Cortical coprocessors: an outboard OS for the brain

Paul Raven @ 27-09-2010

The last time I remember encountering the word “coprocessor” was when my father bought himself a 486DX system with all the bells and whistles, some time back in the nineties. Now it’s doing the rounds in this widely-linked Technology Review article about brain-function bolt-ons; it’s a fairly serious examination of the possibilities of augmenting our mind-meat with technology, and well worth a read. Here’s a snippet:

Given the ever-increasing number of brain readout and control technologies available, a generalized brain coprocessor architecture could be enabled by defining common interfaces governing how component technologies talk to one another, as well as an “operating system” that defines how the overall system works as a unified whole–analogous to the way personal computers govern the interaction of their component hard drives, memories, processors, and displays. Such a brain coprocessor platform could facilitate innovation by enabling neuroengineers to focus on neural prosthetics at an algorithmic level, much as a computer programmer can work on a computer at a conceptual level without having to plan the fate of every individual bit. In addition, if new technologies come along, e.g., a new kind of neural recording technology, they could be incorporated into a system, and in principle rapidly coupled to existing computation and perturbation methods, without requiring the heavy readaptation of those other components.

Of course, the idea of a brain OS brings with it the inevitability of competing OSs in the marketplace… including a widely-used commercial product that needs patching once a week so that dodgy urban billboards can’t trojan your cerebellum and turn you into an unwitting evangelist for under-the-counter medicines and fake watches, an increasingly-popular slick-looking solution with a price-tag (and aspirational marketing) to match, and a plethora of forked open-source systems whose proponents can’t understand why their geeky obsession with being able to adjust the tiniest settings effectively excludes the wider audience they’d love to reach. Those “I’m a Mac / I’m a PC” ads will get a whole new lease of remixed and self-referential life…


Universal robot operating system: well, they’re too late to call it Android

Paul Raven @ 14-08-2009

robotAs evidenced by the number of posts we end up doing about them, robots are a real growth industry. Which is all well and good, but the folks in R&D departments everywhere have a problem.

In a nutshell, it’s interoperability: each robot is developed in isolation, meaning valuable resources are expended replicating functionalities that others have already nailed down. What they need is a common and standardised robot operating system.

This sorry state of affairs is set to change. Roboticists have begun to think about what robots have in common and what aspects of their construction can be standardised, hopefully resulting in a basic operating system everyone can use. This would let roboticists focus their attention on taking the technology forward.

[…]

On top of all this, each robot has its own unique hardware and software, so capabilities like balance implemented on one robot cannot easily be transferred to others.

Bourcier sees this changing if robotics advances in a manner similar to personal computing. For computers, the widespread adoption of Microsoft’s Disk Operating System (DOS), and later Windows, allowed programmers without detailed knowledge of the underlying hardware and file systems to build new applications and build on the work of others.

Programmers could build new applications without detailed knowledge of the underlying hardware

Bringing robotics to this point won’t be easy, though. “Robotics is at the stage where personal computing was about 30 years ago,” says Chad Jenkins of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Like the home-brew computers of the late 70s and early 80s, robots used for research today often have a unique operating system (OS). “But at some point we have to come together to use the same resources,” says Jenkins.

And there’s already an open-source type system being developed… as well as a Microsoft alternative, for those who fancy paying a license fee for robots that are vulnerable to trojans and spyware, one assumes.

If we’re to extend the analogy of the current robotics industry being like the computer industry of the early eighties, I wonder if we can expect generic clone hardware to start appearing in response to a demand from maker-businesses and hobbyists? [via PlausibleFutures; image by woordenaar]