The physiology and psychology of living in space

Paul Raven @ 01-04-2011

Via BigThink, Robert Lamb of Discovery News has compiled an overview of the physical and mental adjustments a human being makes to living in the microgravity of an orbital space station:

Stage Three: Sometime between week six and week 12, you can expect things to get a little moody aboard the old space station. Russian observations found that a number of the symptoms were linked to boredom and isolation. You become hypertensive, irritable and less motivated. Expect to fly off the handle whenever a crew member drifts into your personal space or borrows your iPod without asking. You can also expect increased sensitivity to loud noises, changes in musical preferences, exhaustion, sleep disturbances and loss of appetite. It should come as no surprise that this sometimes results in an “accusation of negative personality traits.”

Mundane/hard SF writers, take note – plenty of scientifically verifiable story triggers in there. Especially in Stage Four, which is all about “prevailing feelings of euphoria” and “new insights into the meaning of life and the unity of mankind”… so, kinda like watching 2001 with a headful of Owsley’s Old Original, then. (I’m kidding, of course. Well, mostly.)

Of course, the above research can, perforce, only describe the effects of a relatively short tenure at the top of the gravity well; for anything longer than a five-moth stretch, you’re probably gonna want to go cyborg


We are all cyborgs

Paul Raven @ 12-01-2011

That’s probably not news to most of you regulars here (especially not those of you who followed along with the #50cyborgs project), but this short sharp TED video featuring cyborg anthropologist Amber Case manages to explain in simple terms what “we are all cyborgs” actually means. (Hint: it’s not that the machines are taking over.)

Like I say, somewhat entry-level by Futurismic standards (unless I’ve misjudged y’all), but a good one to show to folks who can’t seem to get past the tabloid tech-terror stories, perhaps.

[ This one’s via all sorts of people, by the way, but the two sources that got bookmarked this time round were George Dvorsky and the grinding.be posse. ]


Technology as brain peripherals

Paul Raven @ 15-12-2010

Via George Dvorsky, a philosophical push-back against that persistent “teh-intarwebz-be-makin-uz-stoopid” riff, as espoused by professional curmudgeon Nick Carr (among others)… and I’m awarding extra points to Professor Andy Clark at the New York Times not just for arguing that technological extension or enhancement of the mind is no different to repair or support of it, but for mentioning the lyrics to an old Pixies tune. Yes, I really am that easily swayed*.

There is no more reason, from the perspective of evolution or learning, to favor the use of a brain-only cognitive strategy than there is to favor the use of canny (but messy, complex, hard-to-understand) combinations of brain, body and world. Brains play a major role, of course. They are the locus of great plasticity and processing power, and will be the key to almost any form of cognitive success. But spare a thought for the many resources whose task-related bursts of activity take place elsewhere, not just in the physical motions of our hands and arms while reasoning, or in the muscles of the dancer or the sports star, but even outside the biological body — in the iPhones, BlackBerrys, laptops and organizers which transform and extend the reach of bare biological processing in so many ways. These blobs of less-celebrated activity may sometimes be best seen, myself and others have argued, as bio-external elements in an extended cognitive process: one that now criss-crosses the conventional boundaries of skin and skull.

One way to see this is to ask yourself how you would categorize the same work were it found to occur “in the head” as part of the neural processing of, say, an alien species. If you’d then have no hesitation in counting the activity as genuine (though non-conscious) cognitive activity, then perhaps it is only some kind of bio-envelope prejudice that stops you counting the same work, when reliably performed outside the head, as a genuine element in your own mental processing?

[…]

Many people I speak to are perfectly happy with the idea that an implanted piece of non-biological equipment, interfaced to the brain by some kind of directly wired connection, would count (assuming all went well) as providing material support for some of their own cognitive processing. Just as we embrace cochlear implants as genuine but non-biological elements in a sensory circuit, so we might embrace “silicon neurons” performing complex operations as elements in some future form of cognitive repair. But when the emphasis shifts from repair to extension, and from implants with wired interfacing to “explants” with wire-free communication, intuitions sometimes shift. That shift, I want to argue, is unjustified. If we can repair a cognitive function by the use of non-biological circuitry, then we can extend and alter cognitive functions that way too. And if a wired interface is acceptable, then, at least in principle, a wire-free interface (such as links your brain to your notepad, BlackBerry or iPhone) must be acceptable too. What counts is the flow and alteration of information, not the medium through which it moves.

Lots of useful ideas in there for anyone working on a new cyborg manifesto, I reckon… and some interesting implications for the standard suite of human rights, once you start counting outboard hardware as part of the mind. (E.g. depriving someone of their handheld device becomes similar to blindfolding or other forms of sensory deprivation.)

[ * Not really. Well, actually, I dunno; you can try and convince me. Y’know, if you like. Whatever. Ooooh, LOLcats! ]


Pimp my prosthesis

Paul Raven @ 06-12-2010

For my money, a sure mark of a technology reaching maturity (and market acceptance) is when the purely aesthetic customisation options start to appear

bespoke prosthetic leg

Bonus future-points for the fact that these are being made using rapid prototyping / 3d printing technology. Mass production, pah!

[ Can’t actually remember whose Google Reader recommendations this piece came out of, so – whoever it was – please accept my apologies and an ambiguously-directed hat-tip. ]


The chip in Murcheson’s eye

Paul Raven @ 03-11-2010

The Guardian reports on a successful cyborg vision implant procedure; bonus points for the industry-standard soundbite disclaimer:

“The visual results they were able to achieve were, up until now, thought to be in the realms of science fiction,” said MacLaren.

The guy must read some pretty strict Mundane SF if he thinks this represents the apogee of artificial vision acuity as portrayed in science fiction…

A man left blind by a devastating eye disease has been able to read letters, tell the time and identify a cup and saucer on a table after surgeons fitted him with an electronic chip to restore his vision.

Whoa.

Snark aside, it’s actually a pretty impressive step along the path to full-on artificial vision.

Miikka Terho, 46, began losing his eyesight as a teenager and was completely blind when he joined a pilot study to test the experimental eye chip at the University of Tübingen in Germany.

[…]

“I’ve been completely blind in the central area for about 10 years. I had no reading ability and no way of recognising anybody any more. When the chip was first turned on, I just saw flashes and flickering. It didn’t make any sense. But in a matter of hours, everything started to get clearer and clearer,” Terho said.

“When I looked at people for the first time, they looked like ghosts. I knew it was a person, but they were hazy. Then things got sharper.

“It was such a good feeling to be able to focus on something, to see something right there, and maybe even reach out and grab it. I wasn’t able to identify what was in front of me on the street, but I knew when something was there, so I didn’t walk into it,” he added.

Interesting to note it took a while for the guy to start making sense of the input; neuroplasticity in action, maybe? Or just long-dormant visual centres slowly reopening for business? Whichever it is, it’s nice to find a story where technology is demonstrably improving people’s lives.


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