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May 23, 2011

Brains for Brains 2011 - Young Researchers Computational Neuroscience Award

The call is open for students from relevant disciplines who plan to pursue a research career in Computational Neuroscience and who have at least one peer reviewed publication or peer reviewed conference abstract that resulted from research accomplished before the start of doctoral studies, is written in English and was accepted or published in 2010 or 2011.The award comprises a 500 € cash award, plus travel grant of up to 1.500 € for a one-week trip to Germany, incl. a talk at the Award Ceremony in the framework of the Bernstein Conference 2011 and an individually planned visit to up to two German research institutions in Computational Neuroscience.

Deadline for application is May 31, 2011.

Detailed information about the application procedure can be found under:

May 21, 2011

Brain-controlled bionic hand for ‘elective amputation’ patient

Source: BBC News — May 18, 2011

An Austrian man has voluntarily had his hand amputated so he can be fitted with a bionic hand, which will be controlled by nerve signals in his own arm. The bionic hands, manufactured by the German prosthetics company Otto Bock, can pinch and grasp in response to signals from the brain. The wrist of the prosthesis can be rotated manually using the patient’s other functioning hand.

The patient will control the hand using the same brain signals that previously powered similar movements in the real hand and that will now be picked up by two sensors placed over the skin above nerves in the forearm.

You are not a gadget

Recently, I came across an intriguing book that brings a new, thought-provoking perspective on how the Internet is shaping our lives and culture. The title of the book is You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto and the author is Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist and musician who is best known for his pioneering work in the field of virtual reality.

The leitmotiv of the book can be summarized in a single question: are new technologies really playing an empowering role, by increasing people’s creativity, control, and freedom? As can be expected from the title, the author’s answer is more negative than positive. To construct his argument, Lanier starts from the observation that the evolution of computing is not as free of constraints as one might assume.

As a key example, the author describes the evolution of MIDI, a protocol for composing and playing music on computers. This format emerged in the early 1980s and was immediately recognized as an empowering tool for musicians. However, as more and more people adopted it, it became a rigid standard that limited the expressive potential of artists because, as Lanier points out, it ‘‘could only describe the tile mosaic world of the keyboardist, not the watercolor world of the violin.’’ For the author, this lock-in effect can be seen in other fields of information technology. For example, certain features that were included in the early versions of the UNIX operating system are now deeply embedded in the software and cannot be modified, even if they are considered obsolete or inappropriate. Once an approach becomes standard, it tends to inhibit other solutions, thereby limiting the potential for creativity.

Lanier goes on to demystify some of today’s most popular Internet buzzwords, such as ‘‘Web 2.0,’’ ‘‘Open Culture,’’ ‘‘Mash-Ups,’’ and ‘‘Wisdom of Crowds.’’ He maintains that these trendy notions are ultimately pointing to a new form of ‘‘digital collectivism,’’ which rather than encouraging individual inventiveness, promotes mediocrity and homologation. By allowing everyone to offer up their opinion and ideas, the social web is melting into an indistinct pool of information, a vast gray zone where it is increasingly difficult to find quality or meaningful content. This observation leads the author to the counterintuitive conclusion that the introduction of boundaries is sometimes useful (if not even necessary) to achieve originality and excellence.

Another issue raised by Lanier concerns the risk of de-humanization and de-individualization associated with online social networks. He describes the early Web as a space full of ‘‘flavours and colours’’ where each Web site was different from the others and contributed to the diversity of the Internet landscape. But with the advent of Facebook and other similar sites, this richness was lost because people started creating their personal web pages using predefined templates. On the one hand, this formalism has allowed anyone to create, publish, and share content online easily (blog, video, music, etc.). On the other hand, it has reduced the potential for individuals to express their uniqueness.

Lanier reminds us of the importance of putting the human being, and not the machine, at the center of concerns for technology and innovation. For this goal to be achieved, it is not enough to develop usable and accessible tools; it is also necessary to emphasize the uniqueness of experience. This humanist faith leads the author to criticize the idea of technological Singularity, popularized by recognized experts such as Ray Kurzweil, Vernor Vinge, and Kevin Kelly. This concept holds that exponential increase in computing power and communication networks, combined with the rapid advances in the fields of artificial intelligence and robotics, may lead to the emergence of a super-intelligent organism (the ‘‘Singularity’’), which could eventually develop intentional agency and subordinate the human race. Lanier’s opposition to this idea is based on the conviction that the ‘‘human factor’’ will continue to play an essential role in the evolution of technology. The author believes that computers will never be able to replace the uniqueness of humans nor replicate the complexity of their experience. Further, he considers the concept of technological Singularity culturally dangerous because it enforces the idea of an inevitable superiority of machines over humans: ‘‘People degrade themselves in order to make machines seem smart all the time,’’ writes Lanier.

However, Lanier is genuinely admired by the potential of the Internet and new technologies. This iswhy he calls for a new ‘‘technological humanism’’ able to contrast the overarching vision of digital collectivism and empower creative selfexpression. As a key illustration, the author describes the unique combination of idealism, technical skills, and imaginative talent that, in the 1980s, lead a small group of programmers to conceive the vision of virtual reality. This powerful new paradigm in human–computer interaction inspired in the following decades a number of innovative applications in industry, education, and medicine.

Beside the nostalgic remembrances of the heroic times of Silicon Valley and the sophisticated overtone of some terms (e.g., ‘‘numinous neoteny’’), the book written by Lanier conveys a clear message and deserves the attention of all who are interested in the relationship between humans and technology. The idea that technological innovation should be informed by human values and experience is not new, but Lanier brings it out vividly in detail and with a number of persuasive examples.

More to explore

  • Jaron Lanier’s homepage: The official website of Jaron Lanier, which with its old-fashion style recaptures the freshness and simplicity of the early Internet. The website features biographical information about the author and includes links to a number of Lanier’s articles and commentaries on a number of different technology-related topics. 
  • Kurzweil Accelerating Intelligence: Launched in 2001, Kurzweil Accelerating Intelligence explores the forecasts and insights on accelerating change described in Ray Kurzweil’s books, with updates about breakthroughs in science and technology.
  • Singularity University: Singularity University is an interdisciplinary university founded by Ray Kurzweil and other renowned experts in technology with the support of a number of sponsors (including Google), whose mission is “to stimulate groundbreaking, disruptive thinking and solutions aimed at solving some of the planet’s most pressing challenges”. Singularity University is based at the NASA Ames campus in Silicon Valley.
  • Humanity+: Humanity+ is a non-profit organization dedicated to “the ethical use of technology to extend human capabilities and transcend the legacy of the human condition”. The mission of the organization is to support discussion and public awareness about emerging technologies, as well as to propose solutions for potential problems related to these technologies. The website includes plenty of resources about transhumanism topics and news about upcoming seminars and conferences.


Science 2.0

The emergence of Web 2.0 has resulted in a number of new communication and participation tools. Wiki, rss, weblogs and social networks have turned the Internet into a writable platform, where the user acts as a “prosumer”, that is a consumer and a producer of information. For many, however, social computing is not just a new phase in the evolution of ICT, but a new model of generation and diffusion of knowledge, which has a potentially transformative impact on social and cultural processes. The rapid and pervasive diffusion of social computing requires organizations and institutions to face new challenges and rethink their modus operandi.

Science, as any other cultural enterprise, is likely to be deeply affected by the social media revolution. This is not surprising, considering the close relationship that has always existed between the development of science and the development of the Internet. When Tim Berners Lee, a researcher of the European Particle Physics Lab (CERN) in Switzerland, created the networked hypertext, his main goal was to develop an effective solution to facilitate communication among members of the high-energy physics community, who were located in several countries. In his original proposal to CERN’s management written in March 1989, Berners-Lee suggestedthe integration of a hypertext system with existing data, so as to provide a universal system, and to achieve critical usefulness at an early stage”.

Since those early days of its development, of course, the Web has changed enormously, offering researchers opportunities that are probably beyond the imagination of its inventor. Today’s social media tools and services have the potential to radically transform the way science is conducted, financed and communicated. This “Science 2.0 revolution” unfolds along three major directions: open collaboration, open data and open publication/access.

Open collaboration refers to the possibility of using the tools provided by social networks, wikis and forums to share information and know-how. This strategy allows researchers to exchange protocols, techniques, experimental procedures and find solutions to common issues. Open collaboration networks provide a powerful collaboration and learning environment, where experts from different disciplines can join their forces to develop new projects, write grant proposals, plan studies etc.

The second trend, open data, concerns the publication and re-use of scientific data such as maps, genomes, chemical compounds, medical etc. without price or permission. Although the concept is not new, it has gained momentum in recent years thanks to the raising popularity of social computing. Advocates of this approach believe that the public availability and reusability of research data not only reduce wasteful duplication of effort, but also permit faster progress in science, since different teams can use the same data to test a variety of hypotheses. Recently, prominent exponents of the open data movement have authored a set of principles – the “Panton Principles” aimed at articulating a view of what best practice should be with respect to data publication for science. A key goal of these principles is the elimination of uncertainty for researchers who wish to use the data about what exactly they are allowed to do with it.

The third emerging trend in Science 2.0, open access, concerns the provision of unrestricted online access to articles published in scholarly journals. Supporters of open access argue that this approach brings researchers increased visibility, usage and impact for their work. On the other hand, critics of OA do not believe that this model is economically sustainable, and express concerns about quality control. Another criticism is that since some OA journals require payment on behalf of the author, this could generate conflicts of interest and have a negative impact on the perceived neutrality of peer review, as there would be a financial incentive for journals to publish more articles.

Wikis, blogs and the other Web 2.0 technologies are paving a way towards providing new means of collaboration, education and communication for researchers. However, the successful adoption of this approach depends heavily on the ability to create a deep understanding of scientist’s current practices, needs and expectations.

More to explore:

  • Science 2.0: Science 2.0 is an open professional network on Linkedin aimed at connecting researchers, consultants and companies and institutions interested in the impact of social media on science and technology.
  • Research Gate:ResearchGate is a community for researchers in the science and technology fields that includes advanced semantic search capabilities. Launched in 2008 by Ijad Madisch, Horst Fickenscher and Sören Hofmayer, this “Facebook for scientists” has gathered a user base of more than 700.000 researchers worldwide.
  • Labmeeting: Labmeeting, founded by Mark Kaganovich, Jeremy England, Dan Kaganovich, and Joseph Perla, is an online platform for scientists. It is designed as a document-sharing service for scientific papers and protocols. Members can upload their papers in PDF form, organize them, search them, and share them with other lab members.
  • Openwetware: Created by graduate students at MIT in 2005, OpenWetWare is a wiki whose mission is "to support open research, education, publication, and discussion in biological sciences and engineering." All content is available under free content licenses.
  • Many Eyes: Many Eyes is data-sharing site from the Visual Communication Lab at IBM. The platform allows users to upload data and then produce graphic representations for others to view and comment upon. 
  • Open Clinica: is an open source platform for clinical research, including electronic data capture (EDC) and clinical data management capabilities.
  • Directory of Open Access Journals: DOAJ covers free, full text scientific and scholarly journals with different subjects and languages. The current directory (as of February 2011) includes 6100 journals and 506687 articles.


13:18 Posted in Research tools | Permalink | Comments (0)

Pioneering epidural treatment helps paraplegic man stand

A team of scientists at the University of Louisville, UCLA and the California Institute of Technology has developed a new treatment involving continual direct electrical stimulation of the spinal cord. The treatment was successfully tested on a 25-years-old paraplegic man, Rob Summers, who was completely paralysed below the chest in a car accident. The stimulation enabled the man to achieve full weight-bearing standing with assistance provided only for balance for 4·25 min. These breakthrough findings were reported May 20 in the Lancet (early online publication).