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National Geographic Channel

Q&A: Jason Silva, Host of Brain Games

Original image
National Geographic Channel

Jason Silva is the host of National Geographic Channel’s hit series, Brain Games. We got a chance to talk to him about the show and ended up totally geeking out. Here’s what he had to say about our minds, the “rapture of the nerds,” and the future—and why we’re already there.

You’ve got a degree in philosophy and film, and you’ve worked for TV networks. That’s a diverse background, but it’s not psychology or neuroscience. What drew you to the science of the brain?

It sort of evolved because of my interest in dense philosophical ideas. When you engage with philosophy, you’re engaging your brain. When I left Current, I started to create short films on the web, and the short films explored the co-evolution of humans and technology, which is really the relationship between brains and technology. I believe technology is actually the embodiment of the mind out in the world ... I’m interested in how we use instruments to extend the boundaries of the mind.

There is a school of cognitive philosophers, Andy Clark and David Chalmers, and they wrote the “extended mind thesis.” They talked about the fact that the mind resides in the feedback loops between brains, tools, and environments. So the whole idea of "Where am I?" is up for grabs. When I talk to you over the telephone, where am I? Is my consciousness seeded in my brain? Yeah, to a degree. But it’s also electrified and traveling across space and time and being pumped into your brain.

Brain Games makes science accessible and fun to a wide audience. That’s obvious. But what else does the show do?

Brain Games, on one hand, is the ABCs of perception. It’s the ABCs of how your brain works. It’s pop science for the everyman. But, it has meat! So I’m the wild card here. We have a lot of ancillary content that we’re making on the web that’s meant to look a little bit more like my videos. It’s been a nice match.

What do you try to bring to the show?

I think people appreciate the insights of an outsider. Sometimes it’s the non-academics that give us the most interesting perspectives on scientific ideas. I try to impregnate it with a sense of wonder and curiosity … It’s practiced bewilderment. It’s just insatiable curiosity.

It’s that stasis of awe you talk about, right?

Exactly! Which is something I’m very interested in. The show has had such a dramatic success arc. It’s the most successful series in the history of National Geographic in terms of ratings. It’s been nominated for an Emmy, and now we’re doing 20 more episodes … Its success speaks to the fact that whatever formula we’ve come up with, it seems to be working.

You do lots of crazy experiments on the show. Which one blew your mind the most?

I remember when I first learned that our eyes can only process low resolution, two-dimensional images. We take that limited information, and our brain makes inferences and estimations about reality. It renders what we experience as a high-def, 3-D world out of that low-res 2-D perception. It’s amazing. All you see is low-res. The rest is just a matrix. It’s a construction of your brain. I love that.

So reality is not something your brain absorbs, but it’s something that your brain creates?

Yeah! It’s a wonderfully empowering idea. It means you can be an active co-participant, right? You can be a scripter. If you look at the man-made world, it’s all congealed by intent. It’s built by intention and agency. It’s part of the human mind. It’s mind etched as a topographical statement on the planet. When you look at New York City, you’re actually looking at the mind; you’re looking at brain! Sorry, I’m geeking out.

I remember you arguing that cities are like organisms.

They are! Geoffrey West at the Santa Fe Institute is known for his treatises on the fact that cities have metabolic rates. Cities, he says, are similar to biological creatures. It’s insane. But at the same time, how could you expect less? … It’s interesting how these patterns persist on different scales, from the nano to the galactic. There’s a grand continuity that connects the born and the made.

It’s like the singularity, the idea that man and machine are becoming one.

You know, the singularity is referred to as the rapture of the nerds. It’s the way technologists and secular people have found a way to fulfill their aspirations to transcend outside of religion. We’re literally using our creativity to overcome our biological limitations . . . We’re already living in a singularity, as far as I’m concerned.

You think we’re already there?

Yeah, but we’ll never be close enough. We’re so quick to assimilate with technology. But, you know, our ancestors would look at aircrafts, and they’d be pretty certain that we were gods. We have machines that can fly across oceans! We’re 100 percent gods as far as our ancestors are concerned. And they’d be right. We’re omniscient, in a way. The Internet gives us access to all knowledge and information. And, with technology, we transcend space and time because our minds can be all over the place. I can make a YouTube video seen by millions of people, and it’s like my mind has transcended my body. I’m using metaphors here, but you understand the idea. Most of us walk around and complain when the signal drops. And in the future, when we transcend even more of our biological origins, people will probably still be complaining about the signal dropping. It’ll never quite feel like a singularity.

With technology improving, is there anything you see coming that you’re really excited about?

I’m very excited about interplanetary exploration. When human beings go to Mars, it’ll be a game changer. Although, in a way, we’re already there. If technology is an extension of our mind, then the mind is already on Mars. We have a robot there. We have an extension of our neo-cortex exploring the surface of the planet already. That’s mankind’s signature, and it’s already there!

What about progress on planet Earth?

I’m excited particularly by the biotechnology revolution. I think we’re going see a revolution in healthcare. It’s going to be like what Information technology did in the last 30 years. I see a world where we’re going to be downloading new apps for our biology. We’re going to have apps that download genome into our bodies directly, just like how we download new IOS’s everyday. I think we’ll be able to reprogram our genes. We’ll arrest the aging process. I think notions of what is old are going to be transformed . . . Gene sequencing, you know, is progressing three times faster than exponential! The progress we’re making in this world is amazing. You see it everyday in the science headlines. Science is really the only news.

We at mental_floss love trivia, so let’s say you’re at a party and need to start a conversation. What’s your go-to fact?

How’s this one: There is more energy per second—per gram—flowing through the corridors of the chip in your computer than there is on the surface of the sun! Now, that’s concentrated energy that’s flowing through this particular space in a microchip. The engineering challenge of our smaller computers is to keep them from exploding.

That’s crazy. Although I don’t know if it’s a conversation starter or stopper.

Another one I like to tell people is that a study out of Stanford recently found that experiences of wonder and awe—experiences that force us to rethink what’s possible—are therapeutic. The momentary explosion of awe can leave you with residual feelings of altruism, well-being, and compassion. Basically, blowing your own mind makes you a nicer person.

We always knew amazing facts were good for you! People have called you a futurist, a walking-talking TED talk, a wonder junkie, a shot of "philosophical espresso." Which do you prefer?

I tend to tell people I'm a media artist, because it’s a nice umbrella term. Media artist, philosopher, and filmmaker are all nice generic terms. But I really like “Idea DJ.” I remix ideas and regroup them in a way DJs remix music samples. I’ve always been like a sapiosexual. I get turned on by ideas. I love to revel in big ideas. It’s an addiction in a way. I like the dopamine hit, I guess.

You’re a film and philosophy guy. Which ancient philosopher would make the best film director?

Wow. There’s a great line by Sophocles, he said, “Manifolds of wonder, and nothing towers more wondrous than man.” I always liked that line. It kind of puts man in a proper context. We are the most impressive species in the universe, and it might sound a bit narcissistic, but I think that’s how man should see himself. I’d like to see what Sophocles would come up with.

Watch Jason Silva on the season premiere of Brain Games Monday at 9/8c on the National Geographic Channel.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]