In Isaac Asimov’s 1950 short story collection I, Robot, intelligent robots with positronic brains exist alongside humans. Unlike conventional computer hardware, the word positronic implies that electrical current is carried in the wires of these robots’ brains by positrons, the antimatter counterpart of the familiar electron. Though the advantage of antimatter here is anyone’s guess, the stories of I, Robot may have introduced the positron to the public. And as bizarre as Asimov’s fantasy sounds, neuroimaging has given the term “positronic brain” yet another meaning.
In Part II of this series, we considered artificial intelligent in the context of Arthur C. Clarke’s novel and Stanley Kubrik’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey. In Space Odyssey, intelligence is arguably seen as an end in-and-of itself, rather than a means to an end. Flowers for Algernon, a short story later turned into a novel by author Daniel Keyes, questions that assumption while considering the ethical implications of artificially manipulating a person’s intelligence.
The protagonist of Flowers for Algernon is Charlie Gordon, a janitor who begins the story with intellectual disability, or mental retardation as it was referred to at the time when Keyes wrote the story. Gordon’s intellectual disability is a result of phenylketonuria, a real life metabolic disorder resulting from mutations of the gene encoding phenylalanine hydroxylase, an enzyme that breaks down the amino acid phenylalanine. An inability to metabolize this amino acid causes its toxic build up in the brain, often resulting in a low IQ and other problems, such as mental disorders.
Sometimes it’s hard to understand why scientists do what they do. Why spend a career studying cells, fungus, or flies? Other than being nerdy and wanting to learn about our world, what’s the point?Continue reading
Brain stimulation might sound like some Frankensteinian demonstration from a Victorian science fair. But in reality, it is a contemporary technique making a huge impact in neuroscience by addressing a longstanding limitation of traditional methods for investigating human brain function. Such techniques, like EEG and fMRI, can only be used to infer the effects of a stimulus or task on brain activity, and not vice versa. For example, a scientist might use EEG to study the effect of a task like arm movement on brain activity, but how can one study the effect of brain activity on arm movement?Continue reading
We have someone new joining our team! She is a neuroscience PhD student at the University of Iowa, and she studies speech perception – but let’s let the animation she created explain exactly what that means:Continue reading
What if you could take a pill to enhance your cognitive abilities? What if this pill could help you ace a test, get more work done efficiently, and truly multitask? For entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley and executives on Wall Street, the answer to these questions is a resounding “Yes!” In these high stake environments, the use of nootropics, or “smart drugs,” by normal healthy people has become commonplace. But what exactly are the compounds that are claimed to improve brain function? And are they safe?Continue reading
Last month, astronomers announced the prediction of a new giant planet in our solar system dubbed Planet IX, a genuine ninth planet with ten times the mass of Earth. The announcement lead to some confusion on the Internet as to the whether the planet had actually been discovered. In fact, no direct observation of this planet has been made. Rather, the planet has been predicted by a model, a simplified description of a system which often incorporates hypothetical elements to explain the variance in data. Because many models use equations to describe a system, a model can often be thought of as a theory with a mathematical backbone.Continue reading
For the first time in over a decade, a new Star Wars film is upon us, and if you’re like the staff of Knowing Neurons, your nucleus accumbens is firing off dopamine as fast as it can! Oh, what’s that you say? Lightsabers, Star Destroyers, and the Force have nothing to do with neurons, action potentials, and brain waves? Ah … I find your lack of faith disturbing.
Knowing Neurons is proud to present our inaugural entry in a new series of YouTube videos! In this episode, Joel asks, “Is the brain smarter than a computer?” With Joel as our tour guide, we embark on a journey through neurobiology, psychology, supercomputing, quantum physics, and even philosophy, all the while stopping on the street to ask the common person for thoughts and opinions. Along the way, you’ll learn in what ways humans outperform computers, in what ways computers outperform humans, how the world’s most powerful supercomputers are simulating the human brain, the limits of human memory, how chess grandmasters memorize chess positions, what information in your brain is accessible to your conscious mind, and what it means to live in a simulation.
Buckle your seat belts, sit back, relax, and enjoy the show!Continue reading
Have you ever wondered why the same brain regions are often implicated again and again in many tasks and behaviors? For instance, the prefrontal cortex is implicated in so many cognitive tasks that citing its involvement, per se, is hardly more illuminating or meaningful than throwing up one’s hands and saying, “It happened in the brain!” Continue reading
I propose to consider the following question, ‘Can machines think?’
Thus begins Alan Turing’s paper “Computing machinery and intelligence.” It’s 1950 England, and the world’s first computer is being used to calculate the next known largest prime number, a feat meant to show off the power of the computer. For Turing, the implications of this work go much further and spark a philosophical question: could computers one day acquire cognitive abilities rivaling human intelligence?Continue reading