"I for one welcome our new computer overlords"
The parting words of Ken Jennings in last year’s Jeopardy match against Watson, a computer seemingly able to decipher and process language, are a milestone for robotic innovations. Advancements in neuroscience and robotics have focused on giving robots human-like intelligence and processing skills. This concept has been depicted numerous times in popular culture, many times in terms of robotic rebellion, for example in movies such as I, Robot or WALL-E.
Recent robotics research leaves us with a couple of questions. Are really focusing on the right aspects of advancing in robotic technologies? Instead of perfecting intelligence and processing, why not instead focus on perfecting human emotion? More
Untangling the Wires
Here's a great video summary from Nature on the recent advances in the field of connectomics by researchers at the Max Planck Institute in Germany and Harvard University:
And the original research, here.
My previous post on Connectomics.
Just Keep Swimming…
In Disney/Pixar's "Finding Nemo," Marlin and Dory are swimming through murky waters en route to Sydney Harbor. Marlin suddenly exclaims, "Wait, I have definitely seen this floating speck before. That means we've passed it before and that means we're going in circles and that means we're not going straight!" - and he is probably right.
Is it really possible that when we cannot see where we are going, we actually travel in circles? Souman et al. tested this belief through a variety of experiments. They found in all cases that when deprived of a visual stimulus, it is actually impossible to travel in a straight line.
The first set of experiments had participants travel through a wood without visual impediments (such as blindfolds). One set of subjects traveled through the woods when it was cloudy, the second set when it was sunny. All of the cloudy group walked in circles and walked in areas that they had previously been, without noticing they had crossed a previous path. In contrast, all of the subjects who could see the sun were able to maintain a course that was relatively straight and had no circles.
The experiment was also performed on blindfolded subjects in an open field.
The blue paths correspond to the subjects that walked on cloudy days. Their paths are mostly curved with many circles. The small straight areas of walking are most likely caused by the setup of the trial - participants walked for a period of time, then were unblindfolded and allowed to walk to the starting point of the next walking block. Even so, when blindfolded, lack of a visual stimulus when blindfolded always resulted in walking in curved motions or in circles. This contrasts the yellow path; this subject walked on a sunny day, and maintained a straight course for a long distance.
What causes this strange phenomenon? Could it perhaps be subtle differences in leg length that introduce a bias to walk in one direction, thus accounting for the circular motion? Nope - the circle directions were still random. Adding shoe soles to add a more than subtle difference in leg length didn't make a difference: the participants continued to walk in random circles.
Perhaps the only explanation is that our vision is so necessary for our daily lives that our body randomizes without it. This idea is demonstrated in studies in which subjects are kept in a room with constant lighting: their biological clocks become completely randomized with no night and day inputs. More studies should be performed to truly understand the importance of the visual system. Since we rely so heavily on vision, is it natural for movements to become randomized without it? Do those who are blind from birth experience the same walking in circles phenomenon? For now, the conclusion here is that the sensory systems are complex and there is still much work to be done in understanding this strange phenomenon. So, if you ever find yourself lost in murky Australian waters, you probably should not just keep swimming, but rather, ask a friendly passing whale for directions.
A Mystery: Why Can't We Walk Straight? : Krulwich Wonders... - NPR
Walking Straight into Circles - Current Biology
Opening Eyes to Learning Difficulties
Learning difficulty and disability has long been a problem for many children, parents and school teachers alike. Dysfunctions such as dyslexia and motor disability have hindered the progress of countless adolescents across the country and continue to do so with every passing day. Now, studies have been performed that may centralize learning difficulties to the eye, rather than the brain itself.
Researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology are conducting research that creates a causal link between motor and learning disabilities and dysfunction in visual perception. For example, people who cannot quickly learn a simple motor task such as catching a ball may have difficulty because the cells in their eyes are not perceiving the stimulus properly. The same rings true in individuals with dyslexia - their eyes may not be correctly processing the visual stimuli of words on the page.
The ocular cells in contest here are deemed "magno cells" and detect rapid movements in our visual field, creating the movie-like perception we experience on a daily basis. Without these, life would look like a disconnected string of frames - much like a comic book. In a test conducted by the researchers, it was found that individuals with difficulty in mathematics also showed difficulty in tracking the randomized movement of a dot on a screen with their eyes, elucidating a link between eye function efficiency, detection of rapid changes in the environment and learning ability.
In a greater context, this finding may have implications in special education and may change the mindset of those working with individuals with additional learning needs. With this new information, learning disability can be combated from the angle of visual field perception. Techniques aiming to strengthen visual perception and eye efficiency (such as eye movement and tracking exercises) could act as a therapy for learning or motor disability previously thought to be localized in the brain itself.
Source: Science Daily via The Norwegian University of Science and Technology