Brain hacking with the smartest guys in the room

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 really smart guys chatted each other up about human and computer intelligence. The conversation was fast, speculative, 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 in four Youtubes. Starts here: ]


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

The 50s, the 60s, was the era 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 neurosci. 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 under a variety of situations, including when an I-Phone 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 send 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 descriptor 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 the 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: Optogenitics.

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 pinopnt 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 efforts. 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 illness, 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 at 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 a disease such as Parkinsons. ( )

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 is 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 mean?

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

For more information:

Welcome to your new job: powerful individuals, disposable companies, disrupt traditional economic predictors

James McQuivey (VP, Principal Analyst at Forrester Research):
Welcome to the new disruption.

“Things started to speed up at the end…” — Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Analyst, futurist, and author of Digital Disruption, James McQuivey, gave an example of how product cycles are speeding up: Apple took two years to sell the first two million I-Pads, while Microsoft took about two weeks to sell the first two millions androids. Okay, not quite “Apples” and oranges but one gets his point.

Change is accelerating at what might not seem to be people-friendly speed. But guess what? We humans seem to be adapting to the increasing whirl of the planet nicely. McQuivey wondered aloud about what might happens in a world where, after people internalize disruption,  will then proceed to generate perpetual disruption. What then?

The digital disruption has placed us all in continual disruption. Change has become the only constant, where our lives become data that is mined by ever-changing, disposable companies. We may be on the verge of witnessing the death of the corporations, as they lose control of data and of the products that they create.

Share and share alike may become the next system of barter and economics, as litigation over possession and copyright of intellectual property becomes impossible to control. According to McGuivey, regulation by rule of law will become obsolete because things are changing too rapidly for regulation to keep up. Regulatory systems must crumble—because innovation and change will continue to happen faster and faster.

So, how can workers manage careers when the career path can careen through an array of pop-up companies? McQuivey suggested a new value system that focuses on individuals, leaving organizations out of the picture entirely. Talented contributors could have real-time stock exchanges of their worth as individuals, rated and valued as companies are today. In contrast to the idea of developing inside of large corporation, McQuivey said that It’s unethical and short-sighted to lock up a resource—a talented individual— into one company that restricts the talent from sharing their abilities for the greater good.

[and here’s a great example of this concept in action, the about page of Chaotic Moon, where the company puts the headshots and names of their talent up front as “the smart, most creative people”: ]

Since SxSW 2013, McQuivey has presented more on digital disruption at Touchcast. You can view the webinar from that event here:

Book: Digital Disruption, by James McQuivey. Kindle on Amazon here:

More images from 2013 South by Southwest Interactive

2013 SxSW Interactive Presentations on Soundcloud

Find out more about the South by Southwest Interactive Conference in Austin Texas

One virtual singer, unlimited creators. Hatsune Miku: The open source girl who conquered the world

The Hatsune Miku demo booth at South by Southwest Interactive 2013. #sxswmiku

The creators of Hatsune Miku, the virtual singer software, discussed how the vast collaborative effort that is expressed via Miku blurs the perceived boundaries between audience and star at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival 2013 in Austin, Texas.

Miku is singing synthesizer software that is virtualized as an anime of a young female pop star with an abundance of ponytailed blue hair. The full name, Hatsune Miku roughly translates as “First Sound from the Future” — and it is a welcome sound, one that is incredibly popular, with millions of fans worldwide and hundreds of YouTube fan-based music videos.

Many of the Miku fans — not all of which are young Asian females — create songs and share them within the Miku community, where they are vetted. The user of Miku creates lyrics and a song: the Miku vocaloid software sings and performs the song. Fans vote popular songs up. Songs that make it to the top in the eyes of the fan community have a chance to be selected for a virtual digital performance.

A virtual singer, projected as a hologram animation to sold-out venues, performs digitally for a live audience who respond with the same enthusiasm they would exhibit for a live performer. But the audience cheers as much for each other as for the virtual singer, because the fans create the music.

Crypton CEO Hiroyuki Itoh. MIKU Participatory culture, boundaries vanish between fan, artist.

Crypton Future Media CEO Hiroyuki Itoh and his creative team tried to explain to the Austin audience, most of who had not experienced a Miku performance, how Miku, the virtual singer avatar, provides creative collaboration as songwriters create and post songs, which are enjoyed and voted upon by fans.

Each song comes with a unique copyright, with variable copyright options available to the creator who uploads the image for sharing with the community.

Revenue for Crypton may also come via mobile games and advertising. Interestingly, Miku fans seem to enjoy it when the company partners the Miku image with large corporations. When they see Miku’s image coupled with a popular food or drink franchise, they see her success as their success.

Although the software is mostly sold and used in Japan and other Asian countries, it has international appeal. Miku has crossed beyond Japan and is now an international phenomenon, as the software has been bootlegged into Thai, Russian, Spanish, and other languages.

There is also a virtual interface—Miku dance software. Downloadable Miku skins are also available to overlay onto the singer, making changes to the singer’s appearance for the users. All of the skins and other options are free to users.

Itoh observed that Japan’s fan culture appears to be much more coherent and organized than in the US. This may be a factor in the success of the product. But Miku is not a human idol such as a real-life singer: Hatune Miku is a symbol of an idol, and one that evolves and mutates through mass audience input.

What is fascinating about the Miku project is its participatory culture and vast complexity: users’ content freely contributed, collaborative creation, celebration of the idol at conventions, in games, in role-play, at live concerts.

The music software and the music created with Miku software is profoundly misunderstood by the US media, where journalists have sometimes described Miku as a “fake” singer. The user of the word “fake” has angered Miku fans worldwide, and has led to death threats made by fans towards journalists.  Fans activities have been denigrated in racist and simplistic tones as “one more of those weird things Japanese people do.” Judgmental and naïve descriptors such as “fake” fail to describe Miku. A more enlightened understanding recognizes that Miku music is participatory and collaborative.

Hiroyuki Itoh, Cryton CEO, Tara Knight, Kanea Maraki, and Alex Leavitt were the panelists at the Miku presentation at South by Southwest 2013. 

Itoh said that part of Miku’s success could lay in the fact that she has no back story. Miku just is: the fans overlay their own stories onto the avatar. Although the software is not open source, the creation is open-ended and invites user input. Miku is a crowd-sourced character. And the crowd controls the image, punishing those who push the boundaries defined by the majority. User generated content, fan generated content define Hatsune Miku.

The original Miku image is of a 16-year-old girl singer. Fans create artwork of their idol. Hatsune Miku is evolving visually as an animé image as well as musically. The fans spin off the original “no story” girl singer into extreme creations. Abuse of the image happens. Porn images and slasher fantasies of Miku pop up on the web. Fans swarm onto anything that is not canonical and kill it on YouTube, with thumbs down votes and vitriolic comments. What is wanted, what is not wanted, is managed by the fans.

YouTube’s up or down votes affect the algorithms that determine which videos will be offered when users search for Miku content. Fans check in every few weeks and rank new Miku videos. They curate and compile evaluation videos about Miku music videos. The things the fans like get pushed up and those characteristics enter the canon.

As the creator fans create the content, they evolve Miku into what they want her to be. The fans are in control of the Idol they are creating.

Creators and artists are often captured by their creative games. There could come to pass a future where Miku evolves into something more sentient, with perhaps an AI element.

The Miku software sales team at the 2013 South by Southwest Interactive this spring, bringing something completely different to an event that thrives on invention.

Links of interest:


More images from 2013 South by Southwest Interactive

2013 SxSW Interactive Presentations on Soundcloud

Find out more about the South by Southwest Interactive Conference in Austin Texas

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