Brain hacking with the smartest guys in the room

SxSW 2013 panel brain hacking whurley 2 more

whurley (William Hurley), co-founder, Chaotic Moon; Kevin Leahy, founder, Knowledge Advocate, LLC; and Russell Poldrack, PhD, director of the Imaging Research Center, UT Austin, discuss brain-altering software and human evolution at the Austin Forum in the fall of 2013.

“Our brains: the organ pipes of the infinite” — William James, “The Knowing of Things Together”

Three concepts; past. present. future.

[This blog post is rough notes taken while three smart guys chatted each other up about human and computer intelligence. The conversation was fast, speculative, and at times random. Listening to them exercising their wits was great fun. I thank the Austin Forum for the evening and I post this for whatever it might be worth to the wandering online reader. The entire conversation is posted as four YouTube files. Starts here: ]


Russ: So…What type of software got us where we are now in brain science?

The 50s, the 60s, were eras of building neural networks. By the 80s, this quest developed iteratively with neuroscience. Now, you see the results of that research and testing out in the world; examples include Siri, Androids, and so-called “Deep Learning” techniques.

whurley: as contrarian, in the next 5-10 years we will see this as the past (as in ancient and primitive). (He’s disappointed in the software, thus far.) There is so much we don’t know yet in neuroscience. For example: look at the current neural tracking head software: it’s not there yet. But nowadays there are ten times the number of people developing software in this area.

Brain science: where is it now?

Russ: It’s a brand new baby, just opening its eyes.

whurley: It’s like the beginning of 2001, where bones are being beat on the ground [by proto-humans]. This will change the world, once we understand the brain math. (Example: The Matrix: “Here’s the Kung Fu module” and suddenly you know that martial art.)

Think of current brain research as a frontier town [with many involved in its study and in research and testing]. You have all sorts. And you grow. But when does the law show up? [Currently, it’s made up of] very independent-minded networks.

Russ: Phrenology. Franz Joseph Gall was the first person to propose the idea that bumps on the skull were related to different things the brain does. He was RIGHT about his idea that different areas of the brain are doing different things.   When your brain does something, [the action] wires into the structure of the brain and therefore changes the brain itself. (We literally are what we think.)

whurley: we are in the past. (His current hero is Christof Koch Then whurley defines a “hero” —  To be a hero you have to be a pioneer — and you also have to be right!   🙂

Russ: We can manipulate what single neurons do now. This is new work. It’s easier to do something when you can measure it correctly. But, that said, probably everything we believe now is probably wrong!

whurley: Therefore we are visionaries, not heroes!


whurley; Look at the emotive. Example: a set of sensors that you wear on your head, doused in saline. This picks up signals in your brain. But your brain is also a chemical system. This only picks up data that is outside of your head, not what’s also going on inside of it.  The systems that are being developed are good efforts —but most of the time they are doing guesswork, often based on training.

Kevin: Academics are working to make sure that data is there, so that the emotive devices will have what they need to work better.

Russ: Example: a neuromarketer, so called, discussed what the brain looks like when it’s in love. In fact, that part of the brain turns on in a variety of situations, including when an iPhone sends a sound that a message is received. But in the lab, they are starting to create a lot of computer algorithms that can be used to predict what is going on in people’s brains under certain circumstances.

whurley describes a device called “” that sends electrical signals into the brain that is purported to assist with meditation. But perhaps it is a focusing device. Some aspects of the software could be useful. []

Russ:  The device has great descriptors and suggestions of wow stuff, then tons of warning disclaimers.

Tai chi: turns out some of the old stuff is some of the best stuff: meditation, deep, challenging conversations with other people. Your brain is mostly social.

software…what would you be doing?

Russ: I’d be interested in seeing how far you can push certain techniques such as EEG, pushing the envelope, seeing what you can record and what you can predict about their brain responses.

short term…

whurley: Emotive hardware. Kickstarter has a sexier product up there right now that raised a lot of funding. Tons of opportunities for devices that help people focus. (could he be referring to this kickstarter? )

On the research side: several schools are putting a chip in your brain and through a software pathway, that chip can move a robot arm. The science was good, the algorithm was good, but also the brain was good. It made the arm move.

Russ: Our brains are incredibly adaptive.

whurley: But..when I think of software and hardware…I hope you don’t have to cut me open to do this. Amazing surgery Experiments in progress — but this will seem like caveman trephining in the future. ] (For images of early brain surgery: ]

favorite gadget for the future, wish list…

whurley: Common thread about an experience, where you can transfer an experience. Brainstorm with Christopher Walken: the head device. [ ]. You record experiences and it can be played back to another person then to the matrix, to (a brain data heist).

Russ: A system that makes us all better than we are now. But where do we end up as a species? Clearly, there is a reason that we are what we are today. But there is a problem: the world we are in now is not the world we evolved in. So, can we push ourselves too far past what we are as a species?

Kevin: will we become obsolete?

Whurley: It is inevitable that we will have it and use it. But for now, it seems more improbable. This is the greatest time to be alive from a scientific standpoint. The longest what I predict takes to come true, the more of a visionary I am proved to be (a small joke).

Russ: Software has changed our brains. Already.

lightning round of Q&A…

Q: What is the most significant tech advancement in brain research?

Russ: Optogenetics.

whurley: Obama funds mapping the brain ($100 million).

Russ: There is, but where do we put it? Example: give a rat a substance that erases a memory of a substance it has learned to avoid. Or… consider the use of dicyclomine to treat post-traumatic stress disorders.

whurley: Time Magazine about pharma to pinpoint and erase memories.

Q: Is it possible to build a brain that can grow and develop and keep your brain going forward?

whurley: All knowledge is possible. lots of effort. IBM focusing on that. But in computer science, you need to understand how it works and we don’t know how the brain works– yet. Watson: IBM role of Watson in brain enhancement.

whurley: I’m an ex-IBMer and I love IBM. While that science is very far advanced, a lot of the science around that sucks and there need to be more projects in that area. There are 1,000 projects that could come out of that.

Q: Do we have anything that can help with epilepsy?

Russ: I’m not sure of the work MC says on split-brain research…

Q: How could this software help with mental illnesses, such as bipolar?

Russ: Perhaps…such as an app that you can talk to that can work with you when you are having a panic attack?

Q: whurley re skateboard. Did you expect the reaction to the skateboard thing?

whurley: No! We did not. Kinnect. That’s off-topic. My reaction was shock, we bought that stuff on Ebay.

Q: Can sonic analysis take the place of more invasive stuff?

Russ: There is more interest in using ultrasound to change what the brain is doing. Optogenetics is the hot thing now. Example: a channel from a jellyfish that turns a cell off and on and then using that cell to control diseases such as Parkinsons Disease. ( )

Q: If there was one thing about the brain that you could know with absolute certainty, what would it be?

whurley: I would like to know the code for programming the brain.

Russ: What would be the computational architecture? What are brains really built to do? Answer: adapt, survive.

Q: Someone cannot talk, but they can sing. How can that be?

Russ: It is different machinery in the brain that does singing and a part that talks

Q: Is there one big predictive analysis using brain software?

whurley: there are companies trying to use predictive analysis right now, specifically for commercial purposes.

Russ: we are trying to figure out what you can predict from MRI data. He then references the book, Thinking Fast and Slow.  (,_Fast_and_Slow ) Software to help you with your cognitive biases.

Q: What do you think that finding of neuroplasticity means?

Russ: moving away from functional parts of the brain “doing things” to “how the brain parts are networking together.” The Human Connectome Project: how do things talk to one another?  ( )

Q: What about the hazards?

Whurley: Risks: changing chemistry, implanting electrodes, using Focus, whatever. If you are going to mess up an organ, it should not be your brain. How do you ethically do testing and research without it being at people’s expense.

Kevin: Brain training studies. Interested in interns and workers.

Russ: For more discussion, you can reach me on twitter. ( @russpoldrack )

Whurley: I can be reached at [invites others, if they to be involved as interns…”and you don’t value your brain!” laughs.

I just found an article posted on brain altering software on KUT featuring whurley ( ) and here’s a fun “official headshot” of whurley for your delectation:

Screen Shot 2014-01-22 at 11.17.33 PM

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