In The Field

Interfacing with our machines

John Hockenberry, a journalist and moderator for the Mind and Machine: The Future of Thinking session, started Friday nights even at the WSF by talking about our relationships with machines. He is wheelchair bound as a result of an accident decades ago. But the wheelchair isn’t an impediment, Hockenberry explains, “it’s me!” There is a sense of intimacy with this machine—a sense of it being part of him and his self image.

So he asked the philosopher of science and technology on the panel, Luciano Floridi, how old is this sense of self with a tool and machine? Old. For the Greeks preparing for battle the sense of self extended to the armor and sword. Food for thought: Floridi stated that you can have the same brain but in a different body—the platform is not important, it’s the software that counts.

Which is basically what neuroscientist John Donoghue does: his lab builds mechanical body parts that can be remotely controlled by paralyzed patients through an implanted electrode on their brain. The electrode’s sensors pick up local neuron firing patterns, turning this into a computer code for controlling an external machine. Lights dimmed and the audience watched real examples of this from Donoghue’s work (uncontrollably murmuring wow). In one, a woman paralyzed by a stroke moved a mechanical hand to pick up a wine glass by merely thinking about the action.

Moving from motion to emotion was the third panelist, Rosalind Picard, an expert in technological innovation. She played around with her emotion recognition software which can decipher basic facial features and head movements to “tell” when someone is confused or excited, among other emotions. This doesn’t help decipher internal emotions (i.e. if you have a great poker face, you’re safe!), but the technology could be useful to people who have problems understanding basic emotions. Not surprisingly, some of Picard’s work involves working with people with autism, who are known to have trouble “reading” emotions on people’s faces.

Lastly, psychiatrist Gary Small delved into the question of teaching an old brain new tricks. Are we oversaturated with technology? Yes and no. Small fears that our entrenchment into technology might mean becoming progressively worse at recognizing nonverbal cues. However, he was positive about the fact that our brains are very active and continuously learning as they interact with new technologies.

A Friday night in NYC, barely an empty chair in the large auditorium where every age group was represented and equally enchanted, not even minding that the event went over by a good fifteen minutes. Hockenberry, an animated and entertaining moderator, never forgot the audience. But then again, neither did the panelists. When it was said and done, all four mulled around and spoke to audience members who just weren’t ready to go home at 10 pm.


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