😴 MIT's Dream Lab can hack into your dreams / Humans + Tech - #25

Hi :)

I believe that all science fiction eventually comes true. And then, we just call it science.

In the 2010 movie Inception [Wikipedia], Leonardo DiCaprio plays the part of a professional thief who steals information by infiltrating the subconscious of his targets.

MIT’s Dream Lab has figured out how to do the same [OneZero]. Except that their motives are not theft, but boosting creativity and treating trauma and PTSD.

🪑 Dream hacking is not new.

In the state of hypnagogia, the brief period between wakefulness and deep sleep, it is thought that the most creative ideas and insights occur. Unfortunately, by the time we awaken after sleep, we often forget these ideas.

Salvador Dalí, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Nikola Tesla, and Aristotle are all said to have used various hacks to help them wake up right before they fell into a deep sleep to be able to remember their ideas and write them down, or to be in a heightened state of creativity.

Salvador Dalí would sit on a chair with armrests to take a nap [The Art of Manliness]. He would place his wrists over the edge of the armrest, hold a heavy key between his fingers, and place a plate upside-down on the floor below. The moment he fell asleep, his fingers would relax, dropping the key onto the plate with a loud noise, instantly waking him up. Edison used a similar method but with steel balls instead of a key [Time].

🧤 A 21st-century approach

Adam Horowitz and his fellow researchers at the MIT Dream Lab are trying to find out if they can do something similar using 21st-century technology. They’ve developed a glove-like device called Dormio, which helps people extend, influence, and capture the hypnogogic state to give them access to the free-thinking and associations prevalent in this state.

“People don’t know that a third of their life is a third where they could change or structure or better themselves,” Horowitz says. “Whether you’re talking about memory augmentation or creativity augmentation or improving mood the next day or improving test performance, there’s all these things you can do at night that are practically important.”

Sensors on the Dormio track various bodily indicators to identify the different stages of sleep. When the device detects that the user is in the hypnagogic state, it plays a one-word audio cue. In an experiment on 50 people, this word consistently showed up in their dreams.

👃 Healing by smell

Judith Amores, at the MIT Dream Lab, has created a wearable scent diffuser called BioEssence, that monitors heart rate and brain waves to track the stages of sleep. During the stage of sleep when memories are consolidated, BioEssence releases a scent that is familiar to the user and associated with a previous memory or learned behaviour to strengthen the memory in the subconscious.

“The sense of smell is particularly interesting because it’s directly connected to the memory and the emotional parts of the brain — the amygdala and the hippocampus,” Amores says. “And that’s a very interesting gateway to access well-being.”

Amores is working on using BioEssence as a tool to change memories associated with trauma and PTSD, by using positively associated smells during nightmares.

✔ The ethics of dream hacking

Rubin Naiman, PhD, a psychologist, and sleep and dream expert with the University of Arizona’s Center for Integrative Medicine, says that tinkering with dreams is arrogant. He also fears that interrupting sleep patterns could result in insomnia.

“The thing with hacking dreams is that it’s based on a presumption that the subconscious is unintelligent, that it doesn’t have a life,” Naiman says. “The unconscious, it’s another kind of intelligence. We can learn from it. We can be in dialogue with it rather than dominate it, rather than ‘tap in’ and try to steer it in directions we want.”

MIT Dream Lab’s intentions are good, but anytime we interfere with nature, we never know the repercussions. To have that knowledge, we need to understand the underlying reasons for dreams and their effects, which we don’t. By interfering with dreams we don’t know if we are going to inhibit or disrupt other processes in the brain and our bodies. But human curiosity cannot be reigned in. Once we see a door, one of us is going to open it to see what lies on the other side.

I am on the fence on this one. I dream every night. I don’t remember the last time I slept without dreaming. And although I know I do dream, I rarely remember them. They are rarely pleasant dreams. They are not nightmares either, but they are often intense. I only know that from the way I feel when I wake up. I would really like to understand my dreams more, but at the same time, I don’t like to interfere with nature.

Eventually, these techniques will be also used by ill-intentioned people to manipulate others, just like in the movie Inception. Similar to almost every other technology, what started with positive intentions will be used in negative ways.

I’m curious to know what your thoughts are. Will you allow researchers to test this on you? How comfortable do you think you’ll be with dream manipulation?


🦠 Tech in the age of coronavirus

+ Mammoth Biosciences receives first peer-reviewed validation of CRISPR-based COVID-19 test [TechCrunch] - They demonstrated 95% positive diagnostic accuracy and 100% negative efficacy. Their platform can also be reconfigured quickly to address new viral threats that emerge.

+ Machine learning could check if you’re social distancing properly at work [MIT Technology Review] - Landing AI has created an algorithm that can use feeds from security camera systems to determine if people are less than 6 feet apart. Surveillance continues as the primary mode of tracking, tracing, and preventing the spread of the coronavirus.

+ UK government using confidential patient data in coronavirus response [The Guardian] - The UK government is sharing large volumes of confidential UK patient information in a data-mining operation with Palantir, a US big data firm and Faculty, a British AI startup. The Guardian uncovered confidential documents which were accessible via an unrestricted portal.


📰 Other interesting articles

+ Google's AI Built Its Own AI That Outperforms Any Made by Humans [ScienceAlert] - Google created an automatic machine learning system (AutoML) in 2017, basically an AI program that creates other AIs. Recently AutoML was successful in creating a child AI system for particular tasks that learns using reinforcement learning. It outperformed all its human-made counterparts. They are effectively reproducing [Humans + Tech - Issue #21]. The Singularity edges closer [Wikipedia].

+ Google Engineers 'Mutate' AI to Make It Evolve Systems Faster Than We Can Code Them [ScienceAlert] - As if the above article is not scary enough, Google researchers are now incorporating concepts of Darwinian evolution and are calling it AutoML-Zero. AutoML-Zero can build AI programs that continue to improve upon themselves faster than they would if humans were doing the coding. The Singularity edges even closer.

+ It's Official: SpaceX Will Carry Its First Humans to The Space Station Next Month [ScienceAlert] - This is the first time a private company will be transporting astronauts to space. Exciting! Let’s hope it’s successful. If AI takes over, we may need a bunch of these rockets to escape Earth.


💬 Quote of the week

Is hacking ever acceptable? It depends on the motive.

—Charlie Brooker

He wasn’t talking about dream hacking, but I think it applies in that context as well.

I wish you a brilliant day ahead and sweet dreams 😴 later tonight :)

Neeraj