Fighting Deviants, Being Part of the Planetary Immune System

The world has its share of moral deviants, both purposeful and accidental. It is our moral duty to point out some of these individuals and groups on a regular basis, and think up and do things that will hold them to account, either now or in the foreseeable future, playing our role as part of the planetary immune system. A big part of that response is to continue working on accelerating positive change. Our next-gen internet, which will include such democratizing features as the conversational interface and the cybertwin, will offer many exciting new strategies to hold the top 1%, 5%, and 10% accountable to the 99%. For now, we can do our best with the civilizing tools we have today.

Obama’s BRAIN Initiative – A Poor Start On a Brain Mapping Vision

This post goes in my deviants category, as it is about someone who I believe has made an important but correctable mistake, who could know better, and who therefore deserves to be called out and reproved, so they might act better in the future.

obamabraininitiativeObama’s BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative, announced today, concerns what is arguably the most important scientific project we humans are doing today: figuring out how higher biological intelligence works, by exploring and mapping it in living and preserved brains all relevant resolutions. Neuroscientists have developed powerful new mapping tools and software in two main categories. Functional connectomics (also called Brain Activity Maps) is the process of mapping synaptic connectivity and neural activity to biological function, including memory, in living brains. To make these maps we have new tools for monitoring neural action in vivo at molecular, cellular and circuit levels, like optogenetics, calcium imaging, nanoparticle sensors, and other clever advances. Structural connectomics (also called just Connectomics Maps) is the process of mapping synaptic, cellular, and nuclear (epigenetic) information in chemically preserved, nonliving brains (worms, flies, snails, zebrafish, mice, monkeys, humans, etc.), as a path to figuring out function. There are also new tools and software for the automated slicing, scanning, and mapping of synaptic connections. It was observation of the rapid advances in these areas that led led Ken Hayworth and I to co-found the Brain Preservation Foundation in 2010.

The new idea is that combining these two forms of brain mapping may finally allow us to uncover the neural coding system, the ways networks of neurons store short and long term information in their association patterns and strengths. The paper that launched the Brain Activity Map proposal is The Brain Activity Map Project and the Challenge of Functional Connectomics, Alvisatros, Neuron 74, June 21, 2012 (5 pp). It’s a great intro to the exciting promise of this field, and a call to action. Wikipedia has no page yet on functional connectomics (perhaps a neuroscientist will start one) but they do have a page now on the BRAIN Initiative.

There are many potential benefits to functional and structural connectomics for science and medicine, but their greatest promise, in my opinion, is that they will accelerate our ability to build intelligence in our much faster and eventually far more capable electronic systems. Some of the brain’s circuit structure and function will turn out to be highly similar from brain to brain (developmental) and some will be unpredictably different (sometimes called “evolutionary” or “Darwinian” differences). Understanding the developmental parts of the brain, and how they constrain and enable the evolutionary parts, will get us much farther down the road of building self-improving artificial intelligences. Activity and connectomics maps, and a few other new tools for monitoring neural activity at molecular scale will of course provide many medical and neuroscientific benefits, and these can be sold most easily to the general public, but the intelligence benefit for science and society, via advances in computational neuroscience and machine learning may quickly become the most important for us.

brainchangesitselfObama hinted in his State of the Union address in February that he wanted to see America’s brain-mapping and related neuroscience efforts  “reach level of research and development not seen since the height of the Space Race.”  Science writer John Markoff, in a great NYT article Feb 17th, summarized the views of the founding scientists behind the Brain Activity Map proposal, that funding on the order of $3B, or $300M/year, should be publicly committed to this project. That would make it less than the $3.8B we spent on the Human Genome Project from 1998-2003, an investment which returned, according to a 2011 Battelle report, $796B in new economic activity between 1998 and 2010. A return on investment of greater than 200, one of those rare ROIs you see when opening up an entirely new field.

Functional and Structural Connectomics promises to have that same kind of fundamental impact, opening up neuroscience and bringing all the benefits of understanding natural intelligent systems to the technology world. In addition, understanding how the brain uses connectionist features like redundancy and neuroplasticity to protect its critical functions would be huge advances for medical science and therapy. I recommend reading Norman Doidge, in The Brain that Changes Itself, 2007,  for fantastic and motivating examples of how resilient our brains can be to memory loss and damage.

Unfortunately, in his announcement today President Obama has committed just $100M to the project for its first year budget. And the money committed so far is a hodge-podge that is not project or map focused. Consider that Europe’s Human Brain Project just got $1.3B committed from the EU for the next ten years, even though that project is doing far more theoretical, lower-resolution simulation work that will be highly likely to have a much poorer payoff, in a world where we haven’t yet cracked the static and dynamic neural coding algorithms. Yes, the Human Genome Project started with the same small seed funding of around $100M the first year. But that was when genomics was untested, proteomics a dream, and understanding and mapping the brain still largely unreachable. We’re way beyond those early days now. We know how important maps are, and that we have tools available to make them, and the data sciences folks and hardware to analyze all the new public domain data that will result. It’s time to match real funds with the rhetoric.

As I said, the scientists involved in the BRAIN initiative know we’ll need at least $3B to make major discoveries with activity maps alone, and this doesn’t even include connectomics maps, which deserve a few billion as well, if we really want to figure out the neural coding language in any complex animal (say, a fly, or perhaps an Etruscan shrew, a mammal with only 1 million neurons). $5B is not a lot of money for the incredible intellectual advances we can expect. To put this in perspective, we are presently spending $85 billion per month on QE3. Obama cobbled this $100M together by redirecting existing funds in NIH, DARPA, and NSF budgets, so it isn’t even new money, it’s just reclassified R&D. An NIH working group has been designated to develop a multi-year plan with cost estimates by June 2014, and Obama has fast tracked the group by asking for an interim report by fall 2013. But its still quite unclear what the goals of the project are, and whether connectomics maps will even play a role.  If they pass on funding synapse-level connectomics maps, that will be a major failure of nerve.

Isn’t $100M a great start for Year 1? Not in my book. What would have been commendable, for a project with this magnitude of potential benefit, would have been starting with a level of finding that is ten times more, or at least a billion dollars up front, and a commitment to seek at least a billion a year for the next ten years. That’s enough to influence students to enter into this field, and would place this project in the light it deserves – one of the best science projects we could work on at this unique point in human history. We should and can demand a lot more from this second term president, particularly one who understands science and tech the way he does. Obama has committed to a commission to study the bioethical issues that might emerge (a concession to conservatives perhaps), but so far his “dream team” of 15 neuroscientists have not committed to connectomics maps, as far as I’ve read. Perhaps they will, but given the vagueness of today’s announcement, it’s quite possible we we’ll see something better in the future. But this isn’t the kind of start that inspires confidence.

Ultimately, as readers of this blog know, whether second-term American politicians have the courage to say it publicly or not yet, smarter machines, even more than adding more 20th century-style jobs, have become the primary wealth creator in the developed world, so that’s where our thoughts should go first, as we look for ways to improve our lot. I think it’s time we got serious as a species about realizing what kind of progress the universe has engaged us in. We are here to use our wits and works to become something greater than ourselves. Our highest role appears to be to take what the universe has done with us and make something even smarter, more ethical, more productive, and more resilient as our progeny. This is what civilization has been about, since the birth of technology, as I see it.

Want to let the Obama administration know your thoughts on making Brain Mapping, including connectomics maps, a top funding priority? You can send a brief email to the White House by using this form, as I have. Thanks.

A "clarified" brain (lipids removed, everything else in place). Transparent to optical microscopy, all the proteins, receptors, RNAs able to be repetitively interrogated with molecular probes. Amazing!

A “clarified” mouse brain at right (lipids removed, all else stays in place). Transparent to optical microscopy, all proteins, receptors, RNAs can be repetitively interrogated with molecular probes. Amazing!

4/18/2013 Update: The Stanford press release on 4/10 announcing CLARITY, the Karl Deisseroth lab’s amazing new method for optically transparent brain mapping, just makes what I said above more appropriate and urgent, from my perspective. Deisseroth is one of the 15 experts on Obama’s neuroscience dream team, so I’m sure he advised the White House of its implications. The CLARITY paper was accepted for review at Nature in September 2012. The CLARITY method is like PCR, a multipurpose, revolutionary new research tool that will open up vast new imaging and molecular phenotyping research capabilities in any biological tissue, and in particular the brain. Salk’s Terry Sejnowski said: “It’s exactly the technique everyone’s been waiting for.” He told the Associate Press that it will speed up brain anatomy research by “10 to 100 times.”

And yet Obama’s team still proposed just $100M in funding for brain mapping for the first year. That’s simply ridiculous. Please, America, wake up! It’s time to spend some real money on neuroscience and bust humanity out of its ignorance. Stop being scared of how much better things will soon be, once we’ve cracked the riddles of neural information processing. Someone also needs to give Deisseroth a serious prize or two. Optogenetics and CLARITY, both out of his lab, are each profoundly important biological sciences breakthroughs.

10/27/2013 Update: Ugh! Obama’s BRAIN initiative (April 2013) has barely started and it’s already been co-opted. Politics is not pretty.

DARPA will spend their chunk of the funds (half of the money we’ve committed so far to the initiative, $70M over five years, which is peanuts, as I’ve said before) on a very-low-yield clinical project (deep brain monitoring and stimulation) vs a multipronged effort to improve human brain structural and functional connectomics (circuit tracing, electrical activity mapping, optogenetics, nanosensors). The potential for brain mapping as the #1 focus of the initiative is gone, mere months after they announced it.

Apparently Obama got the wrong partners (DARPA, NSF, NIH) together for his BRAIN initiative. The 2012 Brain Activity Map proposal that Alvisatros, Church and others made to the White House was all about functional connectomics. This has now taken a back seat to deep brain stimulation and monitoring experiments. Drats! I like DARPA, but I’m sure that initiative mostly won’t work, without functional maps, and I’m not even a neuroscientist. But DARPA likes clinical work with near-term potential benefit (or at least the potential promise of it). It would have taken a firm hand to keep them focused on Brain Mapping, which is the real prize accessible to science, at this stage of our collective technical abilities (more accurately, ineptitude) when it comes to the brain. That leadership is missing today.

We need a lot more money, at least a billion dollars a year, devoted to funding the Basic Science of structural and functional Brain Maps, not these expensive clinical junkets. How else can we solve the memory code, and thereby understand how neural nets actually work, and thus make better AIs? Or, as my friend Steve Coles, MD, PhD says, what is the genetic reason why we humans have a Broca’s area and chimps don’t? What is the connectomics of higher intelligence? All most future-important questions about human, social, and machine intelligence are dependent on better brain maps. Ken Hayworth and I started the Brain Preservation Foundation ( in 2010 with the realization that these maps are coming, and will greatly improve our understanding of who we are, and what we can do with our memories and identities after biological death.

One fine day we can expect a real Human Brain Mapping initiative, one that really does greatly improve our collective understanding of the brain, for all humanity, for all time. Just like the Human Genome Project uncovered the epigenome and illuminated the proteome, and now we need Human Epigenome and Proteome Projects, which also haven’t materialized, because we are so broke and unmotivated to do Big Life Science.

The world needs Brain Maps, Epigenome Maps and Proteome Maps as the new science moonshots for the next five to ten years. These would be completed under budget and under time with more powerful computers than we expected, just like the HGP was.

In the meantime, we get this BRAIN initiative elephant, designed by committee. This is a major loss of vision and leadership here. #ObamaFail

Vote for scientific and technical leadership in 2016, irrespective of party. It’s high time we get some representatives who see, sooner or later, how extraordinary humanity’s future will be. Sooner would be nice, eh?

Heathrow Has No Wifi Clothes, It’s Gone Boingo

Heathrow, airport of the 2012 Olympics. No affordable internet access.

It’s high time for another post to the Deviants section of the blog, so let’s get started. Like cockroaches under a rock, Deviants frequently come in packs. Find a problem, dig deeper, and you often discover a bundle.

This time we’ve got at least four deviants to offer you. Let’s start with Heathrow International Airport, bane of international travelers (To remember how bad they are, it would be great if we could “heave and throw” them out of the global airport hub system till they up their game)

At Heathrow, wi-fi costs over $25 (US equivalent) for a “day pass”. No hourly rate is available. This Machiavellian strategy screws thousands of short-layover people every day out of any access to the internet.

From Logo and running man should be reversed, to show customers fleeing, I think. Any graphic designers want to update this pic?

The wi-fi is run by Boingo Wireless, one of the largest and horriblest (yup, that’s a word) wireless companies presently inhabiting our precious island Earth. Check out Boingo’s atrocious reviews at CNet. They’ve been regularly accused of several deceptive practices, including repetitive billing when customers sign up for a day pass, and terrible procedures for getting off their repetitive billing. See more lovely complaints by the downtrodden here. Boingo has an apparent, if not a legal monopoly, on wi-fi at Heathrow. I wasn’t able to find anything else when I was recently there. The information desk didn’t know of others either. (Were you waiting for a way to remember Boingo as a deviant? Think of getting boinked economically, in a coercive manner, and you’re pretty close.)

Heathrow is designated as a hub airport in the global travel system. By choosing Boingo, the UK is screwing all international flyers, telling them what they really think of them and their travel dollars. It would be lovely if the ICAO or another governing body for airports could hold them accountable on this. Heathrow’s general level of service is has long been rated poorly (see the large number of low ratings at Skytrax buried among the positive ones, some of which I suspect are pre-Olympics PR shills). Heathrow’s run by BAA (think black sheep to remember them) the plutocratic, bureaucratic airport management conglomerate that until recently had a monopoly on all the main London airports for years. In 2009, the UK government finally forced divestiture of the two other London airports also owned by BAA. Big money here, so things are slow to change.

Free wireless now exists in hundreds of civilized airports globally. See: for a list. Apparently T-Mobile (only slightly less sucky than Boingo) was in Heathrow before them. And apparently the Starbucks in one of the Terminals at Heathrow had good cheap connectivity way back in 2006. It’s not rocket science.

Anticompetitive industry lobbying groups like the CTIA (formerly called the Cellular Telephone Industries Assn, but you can call them Controlling Today’s Information Access) push for airport monopolies on wifi service provision, as they did in 2006 at Logan Airport in Boston, for example. That sucks.

It’s high time to recognize wi-fi access to the internet is no longer a luxury good, but a community service that should be free in all civilized countries, like bathrooms. Soon it will be a right, like 1Mbps internet is in Finland.

How do we get free wi-fi as the base layer in all our airports over the next few years, including the largest, most plutocratic and bureaucratic ones like Heathrow and LAX? For a start, I recommend complaining to Heathrow on Twitter, @HeathrowAirport, and using the tag #HeathrowAirport. Anyone searching the tag will forever see your thoughts about their crappy wifi, and can add their voice. You can also complain here on their website, but that’s private. I’d trust BAA/Heathrow’s willingness to do anything with your private feedback as far as I’d trust a scorpion not to sting me.

Until your cybertwin can relay your opinion to the web for you on voice command, for all of us to use to guide us to the best things, and to help us rein in the deviants, take a moment and let them know what you think. If you have any other good strategies in mind, let us know in the comments, thanks!

Ten Reasons the 99% Should Care About Internet Television

Vision for an iTV Remote: Tablets, laptops, and smartphones turn into TV remotes. Manage thousands of your favorite specialty videos and channels, all from your lap. Each viewer has their own second screen, for social viewing, chat, feedback, ratings, rankings, suggesting what to watch next, games, etc. A serious entertainment and education platform. (Artist: M. Rojas,

Big cable and telco companies, in bed with captured legislatures, are actively slowing down the arrival of iTV in the US, Australia, and several other industrialized countries dominated by Big Media today. These deviants are trying to keep our internet bandwidth below 100Mbps for as long as they can, because around that number, TV-quality internet streaming video platforms can emerge, platforms with millions of channels, and which use much more clever and lower cost methods (highly personalized and localized commercials, subscriptions, micropayments, AdSense, etc.) of monetizing custom video content. iTV will take away Big Media’s monopoly of the living room screen, and will massively fractionate their TV advertising market. It will also create an environment that will support hundreds of thousands of new, independent, full-time specialty video producers, remixers, and commentators, and facilitate massive new entertainment and nonfiction (education, documentary, civic engagement) video subculture emergence. This is something the 99% can get very excited about.

Unfortunately, US consumers so far have been slow to adopt any form of “lean forward” television, where they have to occasionally lean forward in their chairs to search for content using the keyboard. Google TV adoption, for example, even though it is a relatively inexpensive move away from the closed telco set-top box,  has been a lot slower than some expected. Logitech lost $100M on their Revue box for Google TV in 2010, and have announced they’ll be pulling out. They made far too many of them, and learned that the consumer is far less interested in messing with yet another incrementally useful household gadget than they anticipated. I really like my Revue, it has served us well all year, and Logitech could have built some good will by serving its small customer base a lot better this year, and teaming up with Best Buy or another electronics retailer to work out installation deals to get them into more houses. But I’m in that 3% of Americans (and rapidly rising) who watch TV shows online but don’t have cable, often on principle. Had Logitech focused on us, the best market for Google TV at present, they’d have found a willing audience. No matter, LG Electronics and other hardware makers will step in for the next version of Google TV, which will only get better faster, now that a new Apple TV is in the works for 2012. Consumers are waiting for better “lean back” experiences, where the platform will automagically decide what they are interested in, and feed it to them, and they can occasionally give feedback to it, preferably by voice. They’re waiting for Xbox and Apple to wow them with something totally simple and easy to use. This will happen, but it will also be something that is quite closed. Not as bad as the cable companies present offerings, but not nearly as open as the web. What we can continue to expect from the big corps, excepting the few, like Google, whose business model revolves around openness, will be more bread and circuses, while the media plutocrats keep the system rigged in their favor, and the little guy keeps getting shut out of the living room video marketplace, and 21st century social diversity, specialization, collective intelligence, and democracy continue to suffer.

How do we help the tech literate, discriminating consumer, the 20% who are opinion leaders, see that the current Big Media-run TV universe, with $60B of annual TV advertising in the US alone, and endlessly repetitive ads for far too many crappy products, is going to inevitably be remade into something that is far more customized and relevant to each of us? How do we get them to see the value of TVs that have both amazing lean forward features (even if only occasionally used) and very intelligent lean back features, and that are truly open video marketplaces? How do we accelerate the irreversible developmental move to a platform where lots of money flows not only to studios, but also to hundreds of thousands of small company specialty video producers, and where ads become so diverse and specialized and local and context sensitive that they aren’t ads, but education? Once the bandwidth arrives, I expect (and hope) that better and far more open iTV platforms will be built, and people, starting with the youth, will migrate to them in droves. Big Media will likely still get 80% of the revenue, and provide 20% of the “fat head” of the distribution. But we’ll also have lots of Little Media, getting 20% of the revenue, and delivering 80% of the variety, the “long tail” of diversity on the video web.  And we’ll have a different kind of Big Media, corps that have adapted to a more service-oriented model, or died.  The world will be a much smarter (and more entertaining) place.

Here are ten reasons to get excited about the near future (circa 2020?) promise of iTV. In the meantime, I hope they help you become an early adopter of the most open access, true internet television you can get:

  1. 1 million+ specialty video channels on your TV. A worthy video platform for a 21st century democracy.
  2. Americans spend half their free time watching TV. They need much better and more specialized news, entertainment, and education.
  3. We all need the ability to like, dislike, and ban any types of ads that come into our home that we don’t want. Only ads you care about will be allowed into your home. Finally.
  4. Our tablets, smartphones, and laptops will become our iTV remotes, and our game controllers for amazing new iTV games.
  5. Social viewing, chat, and collaboratively filtered recommendations will be central to the best open platforms. Facebook, Google+, Twitter, etc. will help us find good content.
  6. We need user-customized commercials, with half-muting, or full muting with captions, of whatever duration we want (10, 12, 18 mins per hour, etc.). Watch more commercials, you automatically get access to more expensive, ad-supported content. Want to watch less ads? Pay a channel subscription, or micropayments for premium video.
  7. Realtime customized captions & sidebars. Never again watch news, or politician’s harangues, without great social commentary and analysis running in realtime in the side bar.
  8. Open source video licenses on video content will bring peer-to-peer, mashup culture to video, and greatly improve video content.
  9. If copyright holders offer a rental license to anyone, they must also offer a remix license, priced no higher than the rental license. This is law in some states, based on the editing licenses that Hollywood sells for edited versions of movies that play on TV, in airplanes, etc. This needs to become federal law, to empower global remix and editing culture.
  10. It’s time for a hundred competing specialty channels of [your interest here] TV!
Action Items: Share this post around, if you agree with it. Critique/improve it where you don’t. Be an early and preferential adopter of Google TV, Boxee, (Amazon?) and any of the most open, most citizen-empowering video platforms to come, run by companies or startups that are the most dedicated to open web access and open media empowerment. Choose these over XBox, Apple TV, and other more closed, yet often prettier platforms, both now and in their better versions to come. Use BitTorrent, BinTube, or other peer to peer video sharing solutions aggressively, to force big telcos and cable to upgrade their crappy networks. Push digital pigs through their tiny pipes. Seed and share open source and creative commons video content. Donate to and support the Open Video Alliance,

For more, see my:

• 20 min video, The Television Will Be Revolutionized, TEDx Del Mar, 2010.

• 2-page summary, How the Television Will be Revolutionized,

• 4-page article, Tomorrow’s Interactive Television, The Futurist, Nov-Dec 2010

• 48-page whitepaper, How The Television Will be Revolutionized, 2010.

  Thoughts? Comments? Let me know, thanks. [tweetmeme source=”johnmsmart” only_single=false]
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