Humans + Tech: Issue #1

Paralyzed person can ‘handwrite’ with his mind, Controlling prosthetic arms with thoughts, Brain stimulation device for depression, The consequences of using algorithms that are designed to addict us

AI allows paralyzed person to ‘handwrite’ with his mind

By harnessing the power of imagination, researchers have nearly doubled the speed at which completely paralyzed patients may be able to communicate with the outside world.

In the new experiments, a volunteer paralyzed from the neck down instead imagined moving his arm to write each letter of the alphabet. That brain activity helped train a computer model known as a neural network to interpret the commands, tracing the intended trajectory of his imagined pen tip to create letters (above).

It is incredibly heartwarming to hear when technology is used to improve people’s daily lives and physical capabilities.

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We have the tools and technology to work less and live better

In 1930, a year into the Great Depression, John Maynard Keynes sat down to write about the economic possibilities of his grandchildren. Despite widespread gloom as the global economic order fell to its knees, the British economist remained upbeat, saying that the ‘prevailing world depression … blind[s] us to what is going on under the surface’. In his essay, he predicted that in 100 years’ time, ie 2030, society would have advanced so far that we would barely need to work.

So if today’s advanced economies have reached (or even exceeded) the point of productivity that Keynes predicted, why are 30- to 40-hour weeks still standard in the workplace? And why doesn’t it feel like much has changed? This is a question about both human nature – our ever-increasing expectations of a good life – as well as how work is structured across societies.

This is such an interesting read. The answer to the question of why the 40-hour work week still persists points to a combination of luxury, higher desired standards of living, greed, social inequality, and capitalism bringing out some of the worst qualities in humans like avarice (extreme greed for wealth and material gain) and usury (lending money at unreasonably high rates of interest).

Today’s discussions about the future of work quickly end up in fanciful predictions of total automation. More likely, there will continue to be new and varied jobs to fill a five-day work week. And so today’s discussions need to move beyond the old point about the marvels of technology, and truly ask: what is it all for? Without a conception of a good life, without a way to distinguish progress that’s important from that which keeps us on the hedonic treadmill, our collective inertia will mean that we never reach Keynes’s 15-hour working week.

What is it all for?

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Man controls two prosthetic arms with his thoughts

For the first time, researchers have demonstrated simultaneous control of two of the world’s most advanced prosthetic arms through a brain-machine interface, according to a new study.

The team reports also developing strategies for providing sensory feedback for both hands at the same time using neural stimulation.

“We are trying to enable a person with quadriplegia to use a direct neural interface to simultaneously control two assistive devices and, at the same time, feel touch sensation when the devices make contact with objects in the environment,” says Brock Wester, a biomedical engineer at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory and principal investigator for the study.

One more heartwarming use case of technology to make the lives of people with disabilities better.

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Europe’s first brain stimulation device for depression launched in UK

Europe’s first medically-approved brain stimulation device to treat depression is now available for people to use at home.

The non-invasive device, which uses small jolts of electricity to manipulate activity in the front of the brain, is used in conjunction with a virtual therapist on your phone.

People with depression often have lower activity in the left side of this area, and higher activity on the right. The headset aims to rebalance this activity.

If this works well, at £399, it’s well worth it for people battling depression. And the side effects are fewer than using antidepressants. Another useful implementation of technology like this and this.

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Algorithms are designed to addict us, and the consequences go beyond wasted time

In some ways, YouTube’s algorithm is an immensely complicated beast: it serves up billions of recommendations a day. But its goals, at least originally, were fairly simple: maximize the likelihood that the user will click on a video, and the length of time they spend on YouTube. It has been stunningly successful: 70 percent of time spent on YouTube is watching recommended videos, amounting to 700 million hours a day. Every day, humanity as a collective spends a thousand lifetimes watching YouTube’s recommended videos.

The design of this algorithm, of course, is driven by YouTube’s parent company, Alphabet, maximizing its own goal: advertising revenue, and hence the profitability of the company.

Guillaume Chaslot, a former engineer at YouTube, has helped to expose some of these. Speaking to TheNextWeb, he pointed out, “The problem is that the AI isn’t built to help you get what you want—it’s built to get you addicted to YouTube. Recommendations were designed to waste your time.”

More than this: they can waste your time in harmful ways. Inflammatory, conspiratorial content generates clicks and engagement. If a small subset of users watches hours upon hours of political or conspiracy-theory content, the pathways in the neural net that recommend this content are reinforced.

The result is that users can begin with innocuous searches for relatively mild content, and find themselves quickly dragged towards extremist or conspiratorial material. A survey of 30 attendees at a Flat Earth conference showed that all but one originally came upon the Flat Earth conspiracy via YouTube, with the lone dissenter exposed to the ideas from family members who were in turn converted by YouTube.

As a corporation, Alphabet’s ultimate goal is to make money for its shareholders. The same goes for other social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. Will they prioritize human wellbeing over profitability and tweak their algorithms accordingly? Most probably not. As consumers, we should be aware of this and use our judgment to avoid being sucked down the rabbit hole of content that these websites serve us.

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If you’ve reached here, I’m very grateful. This is the first issue of what I hope is the first of many.

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If you know of any articles that talk about how humans and technology impact and influence each other, send us a suggestion here.

Thank you,
Neeraj