#WSF18: They’ve Got the Power

If you’re a science fiction lover who can’t get enough of Mr. Robot and Westworld and worry that robots might one day make us their slaves, the good news is that it’s not likely to happen anytime soon, but technology that falls into the wrong hands needs to be considered. That was the consensus of a discussion on artificial intelligence (AI) last Friday at the World Science Festival at New York University (NYU).

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Tim Urban and cognitive scientist Susan Schneider. Photo: World Science Festival/Greg Kessler

The spirited session was aptly named, “Teach Your Robots Well: Will Self-Taught Robots Be the End of Us?” Moderator Tim Urban, a writer on futuristic issues and co-founder of the Wait but Why website, began with: “This is the biggest topic you can take on; relevant to every person in the room.”

 

The panel of academics included Susan Schneider, director of the AI, Mind and Society (AIMS) Group at the University of Connecticut; Yann LeCun, an AI scientist and a professor at NYU, Peter Tse, a professor at Dartmouth University and author of The Neural Basis of Free Will; and Matt Tegmark, a professor at MIT and president of the Future Life Institute.

The panelists suggested—each in their own way—that AI isn’t as dangerous or potentially harmful as advertised. Tse made the point that Siri, Alexa, and Google are not yet on the same level as human intelligence. He drew a distinction between “artificial narrow intelligence” and “artificial general intelligence,” explaining that narrow AI would be like a robot learning how to fly a plane or drive a car, while general AI would include knowledge on how to do those tasks—but also mow the lawn, babysit children, cook dinner, and still learn new other skills.

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Transforming Ourselves: NYAS Panel Examines Human Enhancement

Guest post by science writer Carl Sherman

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Image: Shutterstock

This was the premise of a public symposium at New York Academy of Sciences, presented by the Aspen Brain Institute, the Hastings Center, and the Academy.

While the prospect demands sound scientific policy, its associated moral, social, and political issues require a broader base of expertise. The symposium accordingly brought together a genetics researcher, a futurist and author, and experts on bioethics and artificial intelligence to explore the promise and perils of human enhancement.

“All the technologies we need to fundamentally transform our species already exist,” said futurist and sci-fi novelist Jamie Metzl. “With the mapping of the genome, we could read the code of life; with gene editing technology, we can write it.”

Genomic advances are making reproductive technology transformative, he said. With preimplantation embryo screening, parents can select, among a dozen IVF embryos, one free of certain genetic diseases and with preferred eye color and gender. As personal genotyping spreads, accumulating data will clarify genetic patterns underlying personality, intelligence, physical prowess, appearance, and other traits to give parents a broader spectrum of options.

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#Brainweek: BioBase 2018

One of the newest buildings in Harlem’s historic neighborhood is now home to the Jerome L. Greene Science Center, part of Columbia University’s Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute. The idea behind the Science Center’s construction was to have a designated place to support human connection, intellectual excellence, and pioneering research that goes beyond traditional academic boundaries. So, it only makes sense that the state-of-the-art glass and steel research center is where the BioBase opened its doors to the public for Brain Awareness Week on Monday.

The BioBase was bustling with young students and adults who explored the various stations to test out science experiments and research-grade lab equipment for themselves. Chief scientist Latasha Wright, Ph.D., who spearheaded the creation of the BioBase and the internship program at its sister facility, the BioBus, gave me a tour of the community lab and explained the different experiments that were designed to engage everyone from grades K-12 and up.

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A young visitor tests the microscope’s magnifying power by zooming up on an ant’s eye.

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Unlocking the Diseases of the Brain

Guest blog by Carl Sherman

One evening last week, I met the mini-brain.

I was introduced to this intriguing concept by three scientists who know it intimately, at a presentation on “Unlocking Diseases of the Brain with Stem Cells,” at the headquarters of the New York Stem Cell Foundation (NYSCF).

Melissa J. Nirenberg, M.D., Ph.D., NYSCF’s chief medical officer, introduced the subject from the perspective of a neurologist with 20 years’ experience, primarily with patients with Parkinson’s disease and other movement disorders.

“It was frustrating,” she said. While treatment can attenuate some symptoms for some patients, “we don’t have anything to offer them to halt or even slow disease progression.” The same goes for Alzheimer’s. “That’s why I’m here. At NYSCF, we’re focusing on treating the underlying disorders.”

Science Laboratory

Image: Shutterstock

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Neurotechnology and the Military

“Every generation has been trying to figure out how to use brain-related technology to improve security,” from caffeine to computer enhancement, bioethicist Jonathan Moreno, Ph.D., said at the Capitol Hill briefing “Neurotechnology and the Military” last week. Moreno and neuroscientist Leigh Hochberg, M.D., Ph.D., had teamed up to give a similar presentation at a luncheon six years ago, and on Friday the two brought us up to date.

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Leigh Hochberg used video clips to show how BrainGate works (photo courtesy of The Society for Neuroscience).

Thanks to a half-century of federally funded basic research, researchers have developed a chip carrying 144 electrodes that can be inserted into people’s skulls (over the motor cortex) and send impulses to computers to drive a cursor or a mechanical object, said Hochberg, the director of the Center for Neurotechnology and Neurorecovery at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor at Brown University and Harvard Medical School.

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