Close conversation really is a meeting of minds

Paul Raven @ 27-07-2010

Behind the inevitable allusions to Star Trek, this is an interesting story: scientific evidence that the brain waves of someone listening closely to another person’s speech can synchronise with them.

The evidence comes from fMRI scans of 11 people’s brains as they listened to a woman recounting a story.

The scans showed that the listeners’ brain patterns tracked those of the storyteller almost exactly, though trailed 1 to 3 seconds behind. But in some listeners, brain patterns even preceded those of the storyteller.

“We found that the participants’ brains became intimately coupled during the course of the ‘conversation’, with the responses in the listener’s brain mirroring those in the speaker’s,” says Uri Hasson of Princeton University.

Hasson’s team monitored the strength of this coupling by measuring the extent of the pattern overlap. Listeners with the best overlap were also judged to be the best at retelling the tale. “The more similar our brain patterns during a conversation, the better we understand each other,” Hasson concludes.

Apparently (and completely unsurprisingly) an unfamiliar language acts as a barrier to this synchronisation – if you can’t understand the person who’s speaking, you can’t “click” with them. This is probably the best argument for a single global language that I can think of… but I wonder if poor comprehension of the same language would produce similar results to a completely foreign language?

Biomimetics for universal radio

Tom James @ 05-06-2009

snailishResearchers at MIT have developed a software radio chip based on the operations of the cochlea (the seashell bit of the human ear):

The RF cochlea, embedded on a silicon chip measuring 1.5 mm by 3 mm, works as an analog spectrum analyzer, detecting the composition of any electromagnetic waves within its perception range. Electromagnetic waves travel through electronic inductors and capacitors (analogous to the biological cochlea’s fluid and membrane). Electronic transistors play the role of the cochlea’s hair cells.

Software radios are all kinds of awesome, and it’s interesting how biomimetics is being used in more and more contexts – no need to reinvent the wheel.

[via Technovelgy][image from POSITiv on flickr]

Quantum superposition breakthrough

Tom James @ 29-05-2009

theory_actualA rich seam of technological and science-fictional ideas seem ready to be mined with the development of the first light trap that can simultaneously store different numbers of photons:

“These superposition states are a fundamental concept in quantum mechanics, but this is the first time they have been controllably created with light,” Cleland said. Martinis added, “This experiment can be thought of as a quantum digital-to-analog converter.” As digital-to-analog converters are key components in classical communication devices (for example, producing the sound waveforms in cell phones), this experiment might enable more advanced communication protocols for the transmission of quantum information.

The research is funded by IARPA. Intelligence services are understandably keen to learn more about the potential for quantum computers to break conventionally encrypted communications.

[image and story from Physorg]

Software and sentiments – language as battlefield

Paul Raven @ 11-05-2009

I consider myself pretty fortunate in that I don’t have to moderate the comments here at Futurismic with a heavy hand[1], but that’s down to matters of scale; there just aren’t enough active commenters here to allow severe flamewars to start, but moderating the discussion on a site like BoingBoing is a different matter entirely, and usually requires a layer of direct human interaction after thecommon-or-garden \/1/\9|2/\ spambots have been weeded out.

Those days may be nearing an end, however; New Scientist reports on a new breed of software agent that is programmed to analyse the tone and sentiment of written communication on the web:

The early adopters of these tools are the owners of big brand names in a world where company reputations are affected by customer blogs as much as advertising campaigns. A small but growing group of firms is developing tools that can trawl blogs and online comments, gauging the emotional responses brought about by the company or its products.


The abusive “flame wars” that plague online discussions are encouraged by the way human psychology plays out over the web, as we’ve explained before. Moderating such discussions can be a time-consuming job, needing much judgment to spot when a heated exchange crosses over into abuse.

Sentiment-aware software can help here too. One example is Adaptive Semantics’ JuLiA – a software agent based on a learning algorithm that has been trained to recognise abusive comments. “She” can take down or quarantine comments that cross a predetermined abuse threshold […]

Work is underway to expand JuLiA’s comprehension abilities – for example, to decide whether text is intelligent, sarcastic, or political in tone.

That’s all well and good, and it’ll probably work for a while – but much like anything else, it’ll be seen as a challenge to exactly the sort of people it’s designed to filter, and we’ll have another software arms race on our hands – albeit one initially played for much lower stakes than the virus/anti-virus game.

But look here a moment:

Another firm, Lexalytics, uses sentiment analysis to influence what people say before it is too late. It can identify which “good news” messages from company executives have the greatest effect on stock price. These results can then be used to advise certain people to speak out more, or less, often, or to gauge the likely effectiveness of a planned release.

Now there’s a double-edged sword; if you can use that analysis to protect and strengthen a stock price, someone can surely use it for exactly the opposite. And even beyond the battlefields of the trading floors and corporate boardrooms, there are plenty of folk who could find a use for software that could advise them on how to make their communications less offensive or incendiary… or more so, if the situation demanded it.

We live in the communication age, so I guess it’s inevitable that communication should become another new frontier for warfare… but look at the bright side: slam poetry contests are going to become a lot more interesting for spectators and participants alike. 😉

[ 1 – That’s not a challenge or a complaint, OK? Thanks. 🙂 ]


Sarah Ennals @ 26-04-2009

Lag - Does Not Equal

Does Not Equal is a webcomic by Sarah Ennalscheck out the pre-Futurismic archives, and the strips that have been published here previously.

[ Be sure to check out the Does Not Equal Cafepress store for webcomic merchandise featuring Canadians with geometrically-shaped heads! ]

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