Walk Again Project: Brain-Controlled Robotic Suit Kicks-Off World Cup

Brazil decided to inaugurate their World Cup by showing us a taste of the future: Juliano Pinto, a 29-year-old paraplegic man, gave the inaugural kick-off by using an exoskeleton controlled by electric signals transmitted from his brain through a helmet; the brainchild --no pun intended-- of Duke University neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis, leader of the Walk Again project.

One small kick for a man, one giant leap in human/robotic integration.

"The World Cup demonstration is ceremonial, as we have only a moment to show a kick," Sanjay Joshi, a roboticist from the University of California at Davis who was involved in the Walk Again Project, told NBC News via email from Brazil. "But maybe that kick will inspire a child somewhere in the world to become a doctor, engineer or scientist."

Who knows? Perhaps 20 years from now, the most popular sports competitions will involve cyborgs instead of 'un-enhanced' athletes.

Links: 'We Did It!' Brain-Controlled 'Iron Man' Suit Kicks Off World Cup

News Briefs 13-06-2014

"Whether you can observe a thing or not depends on the theory which you use..."

Quote of the Day:

“...It is the theory which decides what can be observed.”

A. Einstein

Is Schizophrenia Caused by Demonic Possession?

Still from 'The Exorcism of Emily Rose'

There is little doubt that in centuries past the condition we now know as schizophrenia would have been diagnosed as demonic possession. But that idea is also the topic of an article in the latest issue of The Journal of Religion and Health. In the article, Dr. Kemal Irmak, of the High Council of Science, Gulhane Military Medical Academy, Ankara, Turkey, interprets the way in which diagnosed schizophrenics talk about their thoughts, feelings and surroundings being 'controlled' by other forces, in a surprising way:

The most common delusion types are as follows: “My feelings and movements are controlled by others in a certain way” and “They put thoughts in my head that are not mine.” Hallucinatory experiences are generally voices talking to the patient or among themselves. Hallucinations are a cardinal positive symptom of schizophrenia which deserves careful study in the hope it will give information about the pathophysiology of the disorder. We thought that many so-called hallucinations in schizophrenia are really illusions related to a real environmental stimulus.

One approach to this hallucination problem is to consider the possibility of a demonic world. Demons are unseen creatures that are believed to exist in all major religions and have the power to possess humans and control their body. Demonic possession can manifest with a range of bizarre behaviors which could be interpreted as a number of different psychotic disorders with delusions and hallucinations. The hallucination in schizophrenia may therefore be an illusion—a false interpretation of a real sensory image formed by demons. A local faith healer in our region helps the patients with schizophrenia. His method of treatment seems to be successful because his patients become symptom free after 3 months. Therefore, it would be useful for medical professions to work together with faith healers to define better treatment pathways for schizophrenia.

Link: Abstract: Schizophrenia or Possession?

(via Improbable Research)

News Briefs 11-06-2014

Long ago this city was built on top of a lake.

Looks like the lake is claiming back its turf…

Thanks to Kat & Kermit the Frog.

Quote of the Day:

“It's easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled.”

~Mark Twain

Did the Great Sphinx of Egypt Originally Have a Different Head?

The Great Sphinx and the Giza Pyramids

It's too small. That's the problem that many see with the head of the Great Sphinx at Giza in Egypt: proportionately, it's much too small for the massive leonine body that it sits upon. Does this suggest that once, way back in antiquity, it originally had a different head...like that of a lion?

English geologist Colin Reader is one who thinks so, and in the video he cites another strange fact about the Sphinx's head as evidence for the theory:

We know for most of its life the Sphinx has been buried up to the shoulders and neck in sand. I've seen other places at Giza, the sand tends to protect the rocks that are buried beneath it.

The head's been exposed for almost the entire life of the Sphinx. It's been exposed to wind-blown sand, the effect of the Sun...if anything, the head should be more degraded than the body, but we see the reverse. And for me, there's only one real explanation for that. And that's that the head has been recut.

At a later stage, whatever was there originally, was retrimmed and reprofiled, to give us this pharaoh's head. The inescapable conclusion from that, is that originally this wasn't a Sphinx at all. It started life as something different.

The video goes on to cite more possible evidence for the theory, including an ancient Sphinx sculpture in the Cairo museum that also shows signs of having been recut from its original shape to give it the head of a pharaoh.

Incidentally, Colin Reader also - like fellow geologist Robert Schoch - believes that the Sphinx is older than orthodox Egyptology thinks it is - although his theory is far less radical than Schoch's, redating the famous monument only a few hundred years, rather than thousands. See Reader's journal article "Giza Before the Fourth Dynasty", or this more casual explanation of his ideas, for more detail.

(via @SmithsonianMag)

World's Oldest Man Had Visions of the Dead in the Days Before his Passing

Alexander Imich

In April we pointed out that parapsychologist Alexander Imich had become the world's oldest living man. Sadly, Imich's tenure was a short one, with the 111-year-old Polish immigrant passing away on the weekend in Manhattan.

Imich had been studying various psychic claims since the 1930s, when he researched the séances of a Polish medium known as 'Matylda S.'. Eighty years on, the supercentenarian was still keen to research the possibility of an afterlife, this time though via direct experience. At such an advanced age, Imich was well aware of his mortality, noting to a friend recently that "the compensation for dying is that I will learn all the things I was not able to learn here on Earth.”

Interestingly, the New York Times obituary notes that Imich appeared to have deathbed visions in the days leading up to his passing:

Mr. Mannion said that Mr. Imich was highly agitated four days before his death, speaking Polish and Russian to spirits he felt were around him. He was treated with medication before his death.

As I noted in my recent book Stop Worrying! There Probably is an Afterlife, the fascinating phenomena associated with end-of-life experiences (ELEs), such as deathbed visions, aren't restricted to occurring in the minutes or seconds before passing...they can occur, days, weeks and sometimes even months before. And they are hardly rare: a recent British survey found that almost two-thirds of doctors, nurses and hospice carers reported witnessing ‘end-of-life experiences’ such as death-bed visions in their patients.

What does seem different in this case (though not unheard of) is that Imich was reportedly "highly agitated" during these final days, whereas death-bed visions are usually a helpful aid to the 'transition' between life and death, bringing the dying to a place of peace and contentment. It might depend on what Imich was saying to the 'spirits' though…was it agitation, or excitement, and if the former, was it because he didn't want to die, or rather due to other circumstances (e.g. the spirits weren't talking back to him).

In any case, farewell and godspeed to Alexander Imich...I hope the secrets have all been revealed to you now.


News Briefs 10-06-2014

Farewell, Lord Flashheart. Woof!

Quote of the Day:

Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.


Turing Tease: Computer Deception & Human Consciousness

Last Sunday, when I was about to wrap up my Red Pills of the Week column, I received a Twitter notification that was both exciting & disturbing at the same time: The Turing test, that technological Rubicon dividing the line between mindless Roombas & German-accented Terminators, had finally been passed! The news read that a computer program designed by a team of Russians, had allegedly succeeded in convincing 33 percent of the judges in a test conducted at the Royal Society in London, that instead of a computer they were chatting with a 13-year-old boy from Ukraine named 'Eugene'.

"Our main idea was that he can claim that he knows anything, but his age also makes it perfectly reasonable that he doesn't know everything," said Vladimir Veselov, one of the creators of the programme. "We spent a lot of time developing a character with a believable personality."

But just as I was in a hurry to order some high-powered LED flashlights & a copy of Robopocalypse the next Monday --the book explains why flashlights would be essential to combat our sylicon-based overlords; also check out this video-- all the online buzzing powered down faster than GlaDOS after taking a beating with a portal gun. The claim, it turns out, was no more real than the cake in Aperture laboratories.

Oh, well. There's always the Zombie Apocalypse, right?

Nevertheless, all this online commotion & the readiness many people showed in accepting the news got me thinking: Why is it that we're so obsessed with the Turing test? Why do we even think it would be a valid assessment of Artificial Intelligence?

It was in 1950 when British mathematician & computer scientist Alan Turing (1912-1954) published Computing Machinery and Intelligence in which he posed the question: Can a machine think? Turing answered in the affirmative, but in doing so he pointed out to a bigger conundrum --if a computer could think, how could we tell? Here's where Turing proposed a solution: If a machine could establish a conversation with a person, and that person wouldn't be able to tell the difference between the machine & a human being, then from this person's point of view, the machine was capable of thinking.

We should also point out that there's been several iterations of Turing's test. The original version in fact, originated from the premise of a man & a woman sitting in different rooms, and a 3rd participant acting as the judge, whose job would involve determining the gender of the persons in the other rooms conversing with him through a computer; the trick in the test was that the woman would try to deceive the job in convincing him she was the man --and it doesn't take a computer genius to realize that Turing's concealed homosexuality, was quite likely the reason he chose deception as proof of intelligence.

I was considering these ideas this afternoon, while I was listening to the latest episode of the Skeptiko podcast, in which Alex Tsakiris interviewed Princeton neuroscientist Dr. Michael Graziano, author of the book Consciousness and the Social Brain. As you may probably suspect, Dr. Graziano is a hardcore materialist, and the theory he's trying to elaborate seeks views human consciousness strictly from a biological viewpoint.

Alex Tsakiris: [...]Okay, Dr. Graziano, tell us what’s necessary and sufficient to create consciousness. That would be like a first logic, rationalist kind of thing. What’s necessary and sufficient to create human consciousness?

Dr. Michael Graziano: Well one way to put it, and I have often used this example as it kind of nicely encapsulates our approach. And it is certainly totally different from the perspective that you outlined that I think a lot of people take. So here is an example – I had a friend who was a psychologist and he told me about a patient of his. And this patient had a delusion, he thought he had a squirrel in his head. And that’s a little odd, but people have odd delusions and it’s not that unusual. Anyway, he was certain of it and you could not convince him of it otherwise. He was fixed on this delusion and he knew it to be true. Now, you could tell him that’s illogical and he would say yeah, that’s okay, but there are things in the universe that transcend logic. You could not argue him out of it. So there were kind of two directions you could take in trying to explain this phenomenon. And would be to ask okay, how does his brain produce a squirrel? How did the neurons secrete the squirrel? Now, that would be a very unproductive approach. And another approach would be to say how does his brain construct that self-description? And how does it arrive at such certainty that the description is correct? And how does the brain not know that it’s a self-description? Now, those things you can get at from an objective point of view. You can answer those questions.
And in effect, I think you could replace the word ‘squirrel’ with the word ‘awareness’ and I think that the whole thing is exactly encapsulated. I think almost all approaches to consciousness take the first direction, how does the brain produce a squirrel – it doesn’t.

Herein lies the reason why modern Science has encumbered the Turing test: We should accept a deception from a computer as a sign of intelligence, because our own brains deceive us into thinking WE are conscious! I am a biological robot whose brain is tricking me to believe I'm Red Pill Junkie, and you are a biological robot tricked by your brain into believing a different identity. But it's ALL an illusion as far as modern Neuroscience is concerned, and since computer scientists also assume the brain is nothing but a data processing system, this is the model they're currently working on in order to achieve the Holy Grail of A.I.

But what if they are wrong? What if Alex & many of the researchers he's interviewed on his podcast, are right in pointing out that Consciousness is the ultimate test for materialistic Science, precisely because of its incapacity to adequately quantify & measure consciousness? Ironic, considering how every intellectual achievement, including Science, originates from Mind --the one thing we cannot put into a microscope.

Dr. Graziano & other skeptics might accuse me of being an uncredentialed woo-woo trying to defend a magical belief system, and argue that even though Neuroscience hasn't fully explained the emergence of consciousness in our brain, it doesn't mean it won't do so in the future. I would point those skeptics to the work of Jaron Lanier, a fellow who IMO knows a thing or two about computers --after all, he's the one who coined the term 'virtual reality'-- and who is not only VERY skeptic of the Turing test's efficacy to measure intelligence in an artificial system, but also shares my suspicions that human consciousness cannot be explained away purely from a mechanistic perspective:

But the Turing test cuts both ways. You can't tell if a machine has gotten smarter or if you've just lowered your own standards of intelligence to such a degree that the machine seems smart. If you can have a conversation with a simulated person presented by an AI program, can you tell how far you've let your sense of personhood degrade in order to make the illusion work for you?

Which is *precisely* what happened with the judges testing the Eugene program. You see, it may be that in our rush to increase our expectations about artificial intelligence, we might have inadvertently lowered our expectations for teenage intelligence --the machines are not getting smarter, 'tis the meatbags who are getting dumber!

So fear not, fellow Coppertops, for even if tomorrow, a year or ten from now, we finally get the news that some geek managed to program a computer that could pass the legendary Turing test, I hardly doubt it would mean Skynet is about to wake up & purge the world from the human infestation.

...But the keep the flashlights handy, just in case.

Gigantic School of Mobula Rays Attempting to Fly

Amazing video of mobula rays testing evolution to the limits...

Tens of thousands of mobula rays come together off the coast of Baja California in a brilliant display of their massive numbers underwater. Then watch them breach for reasons unknown. The leaps out of the water are spectacular as their pectoral fins flap in the air.

Though it’s hard to tell in this clip, these animals are quite large, likely weighing over a ton and reaching “a disc width of up to 5.2 m (17 ft)…” This is also likely the largest school of rays ever to be caught on film, captured for National Geographic’s Untamed Americas.

Watching them leap gave me a bit of a 'So long and thanks for all the fish' moment...

(via The Kid Should See This)

Slenderman: Five Years



My brain hurt like a warehouse it had no room to spare

I had to cram so many things to store everything in there

And all the fat-skinny people, and all the tall-short people

And all the nobody people, and all the somebody people

I never thought I'd need so many people...

-David Bowie, Five Years

If you had asked me as recently as two weeks ago if I thought the fifth anniversary of Slenderman's birth - today - was worth noting, I would have probably have said, "not so much". Other than the news that a feature length adaptation of the first (and still best) Slenderman video blog Marble Hornets had been announced, there was a feeling that the world's first open-source monster was fading into the background.

Sites were shutting, Tumblr blogs such as Ask Slenderman were posting less and less often and shedding staff. And, though I still find the mythos that has appeared around him fascinating, I would have thought few others would still be interested.

That was before last week. Before Wisconsin. 

The tragic events in the town of Waukesha, Wisconsin - in which two 12 year old girls attacked a third as an alleged sacrifice to Slenderman - horrified the world. Suddenly, every news agency was asking "what is Slenderman?" - the monster, it seemed, had finally found its wider audience. The suggestion of a possible second incident in Hamilton County, Ohio, and the fact that recent Las Vegas cop-killer Jerad Miller cosplayed as Slenderman (and The Joker) only emphasises this.

As readers of Darklore will know, I’ve been watching the Slenderman phenomenon for over half of his lifespan (looking both at Slenderman’s origins and the possibility of killing at least local manifestations of it). One of the most significant aspects of the entire Slenderman mythos has been the way that Slenderman has slipped across the permeable membrane between fiction and reality - occupying a very old definition of the concept of myth, while simultaneously being a child of the most modern aspects of communication.

Right from the very start, Slenderman crossed that line again and again - within the mythos, he has always been shown as a creature capable of crossing supposedly rigid boundaries of space and time effortlessly, and it is apt that this nature is reflected in the wider expression of the myth. In the videos purporting to be found footage of those unfortunates to have crossed his path, for the participants in the many Alternate Reality Games that appeared to further tell his tale, or simply those who, for a second, when playing the Slender game felt his faceless gaze upon them and shivered in terror... his presence is becoming more and more palpable.

Whether you call it by the anthropological term ostension, see it as a manifestation of the hyper-real nature of how we perceive and are altered by symbols in times saturated them, or even believe that Slenderman is truly a new form of deity... there is no question that those entities whose birthplaces were in known fictional works are becoming more and more influential.

Slenderman may simply be the first. Learning what to to do about that may become an important question for our times. It may even offer the possibility of understanding how all our beliefs sway us, can drive us to both atrocity and gnosis.

However it plays out, the next five years of Slenderman will certainly be worth watching closely.