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Mind-controlled Machines: Jose del R. Millan at TEDxZurich

The idea of controlling machines not by manual operation, but by mere "thinking" (ie, the brain activity of human subjects) has always fascinated humankind. A brain-machine interface (BMI) makes this truly possible as it monitors the user's brain activity and translates their intentions into actions, such as moving a wheelchair or selecting a letter from a virtual keyboard. The central tenet of a BMI is the capability to distinguish different patterns of brain activity each being associated to a particular intention or mental task. This is a real challenge which is far from being solved! BMI holds a high, perhaps bold, promise: human augmentation through the acquisition of new brain capabilities that will allow us to communicate and interact with our environment directly by "thinking". This is particularly relevant for physically-disabled people but is not limited to them. Yet, how is it possible to fulfill this dream using a "noisy channel" like brain signals? Which are the principles that allow people operate complex brain-controlled robots over long periods of time? Jose del R. Millan is the Defitech Professor at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) where he explores the use of brain signals for multimodal interaction and, in particular, the development of non-invasive brain-controlled robots and neuroprostheses. In this multidisciplinary research effort, Dr. Millán is bringing together his pioneering work on the two fields of brain-machine interfaces <b>...</b>
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Sartre_road_train_thumb

Behold the road train: a convoy of cars, each synched up with a truck out in front, allowing each to lapse into autopilot. The idea is interesting. Commuters with road train technology would familiarize themselves with the timetables of lead vehicles like that truck, which would fly down the highway at a scheduled hour every day. Drivers could then latch on to the truck with a sensor, which would essentially tow the vehicle on down the road. They save on gas (it’s green!) and get to relax.

Evidently, there’s been a “hallmark” in this new “green” technology (it saves gas), which has spearheaded by something called the Safe Road Trains for the Environment (SARTRE). SARTRE is funded in part by the European Commission, and in part by Volvo. And the project, apparently, has successfully completed its first test run.

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In this post, featuring images from the last quarter of 2011, we remember a tumultuous year of change across the globe, the capture of Khadafi, the 10th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center, the passing of Apple icon Steve Jobs, fire, famine, flood and protests. A memorable year, indeed. -- Paula Nelson -- Please see part 1 and part 2 from earlier. (EDITOR'S NOTE: We will not post a Big Picture on Monday, December 26, due to the Christmas Holiday ) (51 photos total)
A defaced portrait of fugitive Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi in Tripoli on Sept. 1, 2011 as the fallen strongman vowed again not to surrender in a message broadcast on the 42nd anniversary of the coup which brought him to power. (Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images)

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Boston conducted its 32nd census of the city’s homeless population earlier this week. A report to the United Nations in 2005 stated there were an estimated 100 million homeless people in the world, and an additional 1.6 billion living without adequate housing. Here are some images of homelessness across the globe, collected from wire images this year. -- Lloyd Young (31 photos total)
John Filliger who has been homeless for the past five years, lies wrapped in bedding on Washington Street in the heart of the Downtown Crossing area of Boston Dec. 12. Filliger, who was offered a bed in a shelter for the evening, stayed on the street for the night and was counted in the annual homeless census. (Charles Krupa/Associated Press)

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COLLAPSED
COLLAPSED: A man watched as rescue workers removed rubble from a decades-old building that fell Tuesday night in the Old Delhi area of New Delhi. At least seven people died in the collapse. (Gurinder Osan/Associated Press)

THE AYES HAVE IT
THE AYES HAVE IT: European Parliament members voted during a session in Strasbourg, France, Wednesday. Addressing the gathering, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso urged the European Union to hasten its reforms to resolve the sovereign-debt crisis. (Christophe Karaba/European Pressphoto Agency)

PROTECTED
PROTECTED: Displaced children slept under a mosquito net on a roadside in Mirpur Khas, in Pakistan’s Sindh Province, Wednesday. They left their homes amid heavy flooding. Heavy monsoon rains have pounded 5.4 million people in the provinces of Sindh and Baluchistan. (Shakil Adil/Associated Press)

FIRED UP
FIRED UP: Activists with the Sunni Tehreek political organization burned U.S. flags in Karachi, Pakistan, Wednesday, to protest U.S. ‘threats.’ The U.S. wants Pakistan to clamp down on the Haqqani network, which it blames for an attack earlier this month on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. (Asif Hassan/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)

LITTLE FINGERS
LITTLE FINGERS: Children wove carpets at a home workshop in Kabul, Afghanistan, Wednesday. According to a recent report from the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, around 42% of Afghans are unemployed and 36% have a daily income of less than 50 Afghanis ($1). (Adek Berry/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)

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In 2005, a team of researchers at the Brain and Mind Institute of the École Polytechnique in Lausanne, Switzerland set out to do some truly wonderful things. Led by neuroscientist Henry Markram, the team, known as the Blue Brain Project, spent two years tearing down rat brains to the molecular level and using what they learned to reverse-engineer a highly detailed, functioning computer model of a rat's cortical column—a basic building block of brain structure.

You know that brains start with neurons, cells that can transmit electrochemical signals. A single neuron is like one person, standing around by themselves and playing an instrument. A cortical column is like an orchestra, with thousands of neurons communicating and working together to accomplish a single task. There are 10,000 neurons in a single rat cortical column. Ten thousand neurons, an amazing amount of complexity—just to do something simple, like twitch a single whisker. To make a whole functional rat brain, you need 100,000 cortical columns. The larger, more complex human brain is even more astounding, with some 100,000 neurons to a single cortical column and perhaps as many as 2 million columns.

Recreating that on a computer requires a frightening amount of processing capability. Each neuron, alone, needs the equivalent of a standard laptop. The computer that the Swiss team used to model a single rat cortical column is a massive beast, one of the fastest supercomputers in the world. But it's still not enough to do what Markram and his team want to accomplish next. Their new goal: Model the form and function of the entire human brain, cortical column-by-cortical column—a task that's likely to take more than a decade.

The Blue Brain Project is currently in the running for a European Commission research grant that would bring in 100 million euros a year for 10 years. The final decision won't happen until next Spring, but if Blue Brain gets the nod, it'll become the Human Brain Project—and could be a major step toward creating a man-built mind. (Or death by Skynet, depending on whether you're a glass-is-half-empty kind of person.)

On May 9, Rueters photographer Denis Bailbouse went inside the Blue Brain Project and took some beautiful photos of the people and computers that could shape the future of the human race. Take a look, be awed. (All image captions written by Reuters, not me.)

Top image: Pipettes are placed near a rat brain sample for an experiment in a lab of the Blue Brain Project at the Brain Mind Institute of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) in Ecublens, near Lausanne May 9, 2011. If selected from amongst six other candidates by the Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) Flagship Program launched by the European Commission, the Blue Brain Project will upgrade to become the Human Brain Project and will receive funding up to 100 million euros a year for 10 years. The final decision will take place in April 2012. The goal of the Blue Brain Project is to reconstruct the brain piece by piece and build a virtual brain in a supercomputer. (REUTERS/Denis Balibouse)

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Cables are pictured on the Internet server at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) in Ecublens, near Lausanne May 9, 2011. (REUTERS/Denis Balibouse)

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Lab assistant prepares pipettes for an experiment in a lab of the Blue Brain Project at the Brain Mind Institute of the EPFL in Ecublens. (REUTERS/Denis Balibouse)

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Shi works on the 3D modelling of a neuron in a lab of the Blue Brain Project at the Brain Mind Institute of the EPFL in Ecublens (REUTERS/Denis Balibouse)

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Lab assistant Delattre prepares for an experiment in a lab of the Blue Brain Project at the Brain Mind Institute of the EPFL in Ecublens. (REUTERS/Denis Balibouse)

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Professor Henry Markram head of the Blue Brain Project poses in a lab of the Brain Mind Institute at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) in Ecublens (REUTERS/Denis Balibouse)

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A rat brain sample is placed into liquid for an experiment in a lab of the Blue Brain Project .
(REUTERS/Denis Balibouse)

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A technician poses near a Blue Gene/P deep computer of the Blue Brain Project at the Brain Mind Institute.

(REUTERS/Denis Balibouse)

For more on the Blue Brain Project, check out these stories:

Henry Markram's detailed and fascinating description of the project, written for Nature Reviews Neuroscience in 2006, before the team had finished modeling the rat cortical column.

Jonah Lehrer's story for Seed Magazine, written in 2008, that tells the story of the project, and how it met its first modeling goal.

• The well-written Blue Brain Project website itself.

• Henry Markram's 2009 TEDTalk

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