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The tale of the boy who saw without eyes

I don’t know if you have already heard about the human echolocation phenomenom. For those of you who haven’t,  this post’s title probably has left you a bit astonished, but human echolocation in an ability that has been known for at least the 1950s.

We could say that human echolocation its a process similar, in a way, to the one used by  bats, dolphins and some whales to recognise their surroundings and location. Equally to the way a sonar works using sound echoes to recognise objects.What we normally see is just the light reflection on an objects surface, that gives us the trace, form and size of what we are looking at. Evolution has developed eyes as light “sensors” and eyes plus their brain connections provides us with a really powerful tool to cope with the environment, walk around,  be able to recognise objects, enabling easy space positioning. In contrast we could define human echolocation as the ability of humans to detect objects in the environment by sensing echoes from those objects by actively creating sounds, for example by making clicking noises or tapping a cane. People trained to orientate with echolocation are able to interpret the sound waves reflected by nearby objects, accurately identifying their location and size, so this ability is used by some blind people to navigate within their environment using their auditory senses rather than their visual ones.

Vision and hearing are closely related in that they can process reflected waves of energy. Both systems can extract a great deal of information about the environment by interpreting the complex patterns of the reflected energy they receive. Sound carries information about the nature, arrangement of objects and other environmental features. Giving information about location, dimension and density of the object the sound reflects from.

It has been recently shown that blind echolocator’s experts use what is normally the “visual” part of their brain to process the echoes, primary visual cortex. Most interestingly, the brain areas that process auditory information were not activated in this subjects, in the performed experiments, more than in other normal subjects. Which gives the idea that blind echolocator’s experts sense the world similarly the way other people do, but using a completely different strategy for information gathering.

When talking about human echolocator’s, we must mention Daniel Kish, born in 1966 in Montebello, California. Blind since he was 13 months old, he is an expert in human echolocation and president of World Access for the Blind, a non-profit founded in 2000 which helps people with all forms of blindness. Kish and his Organisation have taught echolocation to at least 500 blind children around the world inspiring other scientists to study human echolocation. Other remarkable human echolocator’s are Lucas Murray from Poole, Dorset. Who was born blind and was one of the first british people to learn to visualise his surroundings using human echolocation, taught by Daniel Kish and Ben Underwood (1992-2009)

The human brain continuous to embrace incredible features, evolution was the great tool that boosted  its creation and guides its capabilities. Do we use the hole capabilities of our brain?  The most reasonable option is that we must use most of them. Brains are expensive organs in terms of energy costs and I believe it is reasonable that our evolution would’t have allowed those nonsense great energy expenses. So I believe that if we weren’t using our hole brain, the brain would had probably shrunken. There is an example of this. When talking about some type of birds, while mating season, the male which is the one who searches for food, has to remember where the best food is and where the nest is in order to return to it with the food, so it’s brain is bigger than the female one, which does not have to gather this knowledge. But is incredible to realise, that when not on mating season, when the birds do not have to remember where is easy to find lots of food and how to return to the nest, the male brain shrinks. In order to lose less energy, and when back on mating season the male’s brain expands again.

Do we use the brain the only way it can be used? I believe this is a totally different question, I believe perception is the key fact, usually missing when trying to understand cognition. Human echolocators do not “hear” the echoes as we would do it, they really” see” the sound reflected from the objects, I mean, their brain constructs the image the same way we do, but using sound instead of light.  Obtaining at the end very similar results from evolution’s point of view which is, at the end, helping the entity surviving in the environment. So I believe that only time will tell if there are totally different ways of using our brain, but we must be always really open minded for any new ways of thinking that will surely arise in the future.

At last I would like to mention Kevin Warwik, born the 9th of february in 1954 in Coventry, Uk. Is a British scientist and professor of cybernetics at the University of Reading. He is well know for his studies on direct interfaces between computer systems and the human nervous system. Has done interesting researches in echolocation’s field. Kevin Warwik is an incredible scientist, related with cognition and artificial intelligence and deserves a future entrance in this blog, so for now I will only talk about his particular conception with respect to artificial intelligence, he claims that we have many limits, such as our sensorimotor abilities, that we can overcome with machines. In his own words:

“There is no way I want to stay a mere human”

I would like to add to this blog entrance this documentary on Ben Underwood (1992-2009) and the human echolocation phenomenon. Not only for the scientific purposes but also for telling his beautiful biography of overcoming and struggle. When this was recorded he was still alive. Hope you enjoy it.

2013 Decalogue by Eduard Punset

Eduard-PunsetEduard Punset is a multidisciplinary researcher well know in Spain because since 1996 he has directed and presented “Redes” a scientific Tv program based around interviews with leading scientists.He is also professor of science, technology and society at the Faculty of Economics of the Chemical Institute of Sarrià.

I wanted to translate, his new year’s decalogue from his blog, which I found really inspiring and share it with all non spanish readers.

You can find the original post in spanish here.

1- Since the last century life expectancy rises two years and half every decade.

2- Thanks to 1,  today’s people are less obsessed about life after death, they are much worried about noting there really is life before death.

3- We should devote less time in healing politics, instead prevention politics should be our priority. Basically this means that we should practice daily sports, watch our diet, know how to enjoy what we already have and don’t cry only for what we lack.

4- Social and emotional learning must be added immediately to the educational system. For this we must prepare educators to understand positive and negative emotions so they can help us manage them correctly.

5- We must demarcate negative competences, which prevents us from getting a job, from positive competences, which can really boost our possibilities of getting a good one. Among the first ones, we must avoid emotional ignorance (lets see if we finally understand the meaning of  despising others) and among the second ones we must understand that happiness resides inside happiness waiting room.

6- We must note intuition and subconscious importance in contraposition to rational conscious thoughts. I will never forget that woman crying that stopped me in the street to thank me for giving her confidence on her intuition again. While others had tried to prevent her from trusting it her whole live.

7- Understanding real happiness dimensions has been the greatest 20th century conquest. We have understood that is not necessarily the money the one which confers that happiness. When you live under the subsistence level, money is happiness, but exceeded that level control over our own live is the dimension more correlated with happiness. Having the impression that what you do matters for some reason.

8- The beauty that a many people search for, is really pain absence. But many people are willing to cope with pain without any evident reason in order to get their desired job or fulfilling their dreams . Exercising and working without suffering is understanding pain to gain control.

9- The herd, when crossing a river or climbing a mountain, always relies on youth. The main next century’s problem will not be wealth distribution, but work distribution. Schools and new enterprises should have already started the study and application of this principle. State and other social institutions and enterprises must open their doors to the marginalised youth.

10- Please, its time to resign dogmatism and accept as a daily practice the uncertainty principle. When something is intuited must be checked and if it works must be applied till someone comes and proves the contrary. Newton convinced the world that Time was exactly the same for all, was absolute. After, Einstein said it was relative, dependant on the mass and velocity. End dogmatists that much suffering imposed on those who doubted!

I hope you have found the reading interesting. I apologise for the translations accuracy, I’m not a translator. I tried to write it accurately and I hope I have been able to make his points clear.

Dr. Marvin Minsky: Building Intelligent Machines

Most of you, have probably heard about Dr. Marvin Minsky , one of the most influential authorities inside Cognitive Science. Co-founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technologies AI laboratory. In my opinion, he is one of the most intelligent thinker I have ever heard.

This is a talk in 2009 in which Marvin Minsky tries to explain why we need intelligent machines and what we can expect from them. His research group has been working on cognitive architectures trying to develop better intelligent machines using AI.  Although it is a few years old,  it is one of the most interesting and funny  talks I have experienced so far, and I was able to find it recently on iTunes.

Education is no good, unless you teach them to question it. And it is not popular.

Sarcastic Marvin Minsky begins talking about why we need intelligent machines. He claims that if we knew how to build a machine that could think more or less the same way that people can, we should surely understand its behaviour, being capable in the future to know how to fix and replace all of this machines parts and equally all of the the brain’s ones to. In his own words “Immortality would be easy to obtain”  This way we would be able to make backup copies of our brains and download and upload them into this machines.

One thing he points out and which I can not do anything but totally agree, is that in the Universities, high-schools and collages, people are developing again and again the same kinds of robots. In his own words” You can learn a lot from doing this, like that if you step on connectors …. they brake.” 🙂 People should be working on something more useful. For example, robot-soccer might be beautiful to watch for a few minutes but it is useless and has not much value for humanity. Why not try to research on robots that do something more useful?

The best is the enemy of the good. Don’t spend a lot of time trying to find the best way. Find six good ways, it will take you half the time and your machine will be six times better when the environment changes

Dr. Minsky remarks that the ambiguity of language is really a useful tool we use to learn, as it is possible to obtain a better result at the end by misunderstanding what you where initially told. As when somebody realises a different idea from something you have read before, but you didn’t thought of that at that moment. But now, that you have been told about it, the idea seems really plausible. It is clear that people learn in various ways, and that people develop different ways to learn. I agree with Dr. Minsky, that we should focus our efforts not on education as we are doing it right now, but more on understanding ways to learn and improving old commonly used techniques as reinforcement by reward. Instead, we should better ask ourselves why some kids learn more from the same experience than others and improve our ways of  teaching how to learn.

If you can tell yourself what you did, you might misunderstand it and do something better next time

Talking about AI, Dr. Minsky gives a brief history description through the first AI to symbolic calculation. How this development has provided powerful tools for mathematic integration using Matlab or Mathematica. But right now, computers can only solve logical formulated problems and can not operate by analogy. He explains that there are not enough people researching on example based reasoning, which he believes will be the future of computer programming and instead that to much effort and money is spent on neural networks, statistical learning, genetic algorithms…which will inevitably pass away and become obsolete.

Thousands of people are doing something because they see thousands of other people doing it, so therefore it must be good. I know only about twenty or thirty people in the hole world who are working on how to get computers to do anything like ordinary common sense reasoning and thats where I think, the future lays.

Through the whole lecture Dr. Marvin gives his point of view on a bunch of different topics and problems of society, science, education, politics, even sports, in a very sarcastic way. Although I do not agree with all of them, I have found them really funny and makes the lecture easy to listen and understand.

On a menu, when you have a choice I always order chicken this days, because your children won’t have any chicken to order

For anyone who is interested in reading Dr. Minsky: The Emotion Machine

Building Intelligent Machines