Robo-Journalist Wins The Pulitzer

robo-journalist

Okay, so that hasn’t happened yet, but the folks over at Narrative Science, a company that has created software that performs “automated narrative generation,” confidently predicts that its computer program will win the coveted prize by 2016.

Let’s back up a second, you might be thinking. As far as we know, there’s no such thing as the “homeostatic newspaper” that autonomously gathers and publishes its own news, as described by Philip K. Dick in his short story “If There Were No Benny Cemoli.” And this is, after all, the real world, not some science fictional one in which robots do everything. But that distinction grows smaller and smaller by the day. In fact, computer programs have been writing short news briefs for a few years now. One of the first examples was a summary of a football game between the University of Nevada Las Vegas and the University of Wisconsin. A mere minute after the third quarter ended, the following post appeared online:

Wisconsin appears to be in the driver’s seat en route to a win, as it leads 51-10 after the third quarter.

Wisconsin added to its lead when Russell Wilson found Jacob Pedersen for an eight-yard touchdown to make the score 44-3. The Badgers started the drive at UNLV’s 28-yard line thanks to a Jared Abbrederis punt return.

A one-yard touchdown run by Montee Ball capped off a two-play, 42-yard drive and extended Wisconsin’s lead to 51-3. The drive took 42 seconds. The key play on the drive was a 41-yard pass from Wilson to Bradie Ewing. A punt return gave the Badgers good starting field position at UNLV’s 42-yard line.

A 69-yard drive that ended when Caleb Herring found Phillip Payne from six yards out helped UNLV narrow the deficit to 51-10. The Rebels threw just three passes on the drive.
UNLV will start the fourth quarter with the ball at the 41-yard line.

That might not seem so remarkable, but remember, it was posted a minute after the third period ended. Either a human writer was drafting that during the first half of the game, or something else was. The Big Ten Network has been using Narrative Science since 2010, boosting its web traffic by an estimated 40% for football and basketball score reports. Information like sports scores or crime statistics are perfect material for robo-journalists because little analysis is required and the numbers pretty much tell the story. Narrative Science’s software program can convert the quantitative data into language, but not just any language. It delivers grammatically and structurally sound sentences and paragraphs, and a 500-word article only costs about $10 to generate.

Narrative Science uses a three part article-generation system. First, it gathers data to “create an appropriate narrative structure to meet the goals of your audience.” Then it uses a program called Quill to harvest and organize the most important facts into a story. Lastly, it increases the piece’s sophistication by “answer[ing] important questions, provid[ing] advice, and deliver[ing] powerful insight in a precise, clear narrative.” And presto, you’ve got an article.

Narrative Science isn’t the only company creating story-writing programs. Last March, within three after an earthquake shook the Los Angeles area, the L.A. Times had an article about it on its website. That article was written by Quakebot, an algorithm developed by L.A. Times journalist and programmer Ken Schwencke. The earthquake shook him awake at 6:25 am, and by the time he got to his computer, a story about the quake was already waiting for him–all he had to do was click “publish.” Schwencke programmed Quakebot to pull data from U.S. Geological Survey alerts, which it then used to fill in a template. This is what the Quakebot wrote:

A shallow magnitude 4.7 earthquake was reported Monday morning five miles from Westwood, California, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The temblor occurred at 6:25 a.m. Pacific time at a depth of 5.0 miles.

According to the USGS, the epicenter was six miles from Beverly Hills, California, seven miles from Universal City, California, seven miles from Santa Monica, California and 348 miles from Sacramento, California. In the past ten days, there have been no earthquakes magnitude 3.0 and greater centered nearby.

This information comes from the USGS Earthquake Notification Service and this post was created by an algorithm written by the author.

Sure, it’s just the basics, but within six hours, human reporters developed it into a longer, front-page story. The L.A. Times has a similar bot that churns out informational posts whenever there’s a homicide. Schwencke isn’t threatened by programs such as Quakebot, but instead argues that they help journalists by getting the basic information out there quickly so journalists can start in on the digging for details and insights.

automated insights

The Associated Press has also been using robot journalists for months. Last summer, the AP established a partnership with Automated Insights, a company that uses its own platform called Wordsmith to “automatically turn financial data into stories.” Yahoo, Comcast, and Allstate also use Automated Insights to publish millions of articles per week—the Wordsmith system can apparently crank out a staggering 2,000 articles per second. If you’re curious about what those articles look like, check out this Automated Insights-generated article on Apple’s first-quarter earnings. Most of the time, the only way to know who or what wrote the piece is by the one-sentence disclaimer at the bottom. Just before his death, N.Y. Times journalist David Carr Tweeted about a computer-generated article about the paper’s earnings:

While a lot of the computer-generated articles seem fairly rote and devoid of personality, it may only be a matter of time until, in the immortal words of South Park, robot journalists take our jobs. If you think those concerns are premature, check out the two samples below, as published in a special issue of Journalism Practice about the future of journalism. Which do you think was written by a human and which was written by a computer?

chargers chiefs
three quarterbacks walking2
The test revealed that the “software-generated content … [was] perceived as… descriptive, boring and objective, but not necessarily discernible from content written by journalists.” Respondents generally found the computer-written article more informative and trustworthy, but less readable than the human-written one. “Perhaps the most interesting result in the study is that there are [almost] no … significant differences in how the two texts are perceived by the respondents,” study author Christer Clerwall wrote. ?The lack of difference may be seen as an indicator that the software is doing a good job, or it may indicate that the journalist is doing a poor job – or perhaps both are doing a good (or poor) job?”

In case you were wondering, the second example was written by the human.

I suppose it’s only fitting that robots start writing the news, seeing as how robots are now also delivering it.

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Exoskeletons, Cyborgs, and Prosthetics—Oh My!


power-loader

Ellen Ripley’s power-loader, Matt Damon’s Elysium exoskeleton, and Iron Man’s get-up aren’t just fiction anymore. Italy’s Perceptual Robotics Laboratory has created a “body extender” that allows wearers to curl 100 pounds in each hand.

Someone who calls himself Hacksmith has been posting videos on YouTube featuring his Elysium-inspired homemade exoskeleton, which enables him to curl a 170-pound barbell. And anyone who saw the opening ceremonies of the World Cup witnessed a paraplegic teenager kick a soccer ball thanks to the exoskeleton built by Walk Again Project scientists, including Miguel Nicolelis, whose pioneering work with monkeys who control avatars and robots with their minds paved the way for the breakthrough. Exoskeletons are just one innovation for people with limited mobility. Prosthetics are another, and that field is advancing just as rapidly.

Back when Oscar Pistorius was more famous for his incredible track career than he was for shooting his girlfriend, he started a pretty huge debate about whether he should be allowed to compete in the Olympics after having earned a slew of gold medals and world records at the Paralympics. The IAAF challenged him, citing an amended rule that banned “any technical device that incorporates springs, wheels or any other element that provides a user with an advantage over another athlete not using such a device.” On the one hand, it seemed ridiculous to argue that a double-amputee could possibly have an advantage over someone with fully functional natural limbs, but some people believed that his carbon-fiber blade-shaped prosthetics allowed him to expend less energy to run and took less work to move because of their relative lack of friction against the ground. Ultimately, he was allowed to compete in the 2012 Athens Olympics, though he didn’t medal.

Pistorius brought to light the issue of prosthetics in sport competitions. While the use of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs has generated countless scandals, the question of fairness when it comes to prosthetics is more difficult, especially when it involves someone for whom the use of a prosthetic is about functionality and mobility, rather than performance enhancement.

Although the word cyborg generally conjures images of Star Trekian borgs and the Six Million Dollar Man, someone with a prosthetic (or an exoskeleton, though those tend to be worn temporarily) could be considered a cyborg. But there are a lot of other cyborgs out there, both in the sci-fi world–Luke Skywalker, Geordi LaForge, Dr. No, even Inspector Gadget–and in the real world. Think of how many people have titanium knees and hips, or pacemakers.

Achilles' Choice

Science fiction not only popularized the idea of the cyborg, but it also predicted the integration of cyborgs into athletic competitions such as the Olympics. In Achilles’ Choice (that’s some cover, eh?), a book by Larry Nivens and Steven Barnes, the futuristic world is ruled by an elite class who are enhanced and linked by internal computers. In order to become one of the elite, people have to compete in an Olympics competition that tests academic, athletic, and artistic abilities. The contenders have to choose whether to “boost”—basically dialing up their bodies to a maximum and unsustainable output—to improve their chances of winning. Boosting makes competitive success far more likely, but if one boosts and doesn’t win, death within ten years is certain. The detrimental effects of boosting can only be mitigated by winning the competition and becoming one of the linked.

While not Nivens’ best book by any means, the concept of athletes—or anyone, really, who has to make a weighty decision to keep up with the technologically enhanced elite rings more true all the time. These days, there are drugs that enhance physical performance, as well as drugs that enhance attention span, focus, memory, and other aspects of mental performance. But now, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

While it might seem drastic, there are people who would opt for voluntary amputations, and some who would rather have prosthetics than even functional human limbs. This gets back to Pistorius and whether his prosthetics offer advantages. This also makes me think of an article I read recently about Daniel Engelbrecht, a German soccer player who began suffering serious career- and potentially life-threatening heart problems at the age of 22. In an effort to save his game, as well as his life, doctors implanted a defibrillator that can deliver up to 800 volts to try and jumpstart a failing heart rhythm. Because of an irregular heartbeat caused by a rogue node that doctors had difficulty disabling, there was a terrifying span of time in which Engelbrecht’s defibrillator could have killed him, but that was corrected during surgery and Engelbrecht—now a cyborg—made an improbable return to professional soccer this fall. It seems likely that we’ll hear more and more stories like this, which raises the question: Could we eventually reach a point that we opt to substitute our working human parts for more efficient bionic ones?

Time will tell the answer to that question, but regardless, a futuristic version of the Olympics is on the way: the Cybathon. The National Center of Competence Research is sponsoring the Cyborg Olympics, which will be hosted in Switzerland next October and will feature a bike race, leg race, wheelchair race, exoskeleton race, arm prosthetics race and Brain Computer Interface race for competitors with full paralysis. Competitors’ efforts represent a partnership between their own physical and mental abilities and the abilities of the machines they’re using to compete. Thus, both the athletes and the companies that create the technology will win awards.

It will be interesting to compare the cyborg athletes’ achievements to those of non-technology-assisted athletes. The Cybathon might raise more questions than it settles with regards to the benefits of technology and how much of a “boost” it gives competitors, but it sure will be interesting.

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I, Snowbot

Yuki-taro

In science fiction, robots perform all kinds of tasks. Sometimes they dictate the fate of humanity, such as in Isaac Asimov’s “Reason,” in which Q-T, a robot with impressive and frustrating existential curiosity, keeps an energy beam steady during an electron storm, thus saving everyone relying on that energy. In Asimov’s “Runaround,” a robot named Speedy is sent on a dangerous mission to gather selenium on Mercury. These two stories exemplify the three Ds of modern robotics—making robots to perform tasks that are dull, dirty, and/or dangerous.

It makes sense that robot development would head in this direction—even Rosie of the Jetsons regularly attended to two of the three Ds. Now we have “family” robots such as Jibo to help us realize the domestic dreams fueled by Rosie, and robots such as Rapiro and Nextage that can make us our daily cup of joe (though the speed of the preparation and the quality of the coffee might be up for debate). Then again, making a cup of coffee isn’t particularly dull, dirty, or dangerous. But I’ll tell you what is—shoveling snow.

After digging out of this week’s snowpocalypse, I can say with confidence that I’m over shoveling. It was fun for the first ten minutes or so, bearable for the next hour, and then it got pretty old, especially as my fingers and toes started freezing while other parts of me started overheating. Omni Magazine, a groundbreaker in the then genre of science writing back in 1978 when it debuted, predicted that “by 2010, robots would “clean the rug, iron the clothes, and shovel the snow.” Omni, Asimov, and so many other sci-fi writers were right.

Omni

Check out Yuki-taro, a robot that looks like Pikachu made babies with a tank (“yuki” means snow in Japanese, and “Taro” is a common Japanese name for a boy). The thing eats snow—even dirty, salty, slushy, snow, and then it poops out snow bricks, like of like those plastic igloo-making snow toys, except way better because—well, because it’s a robot. Duh. Yuki-taro “the friendly snowbot” comes equipped with two omni-directional VGA cameras, twin servomotors, a GPS positioning sensor, laser and ultrasonic range sensors, and obstacle recognition software, all of which enable it to guide itself to snowy streets. It spent its early days practicing its snow removal in Niigata, Japan, which receives an average of 85 inches of snowfall per year. Its developers first debuted the machine back in 2005 with the promise of bringing a version to market at an estimated cost of roughly $9,000. They said it would only take five years or so, and now it’s been ten. Sadly, it seems that even after winning the Good Design Award, Yuki-taro has gotten stuck in its tracks. I’d like to make an official plea now to bring it back—and to bring it to Boston.

While $9,000 might seem a bit extravagant to get out of shoveling duty, I can’t help thinking how handy it would be to have a couple of these around Boston right now (especially given the $18.5 million snow removal budget, which will likely be exceeded).

Yuki-taro

One of the biggest challenges associated with a large snowstorm is what to do with all the snow. The city is so dense that there’s really nowhere to put it all—there are snowbanks twice my height, at least half of the usual parking spots are nonexistent, and roads in some areas are still dodgy. Once upon a time, dump trucks used to toss snow into the Charles River, which may explain, in part, how the water got so polluted. I love this retrospective on Boston snow removal over the past couple centuries, particularly the SNOWTRON snow melter used in the 60s (and which cost the equivalent of $750,000). Maybe the ultimate problem with SNOWTRON is that it wasn’t a robot, even though its name suggests that it should be.

snowtron

Yuki-taro’s snow removal system is ingenious. It doesn’t push or blow snow to the side or into massive drifts—it essentially eats the snow through its shovel-like mouth, uses an internal compressor to “digest” them, and then poops out small, stackable snow bricks. Sure, one would have to find something to do with the poop-bricks, but kids could play with them, they could be stored for later use, or fashioned into some kind of awesome snow house—perhaps a garage to house the machine, because even snowbots deserve a little shelter from the storm.

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Microsoft’s Holographic System Will Project More Than Princess Leia

help me obi wan

When I first watched R2D2 beam a hologram of a distraught Princess Leia onto a tabletop, I was more interested in how I could get my hands on that technology than I was about her problem (don’t judge—I was little and it was the beginning of the movie). I wasn’t allowed to touch our family’s answering machine, so the idea of a holographic message blew my mind. And then there was Star Trek’s holodeck, an entire simulated environment used for training, crime scene investigation, and recreation (Deep Space Nine’s Quark has particular fun renting out holosuites). The Emergency Medical Hologram could stand in for an real doctor, though unlike the holographic Leia, the EMH is an actual character who has a family and other relationships, many with actual people. There are even holo-novelists who write narratives for the holodeck—perhaps this will turn out to be a job of the future.

holodeck

This technology is now reality. This week Microsoft revealed its HoloLens. The holographic computing system is part Star Wars, part Star Trek, and part something else that transcends both of them. The system projects holograms, but does so in three dimensions, rather than two, taking images “out of the screen and into the world.” What’s really exciting about the HoloLens isn’t just that it can project these images, but that it also the actual physical stuff in a user’s environment into holograms users can interact with, thus merging digital and actual reality. It seems appropriate that Google should retire Glass at the same time this system was announced—what the HoloLens does is far beyond anything Glass could do (except perhaps the looking silly part).

minecraft hololens

Those invited to test out the visor-like system experienced a few different scenarios that merged the virtual world with the actual world. For example, one demo turned a user’s real environment into a Minecraft version of that environment, transforming, among other objects, the actual coffee table into a Minecraft one. Microsoft has been pretty tight-lipped about how the system works, but it’s thought that the holographic images are actually projected into the eye of the user, tricking their brain into thinking, in this case, that the coffee table is made from Minecraft bricks (the visor is also equipped with sensors to monitor the wearer’s head movements to make sure the projections are properly oriented). So what happens when the user takes a virtual Minecraft hammer and smashes the table? It splinters into pieces before their eyes.

hololens

Other demos included getting electrical (or plumbing) help via the HoloLens camera, which allowed an actual electrician to see the light switch in question and give verbal and drawn instructions about how to fix it. There’s also something called HoloStudio, an app for creating 3D objects that can then be printed. But I think the most exciting scenario involves scientists using the HoloLens to “work” on Mars. This one uses OnSight software developed by folks at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. It allows scientists to see through the eyes of the Curiosity rover so they can explore Mars, interact with 3D holographic images, and even perform experiments on Mars.

hololensmars

The system sounds similar to that of Magic Leap, a company recently purchased by Google that is developing “cinematic reality,” which is a step beyond virtual or augmented reality. The HoloLens may end up competing with Magic Leap, especially for hardware, but Microsoft doesn’t see virtual reality systems such as Oculus Rift, Project Morpheus, or Glyph as competitors: “We are integrating holograms into the world around you–transforming the ways you create, connect, and explore. Oculus, Magic Leap, Glass developers and everyone else, we humbly invite you–come create holograms with us.” It’s worth noting that Oculus Rift can be used to generate holographic environments too, including a room that pays homage to the holodeck.

In conjunction with the announcement, Microsoft also revealed Windows 10, which will feature “holographic experiences.” Windows 8 and 8.1 users can upgrade for free (right now the Technical Preview is available to “Windows Insider” users). And if my previous experiences with Windows updates are any indication, we’ll all be forced to upgrade at some point soon whether we want to or not–unless Obi Wan can do something to stop it.

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The Apes Shall Inherit The Earth (Or At Least A Little Piece)

planet poster

One of the reasons Planet of the Apes resonates so deeply with viewers is the plausibility of its premise. Have you ever seen monkeys up close? Their profound intelligence is clear, and there’s no question we evolved from them. Their eyes convey not just their cognitive abilities, but a deep level of awareness. Monkeys, apes, and gorillas are also emotional creatures—if you’ve ever seen Koko grieve the loss of her kitten or hang out with Robin Williams, you know they’re capable of love, sadness, and even compassion. Given their intelligence, sentience, and opposable thumbs, it’s not too difficult to imagine them ruling the world.

Planet of the Apes subeverts the paradigm that humans are the smartest and most capable life forms around. We keep primates in zoos because despite their intelligence and capabilities, we generally still believe we have the right to study them and hold them captive. I’ve seen monkeys at sub-par zoos that seem downright depressed (I even saw a monkey smoking a cigarette in a zoo once). Sure, sometimes protective measures are necessary, especially when it comes to gorilla poaching and other abhorrent practices. But to put these animals behind bars diminishes the vary qualities that fascinate and endear us—not to mention the qualities we’ve inherited from them—and much like sci-fi movies that feature robots seeking revenge for past enslavement, Planet of the Apes suggests that primates could, like robots, exceed human intelligence and even turn the tables on us by taking over. It also asks whether that would be such a bad outcome in the grand scheme of things.

Among other things, the movie challenges the morality behind keeping these animals in captivity, and it turns out that courts are deliberating the same question. In December, a criminal appeals court in Argentina ruled in favor of an orangutan named Sandra, granting her the right to life and liberty, as well as to protection against harm. Sandra was born in a German zoo in 1986 and has lived in captivity ever since, now residing at the Buenos Aires Zoo. The habeas corpus petition was filed by the Argentina’s Association of Professional Lawyers for Animal Rights, who argued that it is illegal to deny Sandra her freedom. The petition was initially denied before being granted by the appeals court.

Sandra

Sandra (credit: Buenos Aires Zoo)

That ruling will lead to another legal proceeding—this time to figure out where Sandra should live. A committee will be appointed by the Argentine justice system to decide the best home for the orangutan, considering factors such as her ability to travel, her age, and available and appropriate sanctuaries.

This isn’t the first time such claims were filed, both in and out of Argentina. Similar motions have been made in Brazil and in New York State. In 2012, PETA unsuccessfully tried to apply the 13th amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits slavery and servitude, to captive orcas. The ruling in favor of Sandra would have widespread effects—first and foremost for 17 chimpanzees currently in Argentinian zoos. The ruling will also fuel a growing movement to return primates, as well as other intelligent animals such as dolphins and whales, to their natural environments, or in cases where that’s not possible, to sanctuaries. Such animals have been shown to possess “sentience, self-consciousness, and individuality,” according to University of Buenos Aires primatologist Aldo Giúdice. “We cannot be accomplices and let them suffer in prison.”

Perhaps such rulings will help build humans’ credibility and goodwill. If primates evolve to be the superior species on Earth or on some other planet we happen to land on, maybe they’ll think twice before performing brain surgery on us or putting us behind bars.

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Wake Me Up Before You Go Go

AWAK_cover


British neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote Awakenings in 1973, detailing his experiences giving a drug called L-Dopa (Levodopa, now commonly used to treat the symptoms of Parkinson’s by increasing the brain’s supply of dopamine) to catatonic patients. The book was later made into the movie Awakenings, starring Robin Williams as the doctor and Robert De Niro as one of the patients who awoke after being administered L-Dopa. Sudden awakenings from catatonic or comatose states are staples in science fiction, as writers and directors can fling unsuspecting and unconscious characters into space, as in Pandorum; give them post-awakening psychic abilities, as in Dead Zone; or suddenly awake mass numbers of comatose patients with the directive to stop World War III, as in the forthcoming Coma. Even though these sudden awakenings may seem unbelievable, Sacks’ L-Dopa treatments really were that effective—at least for a while. They allowed patients to increasingly participate in aspects of life that otherwise would have been forever unavailable to them.

Recently, a medical breakthrough in Italy allowed a patient who had been in a “minimally conscious state” for two years not just to regain consciousness, but to engage in conversation. The man wasn’t in exactly the same state as Sacks’ patients, who suffered from something called encephalitis lethargica, which attacks the brain and causes everything from headaches and double vision to Parkinson’s-like symptoms to catatonia or a coma-like state. An encephalitis lethargica epidemic began in 1917 and lasted over a decade, resulting in the deaths of roughly 5 million people. The patients Sacks treated contracted the disease during that epidemic and had been hospitalized and catatonic for over 30 years.

The Italian patient had been in a car accident, after which he was comatose for 40 days. He then awoke from the coma, but remained minimally conscious—he had a sleep-wake cycle, he could reach out and touch things, and he could open and close his eyes, but that was about it. When he was released from the hospital about a year after his accident, he couldn’t communicate or respond when people asked him to blink. Then his cognition took a nosedive in a way that mirrored the decline of Sacks’ patients. His movements became excruciatingly slow, and he sometimes exhibited random, almost tic-like behavior, such as clapping.

Roughly two years after his car accident, he underwent a CT scan so doctors could get a better idea of what was going on. As is typical, the doctors administered midazolam, a mild sedative often used for such procedures. What isn’t typical is the man’s response—within minutes, he began talking and interacting. He didn’t just have rudimentary conversations, either. According to the case report, the man “talked by cellphone with his aunt and congratulated his brother when he was informed of his graduation; he recognized the road leading to his home.”

This is the first time doctors have reported midazolam as promoting an “awakening” in a patient, as detailed in Restorative Neurology and Neuroscience. However, the effects of the midazolam wore off after a couple hours, after which the man reverted to his previous state. Doctors wanted to confirm that the drug was indeed responsible for the dramatic shift in the man’s state, so they gave him the drug again. After just a few minutes the patient was not only responsive and talkative, but was also able to do some simple math problems. Brain scans before, during, and after the second dose of midazolam revealed that the regions of the brain affected by the drug are associated with catatonia.

ouija

Unfortunately, the long-term effects of this treatment mirror those of the patients in Sacks’ memoir. He found that his patients built up a tolerance to the drug, so he had to administer more and more of it, which resulted in side effects such as irritation, increased physical tics, spasms, and even psychosis: “For the first time, then, the patient on L-DOPA enjoys a perfection of being, an ease of movement and feeling and thought, a harmony of relation within and without. Then his happy state – his world – starts to crack, slip, break down, and crumble; he lapses from his happy state, and moves toward perversion and decay.” Eventually, the patients relapsed, and a decade after Sacks published his memoir, 17 of those patients had died, most of them from Parkinsonism. The movie Awakenings ends with Williams and De Niro once again using a Ouija Board to try and communicate.

Researchers ran up against this same problem with their Italian patient. They tried giving him another drug of the same class called lorazepam, which is generally thought to be safer than midazolam, but after a few days, the patient became agitated and angry. The doctors switched him to an epilepsy drug called carbamazepine, which apparently has allowed him to “maintain the improvement of his ability to interact and communicate with people,” though perhaps not to the same degree as he could while on the midazolam.

Still, the Italian patient’s experience, as well as other accounts of sedatives, particularly sleeping pills such as Ambien, inducing temporary consciousness in patients, gives researchers hope for treating patients in catatonic, comatose, and vegetative states. It also provides a solid lead for treating Parkinson’s, epilepsy, and other neurological disorders. And hey, it beats using a Ouija board.

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Am I Only Dreaming?

inception

Ever since I first saw Nightmare on Elm Street as a kid (and watched Johnny Depp get blended by his bed and splattered on the ceiling), I’ve been fascinated and a little scared by dreams. If you die in your dream, as in the movie, are you toast in real life as well? Somewhere around this time I also heard the myth that if you don’t dream, you die. While there is a rare genetic disorder called fatal familial insomnia, most people who think they don’t dream simply don’t remember them (we supposedly have 3-7 per night, on average). There are folks called “non-dreamers” who really don’t dream, and while perhaps they’re a little less creative or spontaneous because of it, studies show they are alive and well. Dreams commonly feature in science fiction because of the ease with which they present another world—one that doesn’t require a portal or time travel to access. Sci-fi raises some interesting questions about the line between dreams and reality, as well as the relationship between dream and memory. Christopher Nolan’s Inception involves both dream stealing and implanting ideas via dreams. Movies such as the Matrix and Richard Linklater’s Waking Life grapple with the question of how to tell if one is dreaming or not, and which world is the “real” one (and how to exercise free will in both). But what if there’s not an “either/or” answer to the question of which is real?

Some people claim to be able to control their dreams–it’s called “lucid dreaming.” Lucid dreamers know they’re dreaming, and can thus learn how to choose their own adventure, basically scripting their dreams like books. Most people experience snippets of lucid dreaming. Have you ever woken up from a wonderful dream and willed yourself back into it? Have you ever had a nightmare and willed yourself awake? Have you ever been conscious of the fact that you’re dreaming? These are all basic aspects of lucid dreaming. A number of people have taught themselves how to harness this ability, and regularly choose to fly, visit outer space, time travel, and have meaningful personal interactions and experiences via their sleep that affect their waking lives. In fact, a number of famous artists and scientists described themselves as lucid dreamers, including Nikola Tesla, who had visualizations so intense that he did “dream experiments” in the lab; Salvador Dali (does this really surprise anyone?); Richard Feynman, who honed the ability enough to “observe [himself] in [a] dream” and “could control the direction of [his ] dream; Albert Einstein (“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one”); Stephen King; and, unsurprisingly, Richard Linklater, the Wachowskis, and Christopher Nolan.

It turns out, though, that one doesn’t have to be a scientific or artistic genius to experience lucid dreaming. One doesn’t even have to practice the techniques. Recent studies suggest that lucid dreaming can be electrically induced. In a study published in Nature Neuroscience, scientists studied the brainwaves of people who identified as lucid dreamers and found that the dreamers’ gamma waves were in the range of those that indicate conscious attention (somewhere between wakefulness and REM-sleep, which, incidentally, MIT researchers recently induced in mice via optogenetics).

transcranial alternating current

transcranial alternating current stimulation set-up

The scientists wanted to see if they could replicate that finding on people who had never experienced a lucid dream, so they rounded up 27 participants and sent electrical pulses to their scalps via a technique called transcranial alternating current stimulation as they entered REM sleep. The participants received a bunch of different types of electrical stimulation—various frequencies, as well as a sham/placebo stimulation. After getting zapped at frequencies between 25-40Hz–higher and lower frequencies produced no effect, while the 40Hz frequency induced increased gamma brainwave activity in the participants–some of the subjects reported that they had been aware they were dreaming—the first step toward lucid dreaming. Some participants could also control their actions in the dreams, such as by getting dressed before heading to work, since we all hate that “naked in public” dream. They also experienced the third basic condition of lucid dreaming–observing their dream self from a third-person perspective.

While there’s lots we don’t yet understand about sleeping and dreaming, researchers generally believe people have two levels of consciousness. The primary one involves senses and emotions—it’s the level of consciousness we experience during pretty much all of our waking life, and it’s one animals are thought to experience as well. But the second level of consciousness involves metacognition—being aware of and understanding one’s own thoughts. Lucid dreams experience this second level, as they’re aware that they’re dreaming, and via that awareness and perspective can control their dreams and/or mine them for insight. Scientists believe the brain’s gamma waves play an important role in determining this awareness, hybridizing two general states of consciousness—awake and asleep.

Lucid dreaming may be helpful in treating PTSD, which often causes recurring nightmares. If patients could distance themselves from the events in their dream, or even control those events, they could potentially reduce the traumatic effects of those events and dreams). It’s also possible that lucid dreaming could be used to help treat other mental disorders, such as depression and anxiety. That is, of course, if no one’s sharing or stealing the dreams.

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Back To The Future Part II: How Far Off Are We?

bttf2


Where we’re going, we don’t need roads. Except we do. But flying cars do exist, such as the Terrafugia and the AeroMobil, aircraft-car hybrids that can fly, and then fold in their wings and drive around. There’s also the Florida-based Maverick, which earned the dubious distinction of being the first flying car to crash after it slammed into some trees near a school in British Columbia. None of those have the sleek design of the DeLorean, so if you have your heart set on that look, you’ll have to settle for one of the awesome replicas, including the one below built by Californian Matthew Riese. Where he’s going, he legally can’t use roads, so I guess this is the next best thing.

Watching the car skim the water brings up the number one invention people hoped would exist by 2015: hoverboards. I’m happy to report that hoverboards are reality—just ask Tony Hawk, who recently demoed the Hendo Hover. It only gets about an inch off the ground, so it doesn’t get the dramatic air Marty McFly does, but it fits the bill. The design incorporates physicist Heinrich Lenz’s law of electrodynamics by generating opposing electrical currents that push the hoverboard off the ground.

I’m sure people will also be thrilled to know that in 2015, they’ll be able to buy Marty’s power-lacing Nike high tops. In 2011, Nike made 1,500 pairs and auctioned them on Ebay, making $6 million for Parkinson’s research. But rather than forking over thousands of dollars to snag one of these, sneaker connoisseurs can get a pair this year. Nike hasn’t released the details, but the price will likely be a bit closer to the $200-$300 Air Mags they made in 2013.

Remember the dehydrated Pizza Hut pie the future McFlys have for dinner? It’s encased in Mylar and needs only a two-second rehydration. It’s not exactly the same, but the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research Development and Engineering Center has been developing MRE (meals ready to eat) pizza for a while now, and believe they’ve developed a pizza that can remain edible for three years, so long as the package stays sealed. The biggest challenge has been figuring out how to keep the sauce from making the dough soggy, but they’ve got humectants, iron filings, and extra acidity that seem to do the trick.

MRE pizza

When the McFlys are enjoying that pizza dinner, Marty’s future kids are both wearing virtual reality goggles that look more like Oculus Rift headsets but seem to function more like Google Glass, since his daughter is talking to her friend via the device. This is just one example of the seemingly ubiquitous wearable technology available today, and one aspect the movie got right. The movie also features some holographic billboards, which when coupled with virtual reality technologies sounds a lot like Magic Leap, a company that pushes virtual reality to the next step, which it calls “cinematic reality.” It’s not just holograms, but 3-D, high-resolution objects that users can actually manipulate.

magic leap

So while fax machines and phone booths have been phased out (or in some cases, upgraded), we’re not too far from some of the futuristic visions of the movie. If the Cubs win the World Series this year, we’ll know we’ve truly arrived at the incredible.

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Going Out For a Jaunt? Try Teleportation

stardestination

I’ve long said that if I could have any superpower, it would be teleportation. To be liberated from airports, airplanes and tickets would be amazing. I wouldn’t mind leaving behind my passport and never suffering another border crossing again, although the elimination of travel bureaucracy would be a breakthrough of a different kind. Science fiction great Alfred Bester was similarly fascinated with teleporting, or as he calls it in The Stars My Destination, “jaunting.”

Bester focuses on the implications of jaunting, namely the social and economic ones. In fact, the inner planets and the outer planets are warring because of it, even though there’s a 1,000-mile limit to each jaunte (but no limits to how many times one can jaunte so long as there’s an open landing platform and one knows from where and to where one’s jaunting). There are jaunte-proof prisons for criminals and people who want or need to be isolated or protected; other than that, people who can’t jaunte are both unemployable and outcasts. Bester’s portrayal of worlds where inhabitants can jaunte isn’t particularly appealing, but I’m not deterred—teleportation is still my superpower of choice. Recently, there have been three recent scientific breakthroughs suggesting that teleportation might not be limited to the Starship Enterprise.

quantumtrek

Researchers from Scotland’s University of St. Andrews and the Czech Republic’s Institute of Scientific Instruments built a miniature tractor beam that can draw objects in by figuring out a way to create a negative force on particles. This means that the light pulls in particles, rather than pushing them away, which is what usually happens with light and solid matter collide. Their methodology entails creating an optical field that reverses light’s radiation pressure. This tractor beam only works on a microscopic level, but jaunting has to start somewhere.

Scientists have also recently created a tractor beam made from water. Professors from the Australian National University have been playing with wave generators recently, and not just so they can surf in a swimming pool, or even generate electricity. What they realized is that while it might seem that wave generators would push all floating objects in the same direction as the waves, that’s not necessarily the case. Wave generators can actually move objects in the opposite direction as the waves.

The scientists discovered that this won’t just work for any waves–the secret is the height and frequency of the waves. By floating ping pong balls on the water and toying with the waves, they figured out how to generate this effect. It’s not the waves themselves that move the objects; rather, the surface currents generated by the waves moves objects in the opposite direction (or keeps them stationary, if desired). The waves create flow patterns on the surface, including “inward flows, outward flows, or vortices….The tractor beam is just one of the patterns.” This technology probably won’t be too helpful in outer space, but in the water it could be used to achieve rescues or clean up oil spills.

Scientists at the Netherlands’ Delft Institute of Technology have figured out how to teleport data—and not by run-of-the-mill teleportation, but by quantum teleportation. This method proves the concept of quantum entanglement (even Einstein was an entanglement skeptic). Quantum entanglement is the theory that even when particles are divided, they remain linked to the extent that even when they’re separated, what happens to one affects the other—or as Einstein puts it, “spooky action at a distance.”

Spooky or not, there quantum links can be created between particles, and Dutch scientists have used that to achieve teleportation. The scientists entangled electrons inside super-cooled diamonds using lasers, and then they separated the diamonds by ten feet. Every time they changed the direction or rate of spin of one particle, the other followed suit. Even though they were only ten feet from each other, the technique should work no matter how far away the two are (the next step is to prove this by increasing the distance between the particles). If entangled quantum particles are used in, say, computers, we could all forget about thumb drives and transmit our information faster than the speed of light.

Quantum-teleportation makes me think of the ultimate feat accomplished by the protagonist of Bester’s book: space-jaunting. Now that would be something. But until then, I’ll keep hoping that my desired superpower is within reach. Whether I’ll be around to see it is another question, but by then, maybe we’ll have learned to time-jaunte.

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Double Take: NASA’s Twin Study

Time for the Stars

In the sci-fi novel Time for the Stars, Robert Heinlein explores something called the “twin paradox,” an Einstein-inspired thought experiment involving the splitting up of identical twins. One rockets off into space while the other remains on Earth. Even though time dilation, or the actual difference in elapsed time as measured by the two twins, who are both moving relative to each other, might suggest that each twin would find the other to have aged more slowly, when the space-traveling twin comes home, he actually finds that the Earth-bound twin has aged more quickly. Doc Brown demonstrated it best when he showed Marty that time on Einstein’s watch moved more slowly than theirs when they sent Einstein back to the future (and when Doc and Marty themselves do the same).

At any rate, in Time for the Stars, one twin, Tom, goes into space looking for habitable planets. During his mission he communicates telepathically with his Earthbound twin, Pat. But because Pat ages more quickly than Tom, their ability to telepathically communicate is compromised—at least, until they figure out that Tom can also communicate with Pat’s offspring, which he does for generations. Eventually, scientists on Earth use those telepathic powers to help develop FTL technology, and they bring back Tom and the remainder of the crew from an expedition gone wrong (and speaking of things gone wrong, when Tom does return, he ends up marrying his most recent telepathic partner—his grandniece).

Separating identical twins and sending one into space isn’t just fiction anymore–NASA is doing just that in an effort to determine whether the twins will still be identical after one spends a year in space. The experiment will start next March, when Scott Kelly heads to the ISS. Scott’s twin brother, Mark, who is also an astronaut, will remain Earthbound—he’s the “control” twin. Both twins will give samples and measurements before, during, and after the year-long experiment so NASA researchers can pinpoint how and why space may create physiological distinctions that didn’t previously exist.

twins

NASA’s not particularly interested in measuring the passage of time—at 17,000 mph, the ISS doesn’t move quickly enough to dilate time or produce relativistic effects. But NASA will measure the twins’ genes, biochemistry, vision, and cognition, among others, to see what effects space travel has. In fact, NASA solicited and selected 10 research proposals for the study as part of their Human Exploration Research Opportunities Program.

One thing scientists already know is that humans’ immune systems are weakened when in space, so one of the experiments will involve the twins’ reactions to identical flu vaccines. They’ll also monitor the twins’ telomeres, which are repeating nucleotide sequences at the tips of chromosomes that help protect chromosomes and prevent them from merging with other chromosomes. Aging negatively affects telomeres, and NASA scientists wonder whether increased cosmic radiation will do the same, essentially speeding up aging in astronauts. They’ll also study digestion, which relies on bacteria and microbiomes that may be affected by space travel (not to mention all that delightful space food). Other studies will focus on changes in astronauts’ vision (perhaps a bright sunrise every 45 minutes has something to do with it?), as well as the mental fogginess some astronauts report.

It doesn’t appear that any of the studies will focus on social or other external influences. Mark Kelly will probably be subject to a whole lot more media than his brother, for better or for worse, and Mark also won’t be dealing with isolation or separation from his friends and family. While it might seem that space-bound Scott will generally fare less well on a physiological level, it’ll be interesting to see whether the lack of environmental influences such as pollution and other chemicals (aside from that pesky radiation) has any effect. Regardless, if Mark’s got a competitive streak, Scott’s return to Earth would be the best time to challenge him to an arm wrestling contest.

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