Sunday, April 15, 2012

My Love Hate Relationship With Neuroscience

It all started with Bertrand Russell's Analysis of Mind while I was undergrading in philosophy.  After reading Descartes' ghost in the machine dualism, Russell's clear eyed, rational explanation of the mind came as a shocking revelation.  That mind didn't have to be elevated to metaphysics made me happy; we should be able to make sense of our selves without resorting to fantasy.

An interest in neuroscience grew out of that reading and dovetailed nicely with my ongoing apprenticeship in computing.  I especially enjoyed learning about the people who played a part in inventing the modern world; computing is really our fascination with our own minds recreated.  Computational neuroscience is our attempt to recreate a mind.  Computer engineering was also often driven by neuroscience's need for massive increases in computing power.  They are two very complimentary areas of interest.

Today I suddenly found myself in a strange confluence of neuroscience.  @melaniemcbride's link on twitter about adopting neuroscience as a means of guiding education asked some hard questions.  Then, while driving, I heard on Quirks & Quarks an interview with a computational neuroscientist that gave me pause.

His book: Connectome offered some interesting insights into how neural networks create complexity, but one response he gave made me pause.  When asked what this sort of research could lead to in relation to neuro-atypical brains, Dr. Seung replied suggesting that, in time, as technology advanced, we could eventually rewire all atypical brains to become normal; to operate according to the same criteria.

In the last little while I've had a wave of atypical neurology going on around me.  A diagnosis of ASD-PDD-NOS in one generation and a diagnosis of bi-polar schizophrenia in another.  When dealing with the bipolar nastiness, all I can think about is trying to normalize the behavior, but I also believe (because I know it about myself), that this atypical brain chemistry also produced atypical mastery in other areas.  I know this because I can see it in myself; I'm a generational link in this neuro-atypicality.

So there I am, listening to a computational neuroscientist who thinks that a granular understanding of the mechanics of thought will eventually allow us to create the ideal mind, over and over again.  My family could be normal, typical, manageable.

There is a fear that technology will leech us of our individuality, make us easier to enslave, a more perfect race?  That took me back to Gattaca.  In a world full of engineered, genetically perfect people who have been measured, categorized and optimized, where is there room for suffering or the creativity that can come from it?  Of for the opportunity for exceptions to produce the astonishing?  In that utopia there are no Van Goghes, or DaVincis, or Helen Kellers.  There is no room for the atypical, only the quantified sameness of someone's idea of perfection.

I've been wracked with fear in the past year, that I've been infected by insanity courtesy of my genome, and passed it on to someone I love dearly.  I've been wrestling with the idea that I've put someone into the world who can't compete with it.  Standardized testing at school and psychological testing elsewhere have quantified these failures that I've caused.  The human race doesn't treat atypical neurology very nicely; we're really still a troop of apes at heart and the best you can hope for with difference is toleration.

According to Dr. Seung, once we get the computational power together to understand the mechanics of the brain, we'll be able to 'rewire' errors.  I suspect, as we develop a finer understanding of the mind, there will be a moment where, as I did reading Russell's clear eyed analysis of mind, we will suddenly realize that we are free of misunderstandings based on ignorance.  In that moment, it's my hope that we realize that a mechanical understanding of the mind means embracing atypical neural states as part of what it means to be human.

If we fail to realize this knowledge, we ultimately tie our minds to whatever we think they are, constraining ourselves to our expectations.  Our idealized expectations of ourselves do not include madness, or students who don't all learn the same way in neat, organized, financially efficient rows.

Neurotypicals don't make Starry Nights, or general theories of relativity; you'll miss us when we're gone.

Neuro-atypicals might not always be the cheapest, or easiest to manage but you won't find a lot of neuro-typical output in a gallery, or museum.  It's a shame we only celebrate their exceptionalities after they're gone but bemoan their differences while they're here.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Thinking Beyond F35s

Mine is bigger than yours.

Bigger is better.

A giant, expensive, centralized system is better than a small, distributed, flexible system.

Cost of an F35: $618 million per plane over its operational life time*

Don't get me wrong, I dig fighter planes, I always have.  From years in air cadets and being a teen when Top Gear came out, I totally get the glamour and the over the top nature of this culture.

The bravado, the opportunity for men (and pretty much only men) to strut like peacocks, or play the part of knights of the sky, is cool.  But it's an awful lot of money to pay for an ego boost.

Canada is a massive country that offers unique and challenging requirements for air defense.  We need an air defense system that can launch in remote locations, works in a huge range of temperatures and can loiter on station (in the air) for many hours.

Such a system does not need to have human beings in aircraft all the time.  Instead of catering to the macho fighter plane culture by participating in the most expensive defense contract in history*, why not look at this from a distributed, 21st Century point of view, rather than a centralized, 20th Century way of thinking.

If you believe the $75 million per plane that the current Canadian Government is misleading (and it is significantly less than anyone else is buying them for)*, then the F35 does seem a reasonable option, but even at the fictionally lower price, there are still many, home-made options that we won't even consider because it doesn't let men act like boys with toys.

UAVs, unmanned aerial vehicles or drones, offer a number of advantages over manned vehicles.  For a fraction of the cost you can have many more eyes (and hands) in the sky.  Canada's high tech industry is in an excellent position to advance this field dramatically, especially in developing drone systems that would work in extreme environments.

Instead of pumping billions of dollars into the American aerospace industry, virtually none of which will result in any Canadian manufacturing, why not consider an alternative?  Take a fraction of that and begin a Canadian engineering challenge for post secondary and private aerospace companies across the country.  All research and development is shared as part of the contest (like the X Prize).  An open source, collaborative and competitive project to develop an integrated, Canadian made aerial system.

The resulting designs will be built in Canada using Canadian designs.  This shouldn't be a single design goal either, but rather multiple platforms for many different functions.  Off hand I'd like to see:

  • a rocket assisted drone launch system that doesn't require a runway and can be launched from a mobile (truck based) platform.  When spent the drone can parachute to a landing point and be recovered
  • a ship based system that works in a similar way and offers a catching system - every Canadian naval vessel would become an air craft carrier.
  • reconnaissance drones that operate as data collectors; including a low speed loitering system and a high speed intercept system that offers stealth capability
  • fixed wing and rotary wing (and other less conventional systems) used in specific situations
  • a Snowbirds variant that can work either via remote control or entirely automatically
  • I'm dying to see what an Avro Arrow for the 21st Century looks like
These systems would encourage the development of on-board intelligences that are able to work independently, but that can only happen if we can get the ego out of the way.  Human beings do not have to be on board for an aerial vehicle to be highly effective.  In fact, the cost to equip the vehicle to carry humans goes well beyond money and into physics.  The weight of human needed subsystems will ultimately put manned fighter planes at a disadvantage.  A hybrid of remote human/on board intelligence is sure to offer the advantages of both instinct and calculation in bringing aerial power to bear.

Instead of buying into old, incredibly expensive thinking, we could be developing a home made, distributed UAV system that we could then export world wide, instead of just being a consumer of someone else's old thinking.


Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Dreaming of Greentech

The crate snapped open with the sound of extreme age, dust swirled in the shafts of sunlight.
Tomas stepped back into the darkness of the huge, buried room.  His fear was overcome by curiosity.  Under the heavy silver fabric he could make out vague shapes.  A soft whir came to his ears from within the large silver blanket that continued to unfold itself across the cracked and dusty floor.
A deeper hum began under his feet, and his nerves returned.  With the hum he could swear he heard the gushing of water.  The silver blanket was taking on new dimensions, growing up as well as out now.  The size of the massive, underground room was starting to make sense.  Beams of sunlight played across the silver surface, looking like the inside of a shell, and the whirring sound increased, spooling up to a new urgency.
He realized it was more of a bag than a blanket now, and could see the edges rising up off the ground, wrinkles being slowly tightened, as its true shape began to become apparent; it looked like a giant, silver fish, floating lopsidedly in the spotty sunlight.  The underside was a non-descript grey colour, the silver, shell-like side was now higher than he could see.   As it continued to expand, a bulge grew in the bottom.  Facing the pointy end of the expanding bag was a circular opening.
Tomas’s feet took him toward it haltingly.  Peering inside he saw a small room with benches, but more amazingly, it seemed to give off light of its own; ghostly images dancing across its surface.
“Greetings citizen,” an emotionless voice spoke from the dark, Tomas almost jumped out of his skin, staggering back before regaining his balance.  The voice continued, “airship number three two oh seven is coming online. Estimate five minutes to lighter than air, seven minutes to carry crew.”
Tomas stared opened mouthed at the hole in the bottom of the ‘air ship’.  The lights inside were becoming brighter.
“Insufficiently luminosity on the canopy, please use the forward mooring rope to move the vessel into direct sunlight to speed up initialization.”
Tomas didn’t understand half the words the cold voice said, but he could see a line hanging from the pointy end of what looked like the front of the airship.  He walked toward it cautiously, the grey shape growing ever bigger, and now mostly off the ground.  The cable had an oddly metallic feel, as he held it in his hand.  The roof had mostly collapsed about forty feet away, so he took a firmer hold on the cable and pulled.  A loud click followed by a hissing sound.  The thing was obviously quite heavy, but he began to move it step by step towards the large patch of sunlight.  As he got closer, and more light hit the expanding air ship, the whirring sound increased in pitch and dragged less and less on the ground.
By the time he had it in full sun, it was humming quite contentedly.
“Energy production nearing peak, hydrogen separation at peak, vehicle buoyancy achieved.”
At this last the airship seemed to hop off the ground and hang in the air as though this were its natural aspect.  Tomas could now see its sinuous silver shape, glinting in the late afternoon sunlight; it was truly a beautiful site.
As he stood their gawping, the voice piped up again, “crew buoyancy reached, please board the vessel.”
Tomas stepped toward the circular hole.  As he leaned forward to look inside his head bounced off something he couldn’t see.  The hole wasn’t an opening, it was a window of startling clarity.  His head had apparently caused the door to open though.  At the back of the room hanging beneath the huge air bag a gangplank lowered silently.  Tomas stepped around to inspect the ramp which had dropped from the back of the small room.
“Please enter the cabin and begin orientation.”
Tomas stepped up into the room.
“Welcome to the cabin of airship three two oh seven, now active.” The voice was accompanied by an image of an airship much like this one tied to a post in a field on a sunny day.  “Please clearly state the name of the captain of this vessel.”
In the ensuing silence Tomas looked around blankly, not sure if he should say anything.  Finally, with a nervous breath, he said, “Tomas.”
“Attempting tight beam transmission uplink to confirm qualifications.”
Strange shapes and colours whirled around the walls, and the silence following Tomas’s name stretched out.
“Unable to access surface net or central near-space net.  Tomas, may I ask you some questions?”
“Yes?” Tomas responded, startled that it now knew his name.
“Are you in contact with Gateway?”
“I don’t know what Gateway is.”
“How old are you?”
“I’m eighteen summers.”
“What is your profession?”
“My job?  I work the nets with my uncle.”
“Clarify nets please.”
“I catch fish.”
The cabin went dim for a moment.
“Linguistic analysis suggests you are at least six generations removed from standard English pronunciation and suggests the development of a dialect with little outside influence.  How many people live in your outpost?”
“You mean the village?  About sixty I think.”
The beams of sunlight where becoming redder around the air ship and shadows from the surrounding trees were creating long shapes.
“I should be getting back behind the wall,” Tomas said, looking at the dimming light nervously.
“Twilight will allow for an accurate star fix and GPS confirmation.  Is the opening above sufficient for this vehicle to rise?”
Tomas nodded, then when there was no response said, “yes, the hole in the roof is big enough and there are no trees blocking above.  How high are we going?”
“Clear of the tree canopy plus one hundred metres.”
Tomas had no idea what a meeter was, but above the trees sounded thrilling, “should I sit?”
“Pilot position is in front of the cockpit window.”
Since there was only one window, Tomas stepped up to it.  The big silver fish shaped ship sounded like it had indigestion.  Various whirring and blowing noises came from above, and almost without noticing it, the floor fell away.  Tomas grasped the bottom of the circular window, as the broken ground around the hole he’d found came into view, then fell away beneath him.  The air ship jumped up through the greenery, glittering pink in the setting sunlight.  Past the top most branches and out into empty air, the ground continued to fall away below, and the horizon became distant line.  More burping and hissing and the ascent slowed to a stop.
Images flashed dimly across the walls, not quite visible in the setting sunlight that drenched the cabin through the round window.
“Could you show me what you’re doing?” Tomas asked, trying to make out the shapes, numbers and words flashing through the walls.
In an instant the window dimmed and the images sprang into sharp relief.  Some of it looked like the calculations old Curtz did from his tower about the sun, moons and stars.  Other bits looked vaguely like the quota sheets his Uncle and he had to fill out after a catch, columns of figures.  On the other wall an image of the darkening sky seemed to have writing appear over top of it.  The location of the sun and two of the moons was marked, and slowly stars were being added to the list.
The sun had almost set by the time the voice spoke again.
“With sufficient accuracy, stars suggest it is 157 years since land fall on Harmony.  Current data suggests a catastrophic failure of settlement systems.  Can you confirm this?”
“I don’t know what settlement systems are,” Tomas replied, still gazing out at the sunset, the floor of the cabin bobbed about under him as a night wind began. “I live in Cliffsedge, we sometimes see people from New Edinburgh, but not so much recently, the roads are too dangerous and the sea isn’t much better.”

“You live in an isolated settlement of less than one hundred people?”
“Could you direct me to it?”
Tomas stepped back to the window.  “Follow the stream south of your hole to the south east.  It’s about a mile to the cliffs.  Cliffsedge is built into the cliff face.”
The whirring intensified slightly as the nose of the air ship dipped and the sunset swung around in the sky.  Below the tops of the trees passed by, waving in the night breeze.  They passed over the sporadic fields of crops near the cliff edge and the ground dropped away several hundred feet to a calm sea.  The silver air ship headed out over the ocean and banked around until it was facing the cliff face.  Several crews, including Tomas’ uncle was standing on the stony beach below, staring up at the air ship with their mouths hanging open.
“Scan suggests the most secure mooring point would be at the surface entrance at the top of the cliff.”
Without hesitation the ship jumped up again, clearing the cliff face and settling to within a few feet of the rocky ground that surrounded the main, ramped opening into Cliffsedge.
“Mooring cable dropped, anchors established.”
The first skypilot in centuries looked down as his ship eased itself down to the ground.