented by 1 electrode. Likewise, electrodes don't measure the same neurons during different experiments.
- computational - defining goals of the system (e.g., Opencog)- algorithmic - how the brain does things - the representations and algorithms (this guy)- implementation - the medium - the physical realization of the system (e.g., Blue Brain, SyNAPSE)
Part 1: Neurobiology, psychology, and the missing link(s)
Part 2: Gene Expression as a comprehensive diagnostic platform
Part 3: Neural resonance + neuroacoustics
Part 4: Location, location, location!
The brain is extraordinarily complex. We are in desperate need of models that decode this complexity and allow us to speak about the brain's fundamental dynamics simply, comprehensively, and predictively. I believe I have one, and it revolves around resonance.
Neural resonance is currently an underdefined curiosity at the fringes of respectable neuroscience research. I believe that over the next 10 years it'll grow into being a central part of the vocabulary of functional neuroscience. I could be wrong- but here's the what and why.
Resonance, in a nutshell
To back up a bit and situate the concept of resonance, consider how we create music. Every single one of our non-electronic musical instruments operate via resonance-- e.g., by changing fingering on a trumpet or flute, or moving a trombone slide to a different position, we change which frequencies resonate within the instrument. And when we blow into the mouthpiece we produce a messy range of frequencies, but of those, our instrument's physical parameters amplify a very select set of frequencies and dampen the rest, and out comes a clear, musical tone. Singing works similarly: we change the physical shape of our voiceboxes, throats, and mouths in order to make certain frequencies resonate and others not.
Put simply, resonance involves the tendency of systems to emphasize certain frequencies or patterns at the expense of others, based on the system's structural properties (what we call "acoustics"). It creates a rich, mathematically elegant sort of order, from a jumbled, chaotic starting point. We model and quantify resonance and acoustics in terms of waves, frequencies, harmonics, constructive and destructive interference, and the properties of systems which support or dampen certain frequencies.
So what is neural resonance?
Literally, 'resonance which happens in the context of the brain and neurons', or the phenomenon where the brain's 'acoustics' prioritizes certain patterns, frequencies, and harmonics of neural firings over others.
Examples would include a catchy snippet of music or a striking image that gets stuck in a one's head, with the neural firing patterns that represent these snippets echoing or 'resonating' inside the brain in some fashion for hours on end. Similarly, though ideas enter the brain differently, they often get stuck, or "resonate," as well-- see, for instance, Dawkins on memes. In short, neural resonance is the tendency for some patterns in the brain (ideas) to persist more strongly than others, due to the mathematical interactions between the patterns of neural firings into which perceptions and ideas are encoded, and the 'acoustic' properties of the brain itself.
But if we want to take the concept of neural resonance as more than a surface curiosity-- as I think we should-- we can make a deeper analogy to the dynamics of resonant and acoustic systems by modeling information as actually resonating in the brain. That there are deep, rich, functionally significant, and semi-literal parallels between many aspects of brain dynamics and audio theory. Just like sound resonates in and is shaped by a musical instrument, ideas enter, resonate in, are shaped by, and ultimately leave their mark on our brains.
I thought the brain was a computer, not a collection of resonant chambers?
Yes; I'm essentially arguing that the brain computes via resonance and essentially acoustical mechanics.
I'm basically arguing that we should try to semi-literally adapt the equations we've developed for sound and music to the neural context, and that most neural phenomena can be explained pretty darn well in terms of these equations. In short:
The brain functions as a set of connected acoustic chambers. We can think of it as a multi-part building, with each room tuned to make a slightly different harmonies resonate, and with doors opening and closing all the time so these harmonies constantly mix. (Sometimes tones carry through the walls to adjacent rooms.) The harmonies are thoughts; the 'rooms' are brain regions.
Importantly, the transformations which brain regions apply to thoughts are akin to the transformations a specific room would apply to a certain harmony. The acoustics of the room-- i.e., the 'resonant properties' of a brain region-- profoundly influence the pattern occupying it. The essence of thinking, then, is letting these patterns enter our brain regions and resonate/refine themselves until they ring true.
My basic argument is that you can explain basically every important neural dynamic within the brain in terms of resonance, that it's a comprehensive, generative, and predictive model-- much moreso than current 'circuit' or 'voting' based analogies.
- What happens when we're building an idea: certain types of deliberative or creative thinking may be analogous to tweaking a neural pattern's profile such that it resonates better.
- How ideas can literally collide: if two neural patterns converge inside a brain region, one of several overlapping things may occur: one resonates more dominantly and swamps the other, destructive interference, constructive interference, or a new idea emerges directly from the wave interference pattern.
- How ideas change us: since neural activity is highly conditioned, patterns which resonate more change more neural connections. I.e., the more a thought, emotion, or even snippet of music persists in resonating and causing neurons to fire in the same pattern, the more it leaves its mark on the brain. Presumably, having a certain type of resonance occur in the brain primes the brain's neuroacoustics to make patterns like it more likely to resonate in the future (see, for instance, sensitization aka kindling). You become what resonates within you.
In short, resonance, or the tendency for certain neural firing patterns to persist due to how their frequency- and wave-related properties interact with the features of the brain and each other, is a significant factor in the dynamics of how the brain filters, processes, and combines signals. However, we should also keep in mind that:
Resonance in the brain is an inherently dynamic property because the brain actively manages its neuroacoustics!
I've argued above that our 'neuroacoustics'- that which determines what sorts of patterns resonate in our heads and get deeply ingrained in our neural nets- is important and actively shapes what goes on in our heads. But this is just half the story: we can't get from static neuroacoustic properties to a fully-functioning brain, since, if nothing else, resonant patterns would get stuck. The other, equally important half is that the brain has the ability to contextually amplify, dampen, filter, and in general manage its neural resonances, or in other words contextually shape its neuroacoustics.
Some of the logic of this management may be encoded into regional topologies and intrinsic properties of neuron activation, but I'd estimate that the majority (perhaps 80%) of neuroacoustic management occurs via the contextual release of specific neurotransmitters, and in fact this could be said to be their central task.
With regard to what manages the managers, presumably neurotransmitter release could be tightly coupled with the current resonance activity in various brain regions, but the story of serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine may be somewhat complicated as it's unclear how much of neurotransmitter activity is a stateless, walkforward process. The brain's metamanagement may be a phenomenon resistant to simple rules and generalities.
A key point regarding the brain managing its neuroacoustics is that how good the brain is at doing so likely varies significantly between individuals, and this variance may be at the core of many mental phenomena. For instance:
- That which distinguishes both gifted learners and high-IQ individuals from the general populance may be that their brains are more flexible in manipulating their neuroacoustic properties to resonate better to new concepts and abstract situations, respectively. Capacity for empathy may be shorthand for 'ability to accurately simulate or mirror other peoples' neuroacoustic properties'.
- Likewise, malfunctions and gaps in the brain’s ability to manage its neural resonance, particularly in matching up the proper neuroacoustic properties to a given situation, may be a large part of the story of mental illness and social dysfunction. Autism spectrum disorders for instance, may be almost entirely caused by malfunctions in the brain's ability to regulate its neuroacoustic properties.
- If we can exercise and improve the brain's ability to manage its neural resonance (perhaps with neurofeedback?), all of these things (IQ, ability to learn, mental health, social dexterity) should improve.
- Mood may be another word for neuroacoustic configuration. A change in mood implies a change in which ideas resonate in ones mind. Maintaining a thought or emotion means maintaining one's neuroacoustic configuration. (See addendum on chord structures and Depression.)
- 'Prefrontal biasing', or activity in the prefrontal cortex altering competitive dynamics in the brain, may be viewed in terms of resonance: put simply, the analogy is that the PFC is located at a leveraged acoustic position (e.g., the tuning pegs of a guitar) and has a strong influence on the resonant properties of many other regions.
- Phenomena such as migraines may essentially be malfunctions in the brain's neuroacoustic management. A runaway resonance.
- What cognition 'is';
- How competition for neural resources is resolved;
- How complex decision-making abilities may arise from simple neural properties;
- How ideas may interact with each other within the brain;
- That audio theory may be a rich source of starting points for equations to model information dynamics in the brain;
- What the maintenance of thought and emotion entails, and why a change in mood implies a change in thinking style;
- How subconscious thought may(?) be processed;
- What intelligence is, and how there could be different kinds of intelligence;
- How various disorders may naturally arise from a central process of the brain (and that they are linked, and perhaps can be improved by a special kind of brain exercise);
- The division of function between neurons and neurotransmitters;
- The mechanism by which memes can be 'catchy' and how being exposed to memes can create a 'resonant beachhead' for similar memes;
- The mechanism of how neurofeedback can/should be broadly effective.
There are few holistic theories of brain function which cover half this ground.
Tests which have the ability to falsify or support models of neural function (such as this one) aren't available now, but may arise as we get better at simulating brains and such. I look forward to that-- it would certainly be helpful to be able to more precisely quantify things such as neural resonance, neuroacoustics, interference patterns within the brain, and such.
As George Box famously said, 'all models are wrong, but some are useful.' This model certainly doesn't get everything right, and to some extent (just like its competitors) it is a just-so story-- but I think it's got at least three things going for it over similar models:
1. Fundamental simplicity-- it's one of the few models of neural function which can actually provide an intuitive answer to the question of what’s going on in someone brain.
2. Emergent complexity-- from a small handful of concepts (or just one, depending on how you count it), the elegant complexity of neural dynamics emerges.
3. Ideal level of abstraction-- this is a model which we can work both downward from to e.g., use as a sanity check for neural simulation since the resonant properties of neural networks are tied to function (the Blue Brain project is doing this to some extent), and upward from to generate new explanations/predictions within psychology, since resonance appears to be a central and variable element of high-speed neural dynamics and the formation and maintenance of thought and emotion.
ETA 10 years.
Addendum, 10-11-10: Chord Structures
Major chords are emotively associated with contentment; minor chords with tragedy. If my resonance analogy is correct, there may be a tight, deeply structural analogy between musical theory, emotion, and neural resonance. I.e., musical chords are mathematically homologous to patterns of neural resonance, wherein major and minor forms exist and are almost always associated with positive and negative affect, respectively.
Now, it's not clear whether there's an elegant, semi-literal correspondence between e.g., minor chords, "minor key" neural resonances, and negative affect. There could be three scenarios:
1. No meaningful correspondence exists.
2. There isn't an elegant mathematical parallel between e.g., the structure of minor chords and patterns of activity which produce negative affect in the brain, but within the brain we can still categorize patterns as producing positive or negative affect based on their 'chord' structure.
3. Musical chords are deeply structurally analogous to patterns of neural resonance, in that e.g., a minor chord has a certain necessary internal mathematical structure that is replicated in all neural patterns that have a negative affect.
The answer is not yet clear. But I think that the incredible sensitivity we have to minute changes in musical structure- and the ability of music to so profoundly influence our mood- is evidence of (3), that musical chords and the structure of patterns of neural impulses are deeply analogous, and knowledge from one domain may elegantly apply to the other. We're at a loss as to how and why humans invented music; it's much less puzzling if it's a relatively elegant (though simplified) expression of what's actually going on in our heads. Music may be an admittedly primitive but exceedingly well-developed expression of neuro-ontology, hiding in front of our noses.
Correlating thought structure with affect is a Hard problem, mostly because isolating a single 'thought' within the multidimensional cacophony of the brain is very difficult. There has been some limited progress with inputting a 'trackable signal' of very specific parameters (e.g., a 22hz pulsed light, or a 720hz audio wave) and tracing this through sensory circuits until it vanishes from view. There's a lot of work going on to make this an easier problem. Ultimately we'd be drawing upon the mathematical structure of musical chords and looking for abstract, structural similarities with patterns of neural firings, and attempting to correlate positive and negative affect with these patterns.