Artificial Intelligence, Avatars, and the Future

Most people first heard the word “avatar” from James Cameron’s Avatar, one of the top grossing films of all time. Some consider avatars an extension of the self that can save the world in the context of virtual reality or a video game. In Hinduism, avatars are considered incarnations of deities or immortals. The Hindu god Vishnu, for example, has many avatars, including the Buddha.

Helping to sort out the avatar conundrum and the fascinating field of artificial intelligence was a Brainwave series program at the Rubin Museum of Art in NYC last Wednesday night. The program—“A.I. and Avatar: The New Explorers,”— began with a head-spinning question: “Can machines and other avatars expand the human experience—and perhaps even take our minds to the stars?”

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Brain Awareness Week Partner Interview: Sung-Jin Jeong, Ph.D.

This is the second in a series of Brain Awareness Week (BAW) partner interviews, in which partners share their BAW experiences and tips for planning successful events. Sung-Jin Jeong, Ph.D., is the principal researcher/director of the Neuronal Development and Disease Department/Brain Research Policy Center at the Korea Brain Research Institute.

sung-jin jeong baw partnerThe Brain Awareness Week effort in Korea is a large coordinated effort by several organizations, including the Korea Brain Research Institute, that has reached around 4,000 people the last several years. How difficult is it to reach consensus among the organizers when planning such a large program? Are there any tips you can give?

Since 2002, the Korean neuroscience community has actively participated in Brain Awareness Week (BAW), enhancing the public understanding on neuroscience and scientific value. Over the years, a series of events hosted by more than 15 universities and research institutes throughout the country have become more dynamic and exciting, attracting over 3,000 participants yearly. Korean Brain Society and Korea Brain Research Institute (KBRI) are co-organizers, playing a central role in gathering national brain research capacity and strengthening the cooperative network for the annual BAW event.

When planning for such a large program, it is indeed challenging to reach consensus among many relevant institutes. It is critical, however, to induce inter-organizational cooperation and reach consensus encompassing organizers’ needs. We try to make things work by weaving together everyone’s best ideas and key concerns before making major decisions on topics and planning programs.  Over the last few years, main topics presented during BAW were Brain Navigation (2014); Brain, the universe of our mind (2015); and What is Brain Research? (2016).  Fortunately, we have so far had fruitful outcomes and excellent performances by having the earnest discussions on planning each program and efficient role-sharing. We will do our utmost to continue building interactive partnerships with educational and research institutes nationwide, thus engaging the whole neuroscience community with a lively and successful BAW.
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Progress in BRAIN Initiative Research

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President Barack Obama fist-bumps the robotic arm of Nathan Copeland during a tour at the White House Frontiers Conference at the University of Pittsburgh, Oct. 13, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

In the less than three years since the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative was announced, researchers have made measurable progress towards creating new tools and sharpening existing ones to study the brain. Though its goals are long-term, in a few cases this progress already has shown promise in helping people.

These tools “allow us to do things that, in the past, were unimaginable,” said Nora Volkow of the National Institute of Drug Abuse during the third annual BRAIN Initiative investigators meeting, held in Bethesda, Md., this week. For example, imaging tech such as fMRI and PET have enabled us to make maps of brain activity and create a brain atlas of the concentration of serotonin transporters and receptors. But to reach goals as ambitious as characterizing the many types of neurons and other cells in the brain—or even to get a good count of how many types there are—we need to improve both the speed and the resolution of our tools.

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The Ethics of Emerging Technologies

Large crowd for the event, which was open to the public.

Large crowd for the event, which was open to the public.

At last night’s International Neuroethics Society public program, we heard from eight speakers on the ethics of emerging technologies, addressing the potential benefits and risks they raise when applied to health care.

Kate Darling, a specialist in human-robot interaction at MIT, talked about her experience with robots and her hopes and concerns for mainstream integration. She opened her presentation with a personal story from 2007, when she became the owner of a baby dinosaur robot, the size of a small cat, that responded to touch. She would often show it off to friends, demonstrating how it cried when she held it upside down. After a while, though, Darling began to notice that it upset her to hear it cry.

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The Ethics of Genetic Technologies

On Thursday, Dana Alliance member Steven E. Hyman helped the International Neuroethics Society (INS) kick off its annual meeting in San Diego. INS President and fellow Dana Alliance member Judy Illes welcomed attendees and introduced Hyman, who opened the program with his presentation titled, “Emerging Genetics of Human Cognition and Behavior: New Challenges for Ethics and Policy.”

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Steven Hyman, M.D.

“Scientists always knew that genetics would help us,” he began, “but the trouble was that it is fiendishly complex, and the technology was, at the time, unavailable…I truly didn’t expect to live long enough to see [it] develop.”

With the commencement of the Human Genome Project, technologies were suddenly available that allowed scientists to yield information crucial to the sequencing and mapping of all genes. In that same decade, he commented, the BRAIN Initiative and stem cell technologies were also developed, adding another feat to neuroscience research. With this, Hyman said, it suddenly became possible to fundamentally try to understand schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and other nervous system diseases, such as epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, and so on.

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