Archive | November, 2019

193. Brain Uploading Ideas are Nonsense

26 Nov

Several writers have suggested that “someday” technology will advance to the point where a brain can be “uploaded” to a man-made computer, where it will be able to function and communicate with us. In some cases, these writers seem desperate to live on after death, by transferring themselves into a computer where they will continue their life. Here are the names of some brain-computer “speculators:” Ray Kurzweil (newsletter), Michael S.A. Graziano (TED talk Oct 2019), Greg Gage (TED talk June 2018) and several others. Most of the “speculators” are brilliant people, who are simply overly optimistic. But a company called Nectome will preserve your brain (“backup your mind”) so that it can be scanned hundreds (?) of years from now (deposit is $10,000). See MIT Tech Rev, Mar 13, 2018.

I am writing on this subject not only to challenge extreme speculation, but because this discussion serves to illustrate the complex nature of our brains and certain technology limitations.

My position is that this thinking belongs to science fiction because there are insurmountable obstacles for this endeavor. It is true that we can explore smaller and smaller biological objects. And computer memories continue to increase in miniaturization and capacity. But there actually are limitations because “matter” has certain limiting features. For example, our units for computer memory are close to the molecular level in size and will soon reach a limit. The speed of computers is limited to the speed of light. Even if we can ultimately reach these limits, it is likely that reliability will decrease. Certain “cosmic rays” and other factors will play a role. I maintain that the laws of physics and chemistry make real limits to tech advancement, that can never be overcome.

I think writers should not bother us with extremely unlikely speculation unless they actually can propose some ways to overcome obvious limits. I could say that someday we will travel to and explore, the inside of “black holes,” or travel to the center of the earth. But there is no value to idle speculation and it only creates confusion for the general public. Companies like Nectome (see above) will collect your $10,000 for something not possible.

Below are some relevant details.

We start with the dificulties in brain scanning. For helpful information on brain control points, see Mark Mayford et al, Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Biology, “Synapses and Memory Storage”, June 2012. For a simpler explanation, see Deborah Halber, Brain Facts.Org, Storing Memories in your synapses, Oct 11, 2018. Also very helpful and fascinating are Google images. Search under neurons, gap junctions, synapses, etc. and add the word “type” like “neuron types” to see more variation. As I was writing this, I looked at “gap junction types” and was amazed by the recent advances in this area.

Here are a few brief definitions:
Control point: either a synapse or gap-junction. It is like a transistor in a computer.
Synapse: a connection between two nerve cells, using chemical transmitters, which cross a tiny gap.
Gap-Junction: a connection between two nerve cells, where the cells actually touch.
Action potential: an all-or-none digital signal that transmits info up to a distance of several feet.
Axon: a long extension of a nerve cell (neuron) that carries forward info in the form of an action potential. The axon is like the wire connecting two telephones.
Dendrites: a short extension of a neuron that receives an action potential from an axon.
Nerve cell body: The cell body is supportive and provides nutrients for the whole cell. It may or may not directly contribute to info passage. The cell body has projections called axons and dendrites, which carry info in the form of action potentials.

The first question is whether you would be working with a living or dead brain. Let us start with a dead brain. In order to extract the brain itself, you would need to cut numerous inputs and outputs. The most important structure removed would be the spinal cord, which is considered a part of the central nervous system. Everything cut away from the brain destroys important feedback systems because the brain is highly interactive with the rest of the body. It is possible that even advanced thinking involves feedback loops with the eyes, nose, vocal cords, major muscles, skin receptors, etc. A cutaway dead brain might say nothing but “ouch.” Any type of brain cutting or sectioning would destroy important connections. Any type of deeply penetrating electrodes or laser beams would be partially destructive and location would be likely impossible. Many systems such as circulation and nutrition would not function and could not be fully studied. The brain emits hormones and is affected by chemicals in its blood supply. Most of these chemicals function with feedback loops and could be vital for  understanding. Scanning a dead brain might be possible, but much of the vital biochemical info would be unavailable. Even if all the nerve cells were available for some type of non-destructive scanning, the extremely tiny control points (like transistors), such as synapses would only be superficially informative. To summarize, a dead brain makes unavailable much vital info regarding its functioning and would be useless to transition to something functional.

A live brain would have all the relevant chemicals and structures, but presents another set of impossible difficulties. Who would sit still for months with millions of holes in his scull for electrodes. Or sit still for laser scanning for months to get all the connections and their efficacy, if this were even  possible. Any deeply penetrating laser beam would cause some damage or produce limited results. How would a laser beam record the efficacy of synapses or gap junctions. Also extremely important is the dynamic nature of the brain. Synapses are constantly changing in efficacy and number, and there is internal movement caused by the circulatory and nutritional systems. There will never be a way to reliably record from this impossible dynamic system with extremely tiny and numerous structures. And even if you could do some good recording from a limited area, covering the whole brain and spinal cord could take hundreds of years.

Here is a summary of the complications of brain scanning:

1. There is a very large number of components, ultimately hundreds of trillions, and sufficient information from all the components would require perhaps a thousand bits of info. The final count for all the info necessary for understanding a brain would be well into the quadrillions.
2. In addition, there are numerous  analog aspects, which trigger action potentials (digital). A synapse will only produce an action potential if it reaches a certain (analog) voltage value.
3. The living brain is a dynamic system in which the control points are constantly changing, due to use and disuse, nutritive and other factors.
4. One would have to work with tiny structures, close to the molecular level. Any prolonged scanning could and would often fail because of spurious movement. A bus driving by, or minor earthquakes, or a scientists steps could disrupt scanning. Blood flow could also disrupt.
5. If you are recording analog info at a synapse, for example, you might need to record for several minutes or longer to understand its action. Even a one-second recording for a trillion synapses would take centuries.
6. Scanning with glass or metal electrodes would cause damage to the brain cells. You might try some kind of laser system, but to go deep into the brain would require a powerful beam and  would cause damage.

For each of, say, 500 trillion control points, you would need the following data to fully understand how it functions.
1. Its exact 3-D location relative to some reference point, like 4.4342343 inches left, 3.4544546 inches right, and 3.66767667 inches deep.
2. A complete description of all its connections to other control points. Could be a thousand of such connections and the nature of each connection must be described, including its location, synapse or gap junction, neurotransmitter and any modifications to synapse efficacy.
3. Each synapse has a pre-synaptic and post-synaptic (receptor area) characteristic, which would take a 1000 or more bits to describe.
4. Gap junctions must be described by their exact location along axons and the efficacy of their connection, which would depend on the area in contact, and other factors.
5. Making sense of all the interconnections, we are definitely looking at many quadrillions (a quadrillion is 1 with 15 zeros) of data bits, probably several hundred quadrillions. It would take centuries to record all of the information.
6. The amount of data would require, probably hundreds of hard drives. How could this mass of data ever be organized and converted into a functioning “computer brain.”

.     THE HUMAN BRAIN IS A VERY UNIQUE TYPE OF COMPUTER

But, let us say that after several centuries you are able to overcome all of these problems (not likely) and you complete a scan of the brain, spinal cord (part of the CNS) and have info on inputs and outputs; all stored on a thousand (or more) giant external drives. How in the world would you be able to turn this into something useful. The human brain is a computer, but it is profoundly different from man-made computers, which are entirely digital and have a fixed structure. The human brain is a complex combination of digital, analog, and chemical operations, which is constantly changing whether sleeping or waking. It has a unique branching (tree-like) structure unlike anything man-made.

You might ask, could we someday construct a computer with the same electronic characteristics as the brain to make transfers easier. I think it is possible to someday build such a computer, but uploading info from a living brain to this computer would not be possible, because connections in this type of computer are developed through experiences (a huge variety of data inputs). For example, in a younger person, every time you learn something, there can be new nerve cells, new axons, and a variety of changes to many synapses. In an older person there may be a few new nerve cells, but there are many changes in synapses and probably other structures.

At this point, you might say, so what; after a thousand centuries, we will be able to overcome all of these problems. Which brings us to another point: Does it make sense to make theories about things that we will never be able to prove. P. W. Bridgman (Nobel Prize winner in physics) says don’t waste your time. Maybe we should leave “uploading a human brain” to the science fiction writers, particularly if you have no special facts or methods to make radical ideas more acceptable.

One more point, on a related issue. Although I assert that complete scanning or uploading a brain is likely not possible, a fairly complete understanding of how the brain works (at the level of synapses) may be possible someday. 

 

 

 

192. Impeachment: List All Clear Violations

16 Nov

In the articles of impeachment currently being developed, it is important to list everything convincing and with clear evidence! Anything not listed will be assumed by Republicans and others to be OK. It is not just one thing that makes impeachment urgent, it is widespread criminality. Listed below are my suggestions.

Bribery: Trump delayed release of $391 million in vital support to Ukraine, in exchange for Pres. Zelensky making a public announcement of a Biden investigation.  This is a clear deal (quid pro quo) with a foreign country. The Zelensky public announcement  was actually scheduled, but cancelled when the military aid was released as a result of investigations. Delay of this aid is likely responsible for military deaths.

Obstruction of Justice. In the articles, I would include the clearest obstructions of justice listed in the Mueller Report.

Obstructions of Congress.  List all orders by Trump to ignore subpoenas and requests for documents. Include requests for information sent to Trump.

Also consider witness tampering, failure to divest his businesses, possible treason in his support of national enemies and ignoring election violations, undermining agencies like the FBI and the DOJ, and violations of the US Constitution. I repeat, only include clear and convincing items with evidence.

The bottom line is: the major reason for impeachment is not just any one incident, but it is widespread Trump-administration criminality, including many criminal staff.  Also consider that if one item is rejected by the Senate, there are others that may be accepted. The more articles presented, the greater the chance of something being approved.  Impeachment, even without conviction, is so important, because it tells the world that this president does not represent the majority of our country.

 

 

 

191. Voters: Don’t let Trump Mislead you Again

15 Nov

It pains me to think that many voters have believed the false promises of Donald Trump, and in 2016 voted for him. Here is a list of his lies and distortions of facts that must be considered.

Trump said that when he took office, there would be a new Republican health care system that would replace ObamaCare. There was no Republican system and he and Republicans were going to abolish ObamaCare without a replacement. Fortunately, John McCain, by his one vote, saved us from a disaster.

Trump mislead voters about the wall for our Southern border. He did not say the truth, that a wall could only be built if the Congress approved it, and he did not say that Mexico was not likely to pay for it. He lied when he said it was the best plan for that immigration problem.

Trump told voters that he was so rich that he would never need to accept money from donors. A few months later, he started to do just that. He actually was not that rich and had to borrow money to survive. American banks did not trust him, but he managed to get loans from a foreign bank.

Trump said he would drain the swamp, but instead he swam in it. He hired billionaires from Wall Street. Most of his staff  and appointees were hired on the basis of loyalty, rather than expert knowledge and experience. He and his staff supported big business rather than the ordinary people that voted for him. His policies have produced a massive national debt, partially due to major permanent tax reductions for millionaires. He gave the middle class small temporary reductions. Also swampy is Trump’s profits from businesses he illegally promotes through his presidency. He even wanted (for a while) to have an international meeting at one of his golf clubs, Doral.

He promised to abolish regulations, but did not tell you that regulations are mostly for the safety of ordinary people, while rich manufacturers, of course benefit. There is a long history in the US of  toxins produced during manufacturing, that have killed many people.

Trump promised improved trade policies. What he did was poorly planned and damaged farming and other businesses both here and abroad. The final effect was small successes and major failures. He did not consider that every tariff he imposed could be matched by a foreign tariff. He lied that tariffs are paid by the foreign countries. A US tariff is paid by US importers and usually results in higher US prices.

Perhaps most serious of all, is that he mislead you on the dangers of global warming. Aberrant weather patterns due to climate change are already causing floods, fires, and farming problems. These dangers will soon become more widespread and will lead to major population migrations. Desperate people will likely cause wars and increased crimes.

He promised at times to become more “presidential” but, in fact, he still calls people names, has a ridiculous, large turnover in staff, and governs by whims expressed in tweets. He is more interested in personal winning than in the success of our country. Trump is in favor of torture (Pres. Ronald Reagan opposed this) and cares little for human suffering.

Maybe the real issue for many Trump supporters is that they like his policy of rejecting Mexicans, Muslims, and others. They will have to weigh these policies against all the harms that Trumps other policies will cause.  Also note that achievements touted by Trump, such as a rising stock market and low unemployment, were continuations of  remarkable eight-year trends established by President Obama.

 

 

 

 

 

 

190. Trump Bribery Facts

15 Nov

First, a little background: Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014 seizing all of Crimea, a peninsula at the Southern part of the main Ukraine land area.  Russia also captured an area, 7%, of the main part, the size of Texas. The Ukrainians mounted a defense, but it looks like Crimea may be lost forever.
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The recent USA aid to Ukraine was valued $391 million and consisted of weapons, training and advisors. Javelin anti-tank missiles were included. This aid was vital to the existence of Ukraine and would save lives.
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May 23, 2019: Trump Administration notified Congress that the aid package was approved.
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June 2019: The White House directed that the aid package would be placed on hold. No reasons were given.
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July 25, 2019: Phone call to Ukraine President Zelensky containing bribery based on a demand by Trump and a delay in providing the $391m. The demand was that Pres. Zelensky must announce an investigation of the Bidens (Joe and son, Hunter). Joe Biden (former Vice-President) is a Trump political adversary. The aid would not be provided until the investigation was announced. After questions were raised,  the transcript for this controversial call was transferred to a special computer reserved for the most secret intelligence. At a later date, Trump himself provided a call “description” and vouched for its accuracy, but after a while clarified that it is not an exact transcript, but based on the memory of those listening to it.
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July 26, 2019 (Just in): There was testimony about a call to Trump from Amb. Sondland in a Ukraine restaurant.  The ambassador was asked about the investigations he was overheard to say: “The Ukrainians were ready to move  forward.” David Holmes, a US embassy staffer, overheard both sides of the call and will testify. The significance of this call is that it shows that Trump was closely following (and probably ordering) the bribery related to the Bidens.

August 2019: Ukraine found out about the hold on the $391m aid package.
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September 9: The whistleblower information was revealed. This person gathered evidence by talking to those who actually listened to the July 25th call, or who had other relevant information. Several Congressional investigations were immediately started.

September 11: The Trump administration suddenly disbursed the money. Several possible reasons for this were advanced. One was based on the whistleblower and resulting investigations.  Another was a threat to Trump of holding up part of his defense budget.
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There was testimony that President Zelensky did plan a recent CNN statement
about the Biden investigation. But just before the CNN statement date, the money was released by Trump and the CNN plan was cancelled by Zelensky.
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November 13, 2019: Start of public hearing on impeachment. The witnesses were William Taylor and George Kent. Both were long term dedicated government  workers, employed by both Republicans and Democrats. Taylor was a West Point graduate who had an outstanding military record.
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OTHER GENERAL FACTS
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On several occasions, Republicans demanded information on the whistleblower. This “outing” of the whistleblower would be totally wrong and inconsistent with the concept. This would discourage further whistle-blowing and an important   governmental safeguard would be nullified
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In several interviews, President Zelensky protected Trump by claiming that he was not pressured about the Bidens or anything else. Presumably, Zelensky made no complaints because he did not want to make Trump angry and lose support.
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At various times, Trump and Republicans claimed that all the impeachment  evidence was based on “hearsay.” However, Trump himself provided evidence of his crimes. For example, he said he would ask China to help him with his 2020 election campaign. Some witnesses did provide direct information. But here is the irony: it is Trumps (and staff) failure to respond to subpoenas that often limited direct information. Also, Trump himself, provided a “transcript” of the July 25 phone call, which included the statement “I want you to do me a favor, though.
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Testimony indicated that Ex-Mayor Rudy Giuliani and his associates formed a secret alternate to the State Department. This unit was formed to provide secret actions to help Trump with his upcoming election. Although Trump might not agree, Giuliani claimed that everything thing he did was directed by Trump. This made sense because everything done, satisfied Trump’s needs. And Trump is known for making all major decisions.
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Ukraine Ambassador Maria Yovanovitch was removed from office for no valid  reason, and all (except Trump) agreed that her work was excellent. I am sure that Trump was  afraid that she would find out about his scam, and expose him. But this did happen anyway.

When I think about the entire Trump Presidency, I remember this quote: “oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive!” (Sir Walter Scott, 1808).

 

189. Disturbing Thoughts Can be Prevented

5 Nov

I recently read some discussions of ways to eliminate disturbing thoughts. I have treated a number of patients with this problem and have some of my own ideas that could be of help with this problem.

A disturbing thought may begin with something observed in a movie, in real life, or with something heard or read. It is immediately made worse if it induces a reaction.

Here are some examples of such thoughts. I worked with a commercial pilot that was required to sit in the cockpit and do nothing but monitor instruments and watch the skies for other airplanes. His thoughts turned to all sorts of problems like his investments and affording education for his children. It is torture to have to sit and do “nothing” for long periods of time. For some, listening to music helps. Another patient was a nanny that had thoughts of killing the children that she cared for. A man tended to think about all the “silly” things he said to his girlfriends, causing them to reject him. It is pretty normal to have some such thoughts.

Understanding anxiety is the key to dealing with disturbing thoughts. . This is a set of conditions that prepare the body for dealing with attacks; generally running away or fighting. To support these vigorous actions, there is an increase in heart ate, blood pressure, some muscles tense, faster breathing, sweating, etc., all changes necessary to support increased activity. Sometimes this activation occurs when there is no threat, and it can last for days or much longer. When this “fight or flight” preparation is excessive, inappropriate, and lasts for a long time, it is called anxiety. Often there is a circular process that prolongs this reaction. Fearful thoughts stimulate the physical anxiety and the feeling of anxiety leads to fearful thoughts.

It is also helpful here to define thought It is assumed to be some type of brain activity that involves words, feelings, and/or images. Scientists know a little about certain simple thoughts, but complex thinking is not yet understood. Brain actions closely associated with sensations or movements have been studied and are fairly well understood. Some thoughts appear to have a trial-and-error function that precedes difficult decisions. For example, you want to ask your boss for a raise. Your brain will try out different words and approaches and note what “feels” best.

Here are some therapy ideas and methods:
1. Do not fight these thoughts. Allow them to pass through your mind. Accept the fact that certain thoughts may occur for a long time, but usually will gradually have less effect.
2. If bothered by a specific phrase, and other methods don’t work, try repeating the words many times, until they are meaningless. This may take many repetitions.
3. Do a “brief relaxation response” (see below) every time the disturbing thought occurs. This way, the thought will be associated calmness instead of stress.
4. Associate the thought with something pleasant or funny. For example, if you keep thinking about a mistake you made, then associate that with something good that you did.
5. Some people can accomplish these actions by themselves, but many others will need the help of a therapist.

Some people are helped by simply talking about a problem with a therapist. Others will need some physical training like “progressive muscle relaxation” or biofeedback. These physical methods will improve emotional control and will diminish anxiety. A generally healthy method, which can also help with anxiety or stress, is to stretch the major skeletal muscles. Stretching muscles tends to relax  them and will also prevent injuries.

A fully licensed Ph.D. behavior therapist is recommended for the best therapy. Psychoanalysis is generally not effective for the problems discussed above. Methods like yoga or meditation include some procedures that are helpful, but include other aspects that may not help. It is best to find a therapist that has precisely what you need, rather than using more “mystical” methods which will be less effective. For very serious cases and medication, a psychiatrist might be required. If possible, it is best to start with a Ph.D psychologist instead of psychiatric drugs.

The “brief relaxation response” mentioned above, consists of the following. The goal is to relax all major muscles of the body, and to try and make breathing as  peaceful as possible. Muscles can be relaxed by (1) tensing and loosening, (2) stretching them, and/or (3) by shaking (example: let your arms hang down very loosely and then shake them). Many patients benefit from relaxation tapes with instructions, that are available on the Internet (search “muscle relaxation tapes”). Here is a good example:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1nZEdqcGVzo    

You can also find relaxing music. My version of a brief relaxation response takes about 10 to 20 seconds after training. Begin by inhaling slowly and deeply. Then, exhale slowly and as you do this, let your whole body go limp. The “limp” part requires some practice, with or without a therapist. You can add a quick neck or scalp massage, and be sure to check tension in the back and calf muscles.

Here is a possible program. Start by working a lot with a relaxation tape to develop skills. Use the “brief relaxation response” frequently during a day and before going to sleep. Try any or all of the methods to deal with your disturbing thoughts.