June 28, 2013

Human Augmentation Short Course -- Part II

I have been continuing to introduce an area of science and engineering called human augmentation to a broader audience using the "flash lecture" format discussed a few posts back. I have using my micro-blog Tumbld Thoughts as a test site for posting these lectures, and the social networking function of Tumblr (e.g. Tumblr radar) has garnered some sporadic direct interest (in the form of likes and re-posts). 

In this portion of the course (four lectures), we move beyond the basics and towards both more detailed phenomena related to augmentation and practical implementations of the technology.

I. Extending the Phenotype

In previous #human-augmentation posts, I briefly touched on the potential role of augmentation (e.g. wearing a prosthetic limb or see-though, head-mounted display) on physiological regulation. This may leave some readers puzzled, because often times these technologies do not directly interface with the nervous system. Nevertheless, once a technology provides a stand-in (or enhancer) of something the body does, it becomes incorporated into the body's physiology and representation of the world [1].

While technologies from rakes to nests have been found to represent an extended phenotype, an intelligent technology (one that includes an adaptive mitigation strategy) can actually serve to enhance or work in concert with an individual's ability for environmental adaptation [2]. Much like the diet and exercise regimen that helps a person lose weight, this ability exhibits great variation across individuals, which may be explained by pre-existing phenotypic or even genotypic differences.

The extent to which the technology participates in the physiological millieu depends of course on how much the augmentation assists in or takes over function. To understand this better, we can turn to the ergonomics definition of symbiosis, which defines "ergonomy" as the degree of coupling between human and mechanical device [3]. This ranges from tightly-coupled systems (implants that are seamlessly integrated into normal function) to ill-fitting systems (poorly-designed interfaces or computer mice).

II. Instrumented Motorcycle Helmet

Here is an example of performance augmentation in the form of an intelligent, see-through, and heads up display integrated into a motorcycle helmet. Brought to you by a start-up called LiveMap. The information presented in the field of view enables the wearer to improve their navigation ability and improve their riding experience. 

The first article (from Mashable - [4]) highlights the components of the helmet, which includes ambient information from multiple types of sensor (e.g. light sensor, microphone, GPS). This information is then fused and presented in a single location (in this case, the helmet) [5].

II. Wired Science Live Chat on Bionic Augmentation

Last week, I attended a live chat called "Our Cyborg Future", hosted by Wired Science. This was a live chat with two scientists in the field: John Rogers from UIUC and Michael McAlpine from Princeton [6]. These researchers work in a field called "bionics", where biological systems are augmented with electronics or other technology to either restore function or provide new sensory or performance capabilities.

The talk featured a number of visions for the future of bionic technologies and technologies for human augmentation. Fundamentally, the major challenge is to merge the language of electronics (e.g. electrons, phonons, and heat) with the language of biology (e.g. ions, proteins, and enzymes). While John Rogers is working towards electronically-augmented organs [7], Michael McAlpine is working towards using piezoelectric materials to harvest energy from biological motion and print 3-D structures such as tissue scaffolds

Three of the most interesting ideas [8] discussed during the talk:

* advances such as flexible [7] and bio-compatible electronics might be used to infuse a biological system with distributed electronics at the cellular and subcellular scale. This could include a range of components from silicon diodes to LEDs.

* the increases in brain-machine interface bandwidth due to flexible, laminated skin-like devices.

* the development of emerging technologies such as stretchable batteries, glucose fuel cells, implantable micro-heaters, and mechanical energy harvesting.

IV. The Role of Attention, Training, and critical Meta-Analysis

In a previous #human-augmentation post, I pointed to one experimental paradigm (environmental switching) that may serve as a natural (e.g. non-computational) filter for eliminating (e.g. mitigating) non-optimal performance due to environmental stresses or other challenges. This case is illustrative for two reasons: 

1) in cases where performance response curves are very complex and cannot be characterized by a simple mathematical function (e.g. a "U" shaped curve), a mitigation strategy involving physical chaos (rather than computational control) or other environmental manipulations may be more effective. In the first image (top), the potential dynamic effects of perturbation on attentional shifts during an episode of "Star Trek" is used as an example.

2) fully understanding the effects of mitigation may require more systematic experimental evaluation. One example of this involves the claim that long-term expertise with action video games improves cognitive abilities [9]. A meta-analysis of such studies [10] questions this assumption on several grounds, particularly with respect to the magnitude of improvement (e.g. effect size).

In this case of action video game expertise, two types of effect have been reported [10, 11]. The first involves relative expertise based on cross-sectional comparisons, which evaluate differences between gamers and non-gamers. The second involves acquired expertise (training in action video game play) as having numerous cognitive benefits.

The second type of effect is partially due to an effect called transfer of training (see image, lower left), in which skills acquired in one context can be transferred to another context. This effect also plays a role in human augmentation, and may exhibit a large degree of individual variation. However, there are three caveats raised in [10] that must be kept in mind not only for future action video game studies, but human augmentation studies as well:

* in studies that evaluate the effects of training, an adequate baseline for untrained performance must be used. 

* results should be generalizable to different settings and population (e.g. exhibit a high degree of experimental reproducibility).

* while there may be several improvements to performance/cognition attributable to prior training or experience with the activity in question, there may be many more outcomes that are unaffected by the treatment (action video games) or mitigation (human augmentation). 

[1] A few examples of this extension of the phenotype includes examples from humans (i), social insects (ii, iii), and animals (iv):

(i) Maravita, A. and Iriki, A.   Tools for the body (schema). Trends in Cognitive Science, 8(2), 79-86 (2004).

(ii) Turner, J.S.   The Extended Organism: The Physiology of Animal-Built Structures. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA (2002).

(iii) Turner, J.S.   Extended Phenotypes and Extended Organisms. Biology and Philosophy, 19, 327–352 (2004).

(iv) Schaedelin, F.C. and Taborsky, M.   Extended phenotypes as signals. Biological Reviews of the Cambridge Philosophical Society, 84(2), 293-313 (2009). 

[2] This ability, or adaptability, can be characterized using a parametric landscape as shown in a previous post.

[3] Licklider, J.C.R.   Man-Computer Symbiosis. IRE Transactions on Human Factors in Electronics, HFE-1, 4-11 (1960).

[4] Murphy, S.   A Motorcyclist's Dream: Google Glass in helmet form. Mashable, June 17 (2013).

[6] A transcript of the talk can be found here. Also see the McAlpine Research YouTube channel.

[7] For more on flexible robotics, please see this: Zheng, Y., He, Z., Gao, Y., and Liu, J.   Direct Desktop Printed-Circuits-on-Paper Flexible Electronics. Scientific Reports, 3, 1786 (2013).

[8] For more interesting ideas related to cyborgs and bio-inspired robotics, see these:

Rowe, A.   Top 10 Cyborg Videos. Wired Science, November 15 (2009)

[9] Green, C. and Bavelier, D.   Learning, Attentional Control, and Action Video Games. Current Biology, 22(6), R197-R206.

[10] Boot, W.R., Blakley, D.P., Simons, D.J.   Do action video games improve perception and cognition? Frontiers in Psychology, 2, 226 (2011).

[11] Simons, D.   Think video games make you smarter? Not so fast..... Daniel Simons blog, December 30 (2012).

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