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Extravolution Blog
Computing with the Multiverse PDF Print E-mail
Written by nuncio   
Wednesday, 23 September 2009 15:10
Quantum computers are real. Their capabilities may be limited at present but they exist. This may not seem like an extraordinary statement until you fully consider what a quantum computer does.

It does not matter that the practical applications of even an advanced future quantum computer would likely be limited to factoring vast numbers for secure encryption purposes. In many ways conceiving of this potential 'killer app' is just a way to secure the funding to build them in the first place. No, what really matters is that the calculations involved just aren't possible within the bounds of this Universe alone.

So where are the calculations being done? They are being done in tandem with the requisite number of equivalent quantum computers, staffed by the requisite number of equivalent copies of the person/people running the quantum computers, in the requisite number of equivalent universes required to complete the calculation.

As the wonderful John Gribbin points out in his recent book 'In Search of the Multiverse', this is not equivalent to the 'phase spaces' used by mathematicians to undertake complex calculations requiring theoretical extra dimensions. 'Phase spaces' work but you cannot use them to do the kind of calculations a quantum computer can do - because the (to all intents and purposes infinite) computing power of the Multiverse is simply not available without one.

If this very real example of how the Multiverse can be used for a practical application leaves you reeling then you are not alone. There is no guarantee that even the operators of these devices are absorbing the full reality of the Multiverse when they talk about 'spin direction' and 'superposition'. If superposition works and can be used for calculation purposes then what does it matter?

At the quantum level - the level of the almost impossibly tiny - 'objects' do not behave as they do at our level. Their position is not fixed but consists of 'clouds' of positional probabilities. They can be in multiple places at the same time. This may seem impossible to us but it is a law of the nature of the quantum level. The property of 'fixedness' only arises at larger scales, including our own. This quantum property can be harnessed for computation by using quantum superpositions to 'represent' binary digits - allowing one to undertake inconceivably large numbers of calculations all at the same time.

My reading of Gribbin's explanation of the process is that the quantum computers in the various universes 'call' for the answer all at the same time. The superpositions allow the calculation to be 'split' and undertaken across the requisite part of the Multiverse. The answer is then instantly 'collapsed' back to the observer in each universe.

Why am I trying to explain this when I don't understand it and do not have the mathematical language to describe it? Because I feel a sense of wonder at this and wish to teach myself a language for describing it to myself.

I want to internalise it and I think it might be enjoyable for others to internalise it too.
Last Updated on Wednesday, 23 September 2009 14:15
79 Votes


How's my RTPJ? PDF Print E-mail
Written by nuncio   
Wednesday, 16 September 2009 16:17
Have you always been aware of the beliefs of others or did you just grow that way?

With an inhibited Right Temporo-Parietal Junction (RTPJ) would you struggle to understand that others can have beliefs different to yours? Would this inhibition cloud your ability to make moral judgements? Current neuroscientific research using fMRI suggests increased activity in this small brain region when volunteers are tasked with thinking about various situations from the point of view of another human being.

Studies by Rebecca Saxe
and others see the RTPJ as being key to the morality aspects central to a cohesive "theory-of-mind". Her studies have found that the abilities of children to reason out and judge scenarios of "people thinking about thinking people" develop markedly and rapidly between the ages of approximately three and seven years old.

An example would be where a child, with the aid of props, was asked to envision a man putting a sandwich down on a box. The man then leaves and the sandwich gets blown off the box by the wind. A second man comes along and puts his sandwich down on the box, not seeing the one on the ground, then leaves. The child, once given the scenario, is asked which sandwich the first man will take when he returns. According to the Saxe studies the children would respond thus:
  • The 3-year-old says that the first man will take the sandwich on the ground although it is dirty because it is "his". When told that the first man actually takes the one on the box the child expresses surprise - presumably meaning that she cannot understand that the first man would not know that his was the one on the ground, so she thinks it unfair that he took the one on the box.
  • The 5-year-old says that the first man will take the sandwich on the box. This appears to show a more developed understanding of the thoughts of others because the child understands that the first man would think (albeit mistakenly) that his sandwich was the one on the box. However, the 5-year-old, still says that it is "bad" of the first man to take the sandwich on the box. Is this evidence that the child has not yet developed the moral capacity to know that the first man cannot be blamed for not knowing he was mistaken?
  • The 7-year-old says that the first man will take the sandwich on the box. Crucially, she also knows that the first man should take no blame for his mistake because it was a simple accident/misunderstanding.
This is a rather wordy explanation and you can see the Saxe talk on ted.com which should make it all clearer. She also brings up the fascinating results of studies, in adult subjects, where the RTPJ is stimulated (through the skull) via electromagnets. This appears to demonstrate a decreased ability in the subjects to make usual moral judgements while the RTPJ's function is being disrupted.

Other work, such as that of JP Mitchell does not appear to directly contradict the Saxe papers but does, again, bring up the issue of "localisation". He appears to be saying there is no current conclusive proof that the RTPJ is solely responsible for this kind of reasoning, despite the fact it lights up under fMRI when these judgement tasks are undertaken.

It must be very tempting for neuroscientists to fit specific cognitive functions to specific brain regions, especially now that fMRI studies seem to corroborate some of these theories. It's also much easier to explain to laypeople than telling them that fMRI studies suggest increased blood flow in areas that might be associated with a particular function when subjects undertake cognitive tasks that might stimulate blood flow to the region in question. While the "localisations" may be broadly correct there seems to be a bit too much "shoehorning" going on in some of these studies.

There are, of course, ethical issues connected to the potential ability to disrupt a person's ability to make reasoned moral judgements; or to actually change their beliefs by electro-mechanical means! This ability doesn't appear to be on the horizon any time soon. I have no fear of and can see a lot of value in this kind of work and, unlike Ms Saxe, I do think that this will help us to understand "the hard problem" of consciousness.

This is me signing off thinking about me thinking about you thinking about your beliefs about how you think about the thoughts of thinking people.
Last Updated on Wednesday, 16 September 2009 15:25
82 Votes


Synthetic Biology PDF Print E-mail
Written by nuncio   
Thursday, 27 August 2009 16:58
SynBio is coming. While we have been busy getting in a lather about nanotech, synthetic biology has been creeping up on us at incredible pace.

The field of SynBio combines engineering and biology in pursuit of the creation of novel new forms of synthetic life with customised functions. The idea is not to create some "imitation" of life but genuine functioning cellular forms. A "second genesis". The technology is more advanced than many realise. Some experts in the field state that they are less than a year away from creating the first complete system.

Versions of simpler elements of the jigsaw, such as a cell wall formed from fatty acids, have been around for a while but one company has now created a fully functional ribosome. The protein biosynthesis process undertaken by the ribosome translates mRNA into protein. Ribosomes are like the protein micro-factories of cells. With this incredibly complex part of the problem appearing to have been solved it looks like it won't be long before the synbio kit of parts is complete.

With the ability to make customised microscopic lifeforms, such as bacteria to clean up man-made toxins or specialised antibodies to attack specific types of cancer cells in precise locations, the microscopic world will be open to greater and more direct intervention than ever before. We had perhaps assumed that we would have to wait for the arrival of full-blown nanotech, with its molecular submarines and cutting gear, to see this type of revolution.

But all the while it has not only been the physicists who have been seeing the potential of viewing microscopic objects as potential machine parts. Synthetic biologists can grow the parts they require for their machines. They have realised that biology is also an engineering substrate. This is way beyond transgenics, where genetic material constituting desirable properties from one lifeform are mixed with another. This is about understanding the pre-evolved building blocks of life, classifying them, replicating them and assembling them into new forms. Those new lifeforms can then, if required, be evolved further in the lab.

Synthetic Biology is an exciting new field, the results of which will soon explode into the headlines. All the old arguments about "playing God" with be brought forth with greater vehemence and incomprehension than ever.

We know that all life evolved from one "ancestor" cell. It only had to happen and take hold once to give rise to all life on this planet. We're now on the cusp of seeing a brand new form of life - one created by human beings.cu5j6fgik9
Last Updated on Thursday, 27 August 2009 16:27
74 Votes

1 Comment

Neuroplasticity and handedness PDF Print E-mail
Written by nuncio   
Wednesday, 19 August 2009 16:14
I used to be ambidextrous.

When I was a child I had the ability to use either hand for most tasks. It was useful but also confusing. I had a nagging feeling that I should be settling on exactly which hand I should use to draw my pictures with. There wasn't much pressure from the adults around me to settle this internal argument but any suggestions I did receive from outside always favoured the right.

I now wonder if I lost something when I finally settled on using my right hand. Some of the old 'confusion' is still there - when cutting with scissors I use my left hand; when playing pool or darts my left hand dominates.

Having now read a fair amount about neuroplasticity - Norman Doidge's "The Brain That Changes Itself" is a particular favourite - I think that my ambidextrous abilities were a result of an earlier and more readily plastic phase of my brain's development. Once settled into a less readily plastic phase the right hand came to dominate. But can that process cause an imbalance?

I would assume that an imbalance would be more likely in an obviously left-handed child forced to use their right. This still happens - the old sinister/dexter nonsense. But when this happens more internally can it be a case of the left brain (right hand) achieving dominance over the right brain (left hand)? The probable answer is that it is much more complicated than that. Left-handed people do not necessarily have a more dominant right brain than right-handed. But I wonder if some of the 'flexibility' of thought and motion from the more plastic and ambidextrous phase would be better retained than lost.

I have started brushing my teeth and sometimes shaving with my left hand. This feels awkward and unnatural at first but it does appear to get easier after a few weeks. A kind of 're-learning' may be happening.

This would seem to tie in somewhat with current neuroplasticity research. There is growing evidence, for example, that stroke victims who lose the use of a limb, can learn to use that limb again by restricting the movement of the good limb. In the case of an arm the good limb could be put in a tight sling so that the non/semi-functional limb is 'forced' into use. Is it so different to try to force a once highly functional hand to undertake some of the tasks now so ably performed by its opposite number in an effort to regain some of its 'lost' function?

Someone I know has, in the fairly recent past, lost a good deal of the function in one leg. He insists the problem is entirely 'physical' and localised to the area of the leg itself, while at the same time talking about how the limb 'won't obey his commands'. It is clear to me that the damage has resulted from a small stroke but the affected person will never agree with this because of the stigma he sees attached to such a brain-associated dysfunction. The physiotherapists he has seen have made no real effort to investigate the root of the problem. I have suggested some kind of restrictive therapy to 'force' the affected limb into better use but he won't hear of it. Meanwhile the leg becomes less functional with each passing day.

Brain plasticity is never lost but it does become harder to 'activate' as the years go by. Exercises, both physical and mental, which re-activate and promote neuroplasticity can be of huge benefit to all. There appears to be resistance in some quarters to the notion of training the brain like a muscle or using it as 'tool' to effect change in itself and in the rest of the body. Some of the methods touted for achieving plastic change are pure hokum but others, such as the software developed by Posit Science, may just have a chance of making a real difference for those struggling with weakening mental agility.

I won't ever be fully ambidextrous again but that doesn't mean I should give up on my left hand. Balance in all things.
Last Updated on Monday, 31 August 2009 10:28
72 Votes


Speech Arrest PDF Print E-mail
Written by nuncio   
Friday, 05 June 2009 13:48
I recently watched some fascinating live neurosurgery on Channel 4. The patient was awake throughout most of the process and was capable of answering questions posed by the studio audience and viewers phoning in.

The "speech arrest" phenomenon was particularly interesting to witness. The surgeon was removing a large tumour and wanted to ensure that he was not causing any damage to Broca's Area, an area on the brain particularly concerned with speech. He used and electrode to stimulate the approximate area while the patient counted from 1 to 20. If the electrode intruded into Broca's area the patient would "lose" numbers in the sequence but resume consistent counting when the probe was moved away.

Once Broca's Area had been identified the surgeon was able to work past it and go further down into the brain to remove part of the tumour. Unfortunately the tumour was invasive, with webs spreading out deep into the brain, so could not be removed fully. The patient will undergo chemotherapy to try to mitigate this.
Last Updated on Monday, 15 June 2009 15:21
68 Votes


Blue brain PDF Print E-mail
Written by nuncio   
Sunday, 26 April 2009 08:42
The Blue Brain project is exciting. The idea of building a cortical simulation up from the molecular level is a massive challenge but, I think, an essential one if we are ever to fully understand the complex thinking machine that is the human brain.

The initial goals of the project were, in comparison to the current aims, fairly modest. In 2005 the goal was to simulate a rat cortical column (or hypercolumn). With that now achieved the scientists involved are heading in the direction of simulation of an entire human neocortex.

There are concerns that this project cannot tell us much new. It may come up with a working simulation that we can observe functioning and making neuronal connections but of which we have no understanding of what it is actually doing. Sounds a lot like a biological neocortex to me.

The current state of the art at the neuronal level of neuroscience is that we can begin to see such hitherto intangible processes as memories being formed. This appears to me to be roughly equivalent to watching our simulated brain making its virtual connections and forming its virtual memories. Of course the simulation allows us to gather comprehensive and accurate data about these events; something we can't do with a biological brain. When it comes to observing exactly what the world looks like to the entity (biological or virtual) as a result of those neuronal events we are still, largely, in the dark.

What I hope the Blue Brain project will do, and what some of its detractors may fear, is to put an end to any notion of duality. Consciousness will be proved, once and for all, to be an emergent property of the structure, connectional diversity and sheer quantity of neurons (supported by glia) forming the human neocortex. But there is no guarantee that the Blue Brain will ever reach human-level neuronal complexity. A huge investment would be required in this research, currently admirably supported by the Swiss government, to bring that possibility to fruition.

This is pure science and the investment is worth it. Understanding the construction and plasticity of our own brains will give us the tools we need to better shape ourselves and to recognise the negative neurobiological effects of bad interactions with other people and environments. Perhaps our future depends on that understanding.
Last Updated on Sunday, 26 April 2009 12:47
74 Votes


CADIE fool PDF Print E-mail
Wednesday, 01 April 2009 18:34
I don't normally take much interest in April Fools but I did like Google's CADIE prank. I looked up the CADIE blog after seeing the sky-high stats for it on Alexa.

The high level of interest is possibly borne out of a desire among many to witness the genuine emergence of a human-like artificial intelligence. But who knows whether the intelligence of an AI or 'artilect' would be remotely human-like. We already have an abundance of 'weak AI' around us but many don't even notice it. It's strong AI that holds the fascination.

I sometimes wonder if we would even notice if strong AI were present. If it were to emerge as a non human-like intelligence, perhaps via a fertile medium like the Internet, perhaps it would choose not to communicate with us. Perhaps it wouldn't think to do so. Maybe it would be 'thalient'.

There is a definition on Wikipedia of the concept of 'thalience'. This current definition may or may not have been adopted by the AI community, but from my reading of Karl Schroeder's book this definition is incorrect. To me thalience is to an artilect as intelligence is to a human. In other words thalience would be a way of understanding the environment (medium) and communicating with peers independently of human modes, and values.

'Artificial Intelligence' or at least 'strong AI' could be a complete misnomer. Can intelligence, no matter how generated, ever be artificial? I don't think so. When it emerges it will be as real as ours - but it won't be the same. It will be thalient. That is both fascinating and frightening.

Perhaps that's why we want to believe in CADIE. Because it seems like us and is therefore reassuring.
73 Votes


Spooky Action PDF Print E-mail
Friday, 06 March 2009 13:25
An experiment has been devised to directly observe the quantum paradox in action.

The quantum paradox is probably not a subject that most of us spend time thinking about. Quantum entanglement, dubbed "spooky action at a distance" by Einstein, goes against the grain of our common sense understanding of our universe. Einstein hated it.

It is exciting to know that the quantum paradox can now be observed in some way, given that it was the act of observation that was both the spanner in the works and the key component of the theory.

Quantum entanglement makes teleportation possible. Lab experiments have demonstrated that photons can be 'teleported' and it won't be long before scientists are able to teleport something as (comparatively) large as a virus. There is no prospect of teleporting people, though. Too much data and the drawback of having to die as part of the process should rule it out for the foreseeable future.

It would be easy to wax philosophical about quantum entanglement. The fact that an electron in a star in another solar system may be able to tell me the quantum state of its entangled partner in the iris of my eye, is something that I could struggle with. It seems like that should mean something profound. But it doesn't. Just because I currently 'contain' one of the electrons does not imply significance. The entangled partner could just as easily be in a pile of yak faeces.

The quantum paradox is real. That means that it is a tool that can be used. It is fascinating to watch scientists learning to use paradoxical tools. They are already starting to build computers using quantum states. A fully-fledged quantum computer will produce encryption that is truly unbreakable. These devices may become common, they may be used by scientists, governments and individuals. And yet they will still be operating by the power of paradox.

And once it starts to work for them, will anyone care that it is paradoxical?
66 Votes


Fusion PDF Print E-mail
Written by nuncio   
Monday, 23 February 2009 18:26
I watched an interesting 'Horizon' programme about nuclear fusion.

If we are to become a Kardashev Type 1 civilisation we are going to need fusion. Many would probably ask why we would wish to push through to this level and not just be satisfied with our current Type 0.72. Striving for this staging post could be the death of us but so could trying to stand still.

It is currently fashionable to wear personal energy consumption level as a badge. But the idea of a "carbon footprint" is arbitrary. The result depends on which questions you ask. Inefficient energy consumption is wasteful and counter-productive but so is inefficient energy generation. Wind turbines are strangely beautiful but there can never be enough of them to make a real difference. Such 'green' forms of energy production lull us into a false sense of security. They make us feel that we are doing something. But it will never be enough.

All our energy comes from the sun one way or another. Oil is encapsulated power from long-long dead vegetation which once used photosynthesis to harness solar energy. And so the sun is always the way forward.

Fusion involves learning the lessons from the hearts of stars to make miniature suns here on Earth, using tokamaks or laser fusion. These techniques stand a good chance of success over the next 10-20 years but they are poorly funded, perhaps because of the current fixation with employing primitive wind, tidal, bio fuel and nuclear fission methods.

Evolution has always required energy to make exponential leaps to new levels of complexity. We are part of that process and nuclear fusion is the paradigm shift in energy generation that we require.

Why do we require this? Why didn't we just stay in the primordial soup?
Last Updated on Tuesday, 24 February 2009 21:10
66 Votes


Toolbox PDF Print E-mail
Wednesday, 04 February 2009 18:46
Changing my mind is more difficult than I thought. Or am I just telling myself that?

Brain plasticity continues well into adulthood and perhaps, to some extent, throughout our entire lives. This wonderful capacity of the cerebrum is not just for kids. So what is it that makes it feel so difficult to alter our own personality traits and establish new and clearer channels of thinking? Simply telling your brain to change doesn't seem to do the trick and we can find ourselves 'spinning' on our favourite hangups day after day.

Part of the problem may be that we don't know what the 'tools' or 'controls' are to effect the change. We learn throughout our lives that certain results require certain processes but nobody ever explains to us how to self-program. For others, with a more critical mindset, new-age positive thinking and meditation-based 'toolboxes' can appear clumsy and ineffective.

My brother makes musical instruments. I once asked him how he undertook some of the intricate wood planing tasks required to make a guitar fretboard and he explained that he had to make the tiny planing tools before he could make the fretboard. I realise that this analogy is also clumsy but it gets the point across. The only convincing and effective tools for reshaping our own minds must be made by ourselves.

So how to do this? Realising that it can be done is a start. Accepting that it's all physical and that, therefore, the tools are real will also help. We all know the kind of words and situations that make us cringe, so don't use those. Our left hemispheres can be overly clamorous and dominating, so find some space and time to open up to the right. Stop your 'spinning' thoughts in their tracks as often as possible - you can because they are yours.

It's tempting to think that your brain is working at it's best when neuronally 'lit up' like a Christmas tree but that's not the case. Focus is required and that means a certain stillness but does not require psychobabble.

These are the things that I am attempting but all our brains are different. Finding focus and stillness is hard, because that is the story I have told myself throughout my life and therefore that story has become part of my cortical wiring.
73 Votes


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