Tag Archive: Computer


Did you know your face actually turns slightly red each time your heart beats, when fresh blood pumps through it? Neither did I, and that’s because it’s so slight that our visual perception system doesn’t pick up on it. Ah, but what if you could use a computer program to magnify the changes so they become visible? That’s just what computer scientists at MIT did, and the result is fascinating: watch the video (starting at 1:25) and see how with every heartbeat, a man’s face turns tomato red, then fades to a pallid yellow. The program is so precise that it can accurately calculate a person’s heart rate from the color changes.

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Mark Gasson, senior research fellow at the University of Reading, was able to infect a tiny, radio frequency identification (RFID) chip with a virus before he placed it under the skin on his hand. He uses that chip to activate his cell phone, as well as open secure doors.

Thanks to the computer chip, his cell phone knows when he’s using it, and when someone else is trying to operate the device. If someone else tries to use his phone (after, say, stealing it), that person is not able to use it. Only Gasson can.

And instead of him swiping an ID card to enter his building, he just needs to wave his hand to gain entrance. The convenience of not taking out his ID and the safety of his phone come with a price, however.

He served as carrier, and was able to pass the virus on to an external computer. The virus was of Gasson’s own design and was not malicious. But he was able to show that computer viruses can move seamlessly between computers within and outside the body. And theoretically, if a person had several computers in his or her body, a computer virus could spread from one to another, infecting them all.

Why would people have computers in their bodies? Researchers around the world are developing tiny electronics that can be ingested or embedded in people for health or even security reasons. Consider the camera pill, which records data from the intestines, bionic eyes, bionic limbs, implantable telescopes to improve vision, and more.

The kind of computer chip that Gasson installed in his body is not in wide use, so no need to worry as of yet. In fact, you have more reason to worry about bed bugs than computer bugs. But in the future, computers will get under our skin, and people will have to take precautions to spread digital infections.

Computer programs that think like humans

Intelligence – what does it really mean? In the 1800s, it meant that you were good at memorising things, and today intelligence is measured through IQ tests where the average score for humans is 100. Researchers at the Department of Philosophy, Linguistics and Theory of Science at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, have created a computer program that can score 150.

IQ tests are based on two types of problems: progressive matrices, which test the ability to see patterns in pictures, and number sequences, which test the ability to see patterns in numbers. The most common math computer programs score below 100 on IQ tests with number sequences. For Claes Strannegård, researcher at the Department of Philosophy, Linguistics and Theory of Science, this was a reason to try to design ‘smarter’ computer programs.

“We’re trying to make programs that can discover the same types of patterns that humans can see,” he says.

The research group, which consists of Claes Strannegård, Fredrik Engström, Rahim Nizamani and three students working on their degree projects, believes that number sequence problems are only partly a matter of mathematics – psychology is important too. Strannegård demonstrates this point:

“1, 2, …, what comes next? Most people would say 3, but it could also be a repeating sequence like 1, 2, 1 or a doubling sequence like 1, 2, 4. Neither of these alternatives is more mathematically correct than the others. What it comes down to is that most people have learned the 1-2-3 pattern.”

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Ray Kurzweil and other so-called transhumanists have promised that in coming decades we will be able to transfer a digital copy of the trillions of connections among nerve cells in our brains into a computer. We would essentially reincarnate ourselves as non-biological beings that persist for eternity inside a laptop, on the endless links of the Internet or as avatars inside a television set. After achieving the ultimate copy and paste, we would wave goodbye to death as we know it.

 

For fairly evident reasons, biologists tend to dismiss out of hand the ideas of Kurzweil and the transhumanist lot as the ravings of computer jocks who know nothing about the real workings of the DNA and cells that make up living tissue. Into this debate comes Sebastian Seung, a young and well-regarded computational neuroscientist from MIT, who has taken a serious look at some of the questions put forth by the transhumanists.

In Connectome, due in February, Seung conveys the excitement of studying the complete circuit diagram of the brain for which the book is named. A full connectome might provide telling insight into what goes goes awry, for instance, in an autistic child or an Alzheimer’s patient (definitely worth reading for these bits alone). In the last chapters, though he takes up the claims of the transhumanists who desperately would like to get their hands on a full connectome for the ultimate upload into binary immortality.

Seung tries to come to grips with the controversial assertion that  someday you might be able to transfer the equivalent of a connectome.doc file to computer hardware, software or any other robot or avatar that you can pick from back issues of Analog.

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