Wednesday, November 18, 2009

THE Supercomputer: Creating a Computer that Functions like the Human Brain

The modern computer has been essential to coming to understand how the Social Brain works, whether serving as a stimulus in an experiment, creating behavioral models, or performing complex statistical analyses on vast data sets.

However, IBM has been trying to take this a huge leap further. That is, IBM has been attempting to create a computer that works just like the human brain, because the human brain regularly performs an enormous number of processes, simultaneously, while expending minimal energy in the process (Marois & Ivanoff, 2005).

A recent breakthrough in IBM's project came out today:

"IBM has announced significant progress toward creating a computer system that simulates and emulates the brain's abilities for sensation, perception, action, interaction and cognition, while rivaling the brain's low power and energy consumption and compact size.

Modern computing is based on a stored program model, which has traditionally been implemented in digital, synchronous, serial, centralized, fast, hardwired, general-purpose circuits with explicit memory addressing that indiscriminately over-write data and impose a dichotomy between computation and data.

In stark contrast, cognitive computing -- like the brain -- will use replicated computational units, neurons and synapses that are implemented in mixed-mode analog-digital, asynchronous, parallel, distributed, slow, reconfigurable, specialized and fault-tolerant biological substrates with implicit memory addressing that only update state when information changes, blurring the boundary between computation and data.

To perform the first near real-time cortical simulation of the brain that exceed the scale of the cat cortex, the team built a cortical simulator that incorporates a number of innovations in computation, memory, and communication as well as sophisticated biological details from neurophysiology and neuroanatomy.

This scientific tool, akin to a linear accelerator or an electron microscope, is a critical instrument used to test hypotheses of brain structure, dynamics and function. The simulation was performed using the cortical simulator on Lawrence Livermore National Lab's Dawn Blue Gene/P supercomputer with 147,456 CPUs and 144 terabytes of main memory.

The algorithm, when combined with the cortical simulator, allows scientists to experiment with various mathematical hypotheses of brain function and structure of how structure affects function as they work toward discovering the brain's core computational micro and macro circuits.

After the successful completion of Phase 0, IBM and its university partners were recently awarded $16.1 million in additional funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) for Phase 1 of DARPA's Systems of Neuromorphic Adaptive Plastic Scalable Electronics (SyNAPSE) initiative. This phase of research will focus on the components, brain-like architecture and simulations to build a prototype chip.

The long-term mission of IBM's cognitive computing initiative is to discover and demonstrate the algorithms of the brain and deliver low-power, compact cognitive computers that approach mammalian-scale intelligence and use significantly less energy than today's computing systems."

Source: Scientists Perform Cat-Scale Cortical Simulations and Map the Human Brain


Questions on the Implications & Limits of Supercomputers:

-If humans are able to successfully re-create their organic brains with cold chips and circuits, using their natural intelligence, and technology grows at an exponential rate (Moore's Law), while evolution progresses at a relatively steady rate (Becoming Human)- is it fair to say that the computing power, complexity, diversity, and richness of IBM's Blue Gene supercomputers will then outmatch that of the very brains which produced them?

-If the brain is the most evolved and sophisticated system known, then creating a computer that exceeds human cognitive capacities is really the triumph of Technology over Evolution - of Human Selection over Natural Selection - no? Does this then place us technically in a new stage of evolution? Are we are already in the age of self-evolution?

-Can we manufacture "creative cognitive-computers"? These IBM supercomputers may become as quick and expansive as the human brain, but will they offer equally unique and/or creative output? More? Less?

-Can these highly-developed machines demonstrates dynamic creativity without limbic and emotional systems? Does creativity require emotion?

-Can we build emotional computers?

-It is possible for us to produce a computer with consciousness, that is, self-awareness?

Saturday, June 13, 2009

"This terribly significant business of other people"

As a social psychologist, trying to come to some reasonable grip, on at least a portion of the vast sea of human social activity and behavior, is the end game.

But, it is seriously worth noting that although social psychology is just over a century old, humans have been at this problem for millenia - indeed since there have been humans.

Will breakthroughs in biopsychology, cognitive science, and behavioral neuroscience yield an ax to break through the ice?

It is argued, and quite tenably so, that because people have free will (though this is certainly debatable), they can be placed in the exact same conditions, and behave differently. Seeing that one of science's pillars, Prediction, cannot hold when matter is at times erratic and self-driven - then how is social psychology to be legitimately defended as a science? Or, even a decent folk science?

Consider author Philip Roth's question in his famed book American Pastoral :

"You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to come at people without unreal expectations, without an overload of bias or hope or arrogance, as untanklike as you can be, sans cannon and machine guns and steel plating half a foot thick; you come at them unmenacingly on your own ten toes instead of tearing up the turf with your caterpillar treads, take them on with an open mind, as equals, man to man, as we used to say, and yet you never fail to get them wrong.

You might as well have the brain of a tank.

You get them wrong before you meet them, while you're anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you're with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again.

Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, an astonishing farce of perception.

And yet what are we to do about this terribly significant business of other people, which gets bled of the significance we think it has and takes on instead a significance that is ludicrous, so ill-equipped are we all to envision one another's interior workings and invisible aims?"


Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Social Brain Stresses: Relief in Trees

Robert Frost said that "To be social, is to be forgiving."

Wise words that point to the inevitable stresses we with social brains engage in, on some level or another, every day. But perhaps relieving The Social Brain's tension may be quite easier than anyone would have imagined. In the age of 'oh-yeah-we-got-a-pill-for-that,' this should come as welcome news.

"It used to be that we looked at cataclysmic events, like divorce or loss of a job, as stressors," says Kathleen Wolf of the College of Forest Resources at the University of Washington.

"But now we are seeing that our daily lives have constant small stressors, and the cumulative effect is significant. Consequently, even small, incremental contacts with nature in our daily lives are beneficial."

In her study, Andrea Faber Taylor looked at children living in Chicago's notorious Robert Taylor Homes housing project.

The children she studied were all from the same socioeconomic bracket; all were African American; all lived in virtually identical apartments to which their families had been randomly assigned; and all lived on the second, third, or fourth floors, the best levels for viewing nature.

The only difference was that some apartments overlooked trees and grass while others overlooked pavement.

Girls who could see nature from their windows were better able to concentrate, and to control impulsive behavior, as measured in standard psychological tests. These behaviors tend to help children resist peer pressure and sexual pressure, and help in other challenging situations.

"Our theory was that public housing is a very fatiguing environment," says Faber Taylor. "It turns out that small amounts of greenery seem to make a big difference. You don't have to live in Sherwood Forest to enjoy nature's benefits."

Source: How Nature Heals Us

For more info on nature and healing studies check this out:

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Happy People See Better than Unhappy People

"Good and bad moods literally change the way our visual cortex operates and how we see" (Adam Anderson).

A University of Toronto study provides the first direct evidence that our mood literally changes the way our visual system filters our perceptual experience suggesting that seeing the world through rose-coloured glasses is more biological reality than metaphor.

The Study

“Specifically our study shows that when in a positive mood, our visual cortex takes in more information, while negative moods result in tunnel vision," says Dr. Anderson. The study appears tomorrow in the Journal of Neuroscience.

The U of T team used functional magnetic resonance imaging to examine how our visual cortex processes sensory information when in good, bad, and neutral moods.

The researchers first showed subjects a series images designed to generate a good, bad or neutral mood. Subjects were then shown a composite image, featuring a face in the centre, surrounded by “place” images, such as a house. To focus their attention on the central image, subjects were asked to identify the gender of the person’s face.

The Results

When in a bad mood, the subjects did not process the images of places in the surrounding background. However, when viewing the same images in a good mood, they actually took in more information — they saw the central image of the face as well as the surrounding pictures of houses.

The discovery came from looking at specific parts of the brain — the parahippocampal “place area” — that are known to process places and how this area relates to primary visual cortical responses, the first part of the cortex related to vision.

Why Positive and Negative Emotions are BOTH Useful

"Good moods enhance the literal size of the window through which we see the world. The upside of this is that we can see things from a more global, or integrative perspective.

The downside is that this can lead to distraction on critical tasks that require narrow focus, such as operating dangerous machinery or airport screening of passenger baggage.

Bad moods, on the other hand, may keep us more narrowly focused, preventing us from integrating information outside of our direct attentional focus" (Anderson).

Source: People Who Wear Rose-colored Glasses See More, Study Shows


Might this enrich, in part, our understanding of a number of interesting behavioral phenomenon?


-When we are happy we notice more things that previously did not penetrate our attention, stimulation is increased.

-Unhappy people tend to have more accidents and physical injuries.

-The attractiveness of a person can vary widely, despite various objective factors of beauty such as symmetry, depending on their moods: sanguinity noticeably adding to attractiveness and unhappiness detracting from it.

-Happy people do better and finish quicker on an array of physical and mental tests than discontented people.


Nietzsche Weighs In: Humanity's Major Questions

Human social behavior is wildly influenced by major uncertainties about our own nature, and our own "place" in the cosmos. That is, we seek out people, experiences, and social institutions to learn about, develop, edit, distill, and confirm/reject answers to fundamental questions of existence. And, it is with this information that many social actions are influentially guided. That said, a little wisdom from philosophy on these matters can be very illuminating on why The Social Brain acts as it does.
To know or not to know?

"Blessed are the forgetful: for they get the better even of their blunders."

What are the defining characteristics of one's personality or identity?

"Character is determined more by the lack of certain experiences than by those one has had."

How can we maximize pleasure, and minimize pain?

"We must not study ourselves while having an experience."

Should we try to get back to the "good old days," "live in the now," or "plan for the future"?

"Existence really is an imperfect tense that never becomes a present."

What is the purpose and/or meaning of life?

"Art is the proper task of life.

What is next, or should be next, for humankind?

"Man is something that ought to be overcome."

Friedrich Nietzsche

(Note: There certainly will be more to come on this theme as many of the most thorny questions about the social animal have already been thoroughly examined, for millenia, by great philosophers, or as I sometimes like to call them "pre-scientists.")


Monday, June 1, 2009

The Social Brain Speaks: Lessons in Language

There is no doubt that language offers both demonstrations of and a special window into the social brain, and human nature in general. Watching Dr. Paul Bloom's lecture on language at Open Yale Courses, I learned a number of intriguing facts about our linguistic faculty:

(1) Babies who are not spoken to directly (though are around speaking) seem to develop the same capacity for language as those babies who are addressed on a regular basis. There appears to be no interesting influence of parental speech-rearing on the ability for babies to normally develop the miracle of speech. (But, why would anyone not talk to their babies? Some cultures see this as senseless because 'what does the baby have to say?')

(2) In Nicaragua, there are documented cases of children who have created their own individual sign language out of the need for better means of communication because their parents, who do not know sign language, possess a broken form of spoken language.

(3) All neurologically normal humans, who at least hear language or have another person to communicate to, can develop normal speech abilities.

(4) There has never been a human culture discovered that does not possess and use language.

(5) Children of slaves who spoke "pidgin," or a broken-up mishmash of different languages which is not a fully developed language (created by the desire to communicate between slaves with different tongues), were able to produce a full-blown linguistic system (often called "creole") with phonology, morphology, and syntax. The ability to manufacture a language in a single generation from parents with an incomplete one, seems to suggest that humans have some inborn capacity for language. For, how else do we satisfactorily explain this phenomenon?

(6) There are a number of completely intelligent children who are social beings with a strong desire to communicate, who simply cannot learn language. This can be attributed, perhaps, to genetic defects, as one could have a genetic defect that might cause one to see the world differently as in color blindness.

(7) The number of possible sentences one can produce with a finite set of characters is infinite. The reason for this is "recursion." That is although there are a finite number of letters, words, and morphemes (sounds clusters, syllables) in each language they can be repeated and interchanged in a never-ending sequence. This is also the case with the infinite possibilities of music composition despite the finite number of musical notes.

(8) Even after just 4 days, babies already show preference to their native languages. That is, they will suck on a bottle, or perform another indicated task so to hear their indigenous language as opposed to a foreign one. French children preferred French to Russian, and vice versa.

(9) There are cases where deaf twins or siblings develop their own totally unique forms of sign language to communicate with one another despite no training, cues, or observations of signing.

(10) Studies show that babies learn sign language in the same way and at about the same rate as spoken language. That is, they babble, use first words, sentences, and complex linguistic structure concomitantly.

(11) Babies do not need to be taught grammar or syntax, for few parents ever speak to their babies in a systemic and grammatically sound manner, it is usually "goo goo gaa gaa." Yet, syntax emerges, no problem.

(12) The average person knows on average, 80,000 words (the lower limit is about 60,000 and the higher limit is about 100,000 words). However, most of our acquisition of words is done as babies and young children. Therefore, the average baby learns about 9 new words a day.

For a copy of the transcript from Dr. Bloom's lecture click here.


Saturday, May 30, 2009

PSYCHOGENESIS: Four Billion Years in Six Minutes

“The evolution of the brain not only overshot the needs of prehistoric man, it is the only example of evolution providing a species with an organ which it does not know how to use” (Arthur Koestler).


Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Scientists Reaching Consensus On How Brain Processes Speech

“Speech is power: speech is to persuade, to convert, to compel.” (Emerson)

In the June issue of Nature Neuroscience, the investigator, Josef Rauschecker, PhD, and his co-author, Sophie Scott, PhD, a neuroscientist at University College, London, say that both human and non-human primate studies have confirmed that speech, one important facet of language, is processed in the brain along two parallel pathways, each of which run from lower- to higher-functioning neural regions.

These pathways are dubbed the 'what' and 'where' streams and are roughly analogous to how the brain processes sight, but are located in different regions, says Rauschecker, a professor in the department of physiology and biophysics and a member of the Georgetown Institute for Cognitive and Computational Sciences.

Both pathways begin with the processing of signals in the auditory cortex, located inside a deep fissure on the side of the brain underneath the temples - the so-called "temporal lobe."

Information processed by the "what" pathway then flows forward along the outside of the temporal lobe, and the job of that pathway is to recognize complex auditory signals, which include communication sounds and their meaning (semantics).

The "where" pathway is mostly in the parietal lobe, above the temporal lobe, and it processes spatial aspects of a sound - its location and its motion in space - but is also involved in providing feedback during the act of speaking.

What is so interesting to Rauschecker is that although speech and language are considered to be uniquely human abilities, the emerging picture of brain processing of language suggests "in evolution, language must have emerged from neural mechanisms at least partially available in animals," he says.

"Speech, or the early process of language, is well modeled by animal communication systems, and these studies now demonstrate that primate auditory cortex, across species, displays the same patterns of hierarchical structure, topographic mapping, and streams of functional processing," Rauschecker says.

"There appears to be a conservation of certain processing pathways through evolution in humans and nonhuman primates."

"But mostly, we are fascinated by the fact that humans can make such exquisite sense of the slight variation in sound waves that reach our ears, and only lately have we been able to model how the brain knows how to attach meaning to these sounds in terms of communication."


Source: Scientists Reaching Consensus On How Brain Processes Speech