Author: Staff

A sewing machine-like robot that can implant ultrathin threads deep into the brain

From Elon Musk’s Neuralink Wants ‘Sewing Machine-Like’ Robots to Wire Brains to the Internet – The New York Times:

One of Neuralink’s distinguishing techniques is that it places flexible threads of electrodes in proximity to neurons, the tiny cells that are the basic building blocks of the brain.

The ability to capture information from a large number of cells and then send it wirelessly to a computer for later analysis is believed to be an important step to improving basic understanding of the brain.

The threads are placed using thin needles, and a so-called computer-vision system helps avoid blood vessels on the surface of the brain. The technique being used by Neuralink involves inserting a bundle of threads that are each about a quarter of the diameter of a human hair.

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The company is hoping to begin working with human subjects as soon as the second quarter of next year.

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The company says surgeons would have to drill holes through the skull to implant the threads. But in the future, they hope to use a laser beam to pierce the skull with a series of tiny holes.

The human body is not a plug and play device. It’s not easy to expand and upgrade. To open the doors to mass adoption, human enhancement technologies must find a way to make the augmentation as frictionless as possible.

Must-watch recording of the live announcement: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r-vbh3t7WVI

The US FDA is officially warning consumers that buying young blood infusions to improve their health is not a good idea

From FDA officially warns against buying young blood – The Verge:

The idea that infusions of young blood could slow aging has been around since the early 2000s, when studies in mice showed promising results. (Notably, the young and old mice weren’t just sharing blood; they were attached and actually shared organs, too.) The concept really gained traction a few years ago, thanks in part to a rumor that venture capitalist Peter Thiel was interested in the transfusions. As other sites, including Bloomberg have noted, despite the outlandish nature of the claim, jokes about vampirism, and a spoof on the show Silicon Valley, the idea has not gone away and young blood clinics do exist. Notably, a startup called Ambrosia Medical promised transfusions for $8,000 a liter. “It works,” Ambrosia founder Jesse Karmazin told a Mic reporter. “It reverses aging.”There is almost no evidence that this claim is true. Some of the researchers who did the original young blood studies have shown (again in mice) that old blood hurts more than young blood helps and suggest that it’d be a better idea to instead just study why old blood is harmful. In 2017, a rigorous clinical trial found that young blood given to 18 patients with Alzheimer’s did almost nothing to treat the disease. Not only is this ineffective, but even typical transfusions can be dangerous, leading to a few dozen deaths reported to the FDA each year.

Both Google (with Calico) and Jeff Bezos (with Unity Biotechnology) are researching this practice. I doubt that a rigorous study on just 18 patients for a very specific use case like Alzheimer would discourage them.

Do the Chinese gene-edited babies actually exist?

From Creation of gene-edited babies in China may have been illegal

A preliminary investigation into the creation of gene-edited babies in China has concluded that Chinese researcher He Jiankui “illegally conducted the research in the pursuit of personal fame and gain”, reports the Xinhua state news agency. An investigating team set up by the Health Commission of China in southern Guangdong province said on Monday that He had avoided supervision, raised funds and organised researchers on his own to carry out the work. The case has been referred to the ministry of public security, which investigates suspected crimes. The report stops short of confirming that the genome-edited babies – created using the CRISPR method – really do exist. Xinhua refers to “the claimed ‘genetically edited babies’”, so we still have no independent confirmation beyond what He has said.

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The Xinhua report also states that gene-editing human embryos for the purpose of reproduction “is banned by Chinese law”, which may have serious repercussions for He.

Also an interesting read: Who are the investors supporting He Jiankui, the Chinese scientist behind the gene-edited babies?

Experts say the Verily contact lens program was misguided from the beginning

From Verily pauses research on glucose-sensing contact lens – The Verge

Verily, previously Google Life Sciences, is putting a hold on its program to build a contact lens that can monitor glucose in tears.

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Glucose is fundamentally hard to measure. Among other challenges, the body doesn’t have a lot of it, and it lacks distinguishing features. Plus, experts say the contact lens program was misguided from the beginning. Tears are an unreliable measure of blood glucose, John L. Smith, former chief scientific officer of Johnson & Johnson’s glucose monitoring division and author of The Pursuit of Noninvasive Glucose: Hunting the Deceitful Turkey, told The Verge. Glucose in tears simply doesn’t track closely enough with glucose in the blood.

Today’s development is the latest sign of a change in Google’s health initiatives, as the company recently hired a CEO to organize its fragmented health initiatives. Though Verily will continue research on smart lenses to address farsightedness and cataracts, the end of the glucose monitoring project itself is hardly surprising.

Or, Google found more interesting commercial applications for the technology developed so far.

Sub $1,000 smart glasses are a reality now

From North is trying to become the Warby Parker of augmented reality glasses – The Verge

The glasses show wearers a bunch of information from their phone; can call an Uber; and are extremely customizable to the point of requiring a 3D model of each wearers’ face to make them work.

Lake and his team took me through the purchasing process, which involves sitting in a dark room surrounded by 16 cameras and one attendant. I had to put my hair back in a cotton headband (that I got to keep!) and line my face up with a pair of software-created glasses on a screen. The cameras then took a bunch of photos simultaneously to create a 3D model of my ears, nose, eyes, and face.

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Each Focals pair features a tiny, color laser in the right arm that displays information from your phone over Bluetooth. That laser bounces off a piece of photopolymer material built into the glasses’ right lens, then heads into your eye. It creates a 15-degree viewing area that’s about 300 x 300 pixels.

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North built custom software for the glasses and designed the UI in-house. It’s colorful with slight animations that I think look nice. You can view your messages, send automated responses that North crafted through SMS, call an Uber, get turn-by-turn directions through Mapbox, view your calendar, and check the weather.

The image will automatically disappear after three seconds of non-use, which I wish came with the option to be extended.

Each pair has enough battery to last 18 hours, North says, and can be recharged only through their companion case. This case also charges the essential Focals accessory: the Loop. The Loop is a plastic ring with a joystick-like button that looks like any plastic smart ring you’ve seen on the market. It’s bulky and doesn’t look so nice, but it allows wearers to swipe through their glasses’ interface without having to touch their glasses or do something with their head. A ring makes way more sense to me, although again, it’s ugly.

You can swipe through your notifications by pushing left or right on the Loop joystick and pressing down to make a selection. You can also use it to trigger Amazon’s Alexa assistant because yes, Alexa is built-in. The glasses have a microphone and speaker inside, so you can issue commands to Alexa and hear responses if necessary. (Amazon was a leading investor in North’s Series B funding.)

A pair costs $999, which includes lenses, the prescription, anti-glare coatings, and the fitting.

Still far away from a mainstream product, but getting there. Dangerously fast. In fact, Amazon is a leading investor.

Also, it will be interesting to see what the scientific and medical community finds out about a laser projected on a human retina in terms of attention reduction and/or sleep pattern disruption.

What if we could cure people of inherited diseases before they were born?

From Pioneering Stem Cell Trial Seeks to Cure Babies Before Birth

Elianna has a rare inherited blood disorder called alpha thalassemia major, which prevents her red blood cells from forming properly. The disease, which has no cure, is usually fatal for a developing fetus.

But while still in her mother’s womb, Elianna received a highly daring treatment. Doctors isolated healthy blood stem cells from her mother and injected them through a blood vessel that runs down the umbilical cord. Four months later, Elianna was born with a loud cry and a glistening head of hair, defying all medical odds.

Elianna is the first in a pioneering clinical trial that pushes the boundaries of stem cell transplants.

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The idea that you can treat a fetus while inside a mother’s womb is pretty radical. Doctors have long thought that fetuses are encased in an impermeable protected barrier, which helps protect the developing human from outside insults.

Early experiments with fetal stem cell transplants seemed to support the dogma. Most trials using the father’s stem cells failed, leading doctors to believe that the procedure couldn’t be done.

But subsequent research in animals discovered a crucial tidbit of information: the mother’s immune system, not the fetus, was rejecting the father’s stem cells.

There’s more: rather than being quarantined, fetuses continuously exchange cells with their mothers, so much so that fetal cells can actually be isolated from a mother’s bloodstream.

The reason for this is to quiet both parties’ immune systems. Because the fetus has part of the father’s DNA, it makes a portion of their cells foreign to the mother. This back-and-forth trafficking of cells “teaches” both the mom’s and the fetal immune system to calm down: even though the cells aren’t a complete genetic match, the fetuses’ cells will tolerate their mother’s cells, and vice-versa. In this way, during pregnancy the fetal immune system is on hold against the mother.

This harmonious truce changes once the baby is born. The child’s immune system grinds into action, attacking any cells that are foreign to its body. Once born, a bone marrow transplant requires drugs to kill off the infant’s own bone marrow cells and make room for healthy ones. It also requires high doses of immunosuppressant drugs to keep the infant’s immune system at bay while the new, healthy cells do their job.

Enabling accessible and scalable eye tracking research

From Pupil Labs

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Supercharge your VR and AR eye tracking research and development with our eye tracking add-ons for the latest consumer hardware.

Take full control of the software and modify to your needs – it’s 100% open source!

Remarkable hardware design supported by an open source software platform, with an impressive list of customers.

A friend of mine mentioned them to me. Can’t wait to try it.

There is an increasing ‘lifestyle use’ of cognitive-enhancing drugs by healthy people

From Use of ‘smart drugs’ on the rise

The use of drugs by people hoping to boost mental performance is rising worldwide, finds the largest ever study of the trend. In a survey of tens of thousands of people, 14% reported using stimulants at least once in the preceding 12 months in 2017, up from 5% in 2015.

The non-medical use of substances—often dubbed smart drugs—to increase memory or concentration is known as pharmacological cognitive enhancement (PCE), and it rose in all 15 nations included in the survey. The study looked at prescription medications such as Adderall and Ritalin—prescribed medically to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)—as well as the sleep-disorder medication modafinil and illegal stimulants such as cocaine.

US respondents reported the highest rate of use: in 2017, nearly 30% said they had used drugs for PCE at least once in the preceding 12 months, up from 20% in 2015.

But the largest increases were in Europe: use in France rose from 3% in 2015 to 16% in 2017; and from 5% to 23% in the United Kingdom

The ethical concerns mentioned (and linked) in the article were discussed in 2008. Ten years later, the consumption of smart drugs is exploding.

Clearly, people are way more concerned about information processing than ethical issues or side effects.

Someday, maybe, we could regrow limbs

From Axolotl Genome Slowly Yields Secrets of Limb Regrowth | Quanta Magazine

Salamanders are champions at regenerating lost body parts. A flatworm called a planarian can grow back its entire body from a speck of tissue, but it is a very small, simple creature. Zebra fish can regrow their tails throughout their lives. Humans, along with other mammals, can regenerate lost limb buds as embryos. As young children, we can regrow our fingertips; mice can still do this as adults. But salamanders stand out as the only vertebrates that can replace complex body parts that are lost at any age, which is why researchers seeking answers about regeneration have so often turned to them.

While researchers studying animals like mice and flies progressed into the genomic age, however, those working on axolotls were left behind. One obstacle was that axolotls live longer and mature more slowly than most lab animals, which makes them cumbersome subjects for genetics experiments. Worse, the axolotl’s enormous and repetitive genome stubbornly resisted sequencing.

Then a European research team overcame the hurdles and finally published a full genetic sequence for the laboratory axolotl earlier this year. That accomplishment could change everything.

“The genome was a huge problem that had been lingering over the heads of everyone working in axolotl,” said Jessica Whited, the assistant professor and researcher who supervises this laboratory at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Now that she and other researchers have the whole axolotl genome, they’re hoping to unlock secrets of regeneration and perhaps even to learn how humans could harness this power for ourselves

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After an amputation, a salamander bleeds very little and seals off the wound within hours. Cells then migrate to the wound site and form a blob called a blastema. Most of these recruits seem to be cells from nearby that have turned back their own internal clocks to an unspecialized or “dedifferentiated” state more like that seen in embryos. But it’s unclear whether and to what extent the animal also calls on reserves of stem cells, the class of undifferentiated cells that organisms maintain to help with healing. Whatever their origin, the blastema cells redifferentiate into new bone, muscle and other tissues. A perfect new limb forms in miniature, then enlarges to the exact right size for its owner.

Scientists don’t know whether axolotls use the same mechanisms to regenerate their internal organs as their limbs. They also don’t know why an axolotl can grow back an arm many times in a row but not indefinitely — after being amputated five times, most axolotl limbs stop coming back. Another mystery is how a limb knows to stop growing when it reaches the right size.

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Monaghan is studying axolotl retinas to try to improve the outcomes of prospective stem cell therapies in aging human eyes. He also thinks finding out how axolotls rapidly regrow their lungs could help us learn to heal human lungs, which naturally have some regenerative power.

McCusker has studied how the tissue environment of a salamander’s regenerating limb controls the behavior of cells. Someday, we might be able to regulate the environment around a cancer cell and force it to behave normally.

National AI Strategies Around the World

From An Overview of National AI Strategies – Politics + AI – Medium

In the past fifteen months, Canada, Japan, Singapore, China, the UAE, Finland, Denmark, France, the UK, the EU Commission, South Korea, and India have all released strategies to promote the use and development of AI. No two strategies are alike, with each focusing on different aspects of AI policy: scientific research, talent development, skills and education, public and private sector adoption, ethics and inclusion, standards and regulations, and data and digital infrastructure.

This article summarizes the key policies and goals of each national strategy. It also highlights relevant policies and initiatives that the countries have announced since the release of their initial strategies.

These strategies are the foundation for future policies about human enhancement technology adoption. Once a nation sees the benefits of artificial intelligence, it will be hard to limit its adoption to just things.

What happens if humans get external or prosthetic nerves?

From Juan Enriquez: What will humans look like in 100 years? | TED Talk

And four of the smartest people that I’ve ever met — Ed Boyden, Hugh Herr, Joe Jacobson, Bob Lander — are working on a Center for Extreme Bionics. And the interesting thing of what you’re seeing here is these prosthetics now get integrated into the bone. They get integrated into the skin. They get integrated into the muscle. And one of the other sides of Ed is he’s been thinking about how to connect the brain using light or other mechanisms directly to things like these prosthetics. And if you can do that, then you can begin changing fundamental aspects of humanity. So how quickly you react to something depends on the diameter of a nerve. And of course, if you have nerves that are external or prosthetic, say with light or liquid metal, then you can increase that diameter and you could even increase it theoretically to the point where, as long as you could see the muzzle flash, you could step out of the way of a bullet. Those are the order of magnitude of changes you’re talking about.

The TED Talk only briefly mentions this aspect, but it’s worth watching to have an idea of the most prominent scientists working on human body augmentation technologies today.

3D-printed organs within the next five years

From Implantable 3D-printed organs could be coming sooner than you think | TechCrunch

Prellis Biologics have just taken a big step on the path toward developing viable 3D-printed organs for humans.

The company, which was founded in 2016 by research scientists Melanie Matheu and Noelle Mullin, staked its future (and a small $3 million investment) on a new technology to manufacture capillaries, the one-cell-thick blood vessels that are the pathways which oxygen and nutrients move through to nourish tissues in the body.

Without functioning capillary structures, it is impossible to make organs, according to Matheu. They’re the most vital piece of the puzzle in the quest to print viable hearts, livers, kidneys and lungs, she said.

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Now, Prellis has published findings indicating that it can manufacture those capillaries at a size and speed that would deliver 3D-printed organs to the market within the next five years.

Prellis uses holographic printing technology that creates three-dimensional layers deposited by a light-induced chemical reaction that happens in five milliseconds.

This feature, according to the company, is critical for building tissues like kidneys or lungs. Prellis achieves this by combining a light-sensitive photo-initiator with traditional bioinks that allows the cellular material to undergo a reaction when blasted with infrared light, which catalyzes the polymerization of the bioink.

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Prellis’ organs will also need to be placed in a bioreactor to sustain them before they’re transplanted into an animal, but the difference is that the company aims to produce complete organs rather than sample tissue or a small cell sample, according to a statement. The bioreactors can simulate the biomechanical pressures that ensure an organ functions properly

More reading about this technology: https://www.prellisbiologics.co/prellis-literature

Intelligent prosthetic ankles, so you can wear a dress shoe, a running shoe, a flat

From “Smart” prosthetic ankle takes fear out of rough terrain, stairs | Vanderbilt News | Vanderbilt University

Prosthetic ankles available now are static, meaning they don’t anticipate movement and adjust the feet to different terrains. Many users swing the prosthetic leg outward ever so slightly during regular walking to make up for feet that don’t naturally roll through the motion of walking.

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The ankle has a tiny motor, actuator, sensors and chip that work together to either conform to the surface the foot is contacting or remain stationary, depending on what the user needs.

Goldfarb said the problem with finding workable prosthetic ankles is so pervasive that many amputees only wear one type of shoe – whichever one works best with their prosthetic.

“Our prosthetic ankle is intelligent, so you can wear a dress shoe, a running shoe, a flat – whatever you’d like – and the ankle adapts,” Goldfarb said. “You can walk up slopes, down slopes, up stairs and down stairs, and the device figures out what you’re doing and functions the way it should.”

Watch the video in the Techcrunch article.

Instantly correct robot mistakes with nothing more than brain signals and the flick of a finger

From How to control robots with brainwaves and hand gestures | MIT News

By monitoring brain activity, the system can detect in real-time if a person notices an error as a robot does a task. Using an interface that measures muscle activity, the person can then make hand gestures to scroll through and select the correct option for the robot to execute.

For the project the team used “Baxter,” a humanoid robot from Rethink Robotics. With human supervision, the robot went from choosing the correct target 70 percent of the time to more than 97 percent of the time.

To create the system the team harnessed the power of electroencephalography (EEG) for brain activity and electromyography (EMG) for muscle activity, putting a series of electrodes on the users’ scalp and forearm.

Both metrics have some individual shortcomings: EEG signals are not always reliably detectable, while EMG signals can sometimes be difficult to map to motions that are any more specific than “move left or right.” Merging the two, however, allows for more robust bio-sensing and makes it possible for the system to work on new users without training.

Combine passive blocking of sleep-disturbing sounds with sounds engineered to mask what gets past the blocking

From Bose gets into the business of sleep | TechCrunch

Sleep deprivation costs the US economy $411 billion a year. It’s bad for your health and generally turns you into a cranky piece of garbage no one want to be around. So, naturally, Bose wants to be in the sleep business. Tomorrow, the company launches SleepBuds, its first foray into helping people fall and stay asleep.

There’s no active noise cancelling on-board, unlike Bose’s better known efforts. Instead, the on-board soundscapes (things like leaves rustling and trickling waterfalls) are designed to essentially drown out noise.

The Sleepbuds never blocked the sound altogether. Instead it was more of a mix of sounds with the strange effect of hearing someone snoring off in the distance in a wind-swept field. You can always adjust the sound levels on the app, but you don’t want to make things too loud, for obvious reasons.

Interestingly, the company opted not to offer streaming here, instead storing files locally. There are ten preloaded sounds, with the option of adding more. This was primarily done for battery reasons. You should get about 16 hours on a charge, with 16 additional hours via the charging case.

It is the end of the poker face

From Poppy Crum: Technology that knows what you’re feeling | TED Talk

Your pupil doesn’t lie. Your eye gives away your poker face. When your brain’s having to work harder, your autonomic nervous system drives your pupil to dilate. When it’s not, it contracts. When I take away one of the voices, the cognitive effort to understand the talkers gets a lot easier. I could have put the two voices in different spatial locations, I could have made one louder. You would have seen the same thing. We might think we have more agency over the reveal of our internal state than that spider, but maybe we don’t.

Must-watch.

The moment a company brings to market a mainstream AR wearable, like smart contact lenses, that can act as an application platform, like iOS, and supports the installation of third-party applications through a marketplace, like the App Store, there will be a rush to develop AI apps that can read people’s behaviour in real time, in a way that most human brains cannot.

It doesn’t matter if the intentions are good. Such applications would expose vulnerabilities we are not prepared to defend against.

Longevity-as-a-service, via deep learning

From With strategic investment, Insilico Medicine is using deep learning to defeat aging | TechCrunch

In the classical model used by pharmaceutical companies, scientists in an R&D lab investigate naturally occurring molecules while searching for potential therapeutic properties. When they find a molecule that could be a candidate, they begin a series of tests to determine the treatment efficacy of the molecules (and also to receive FDA approval).

Rather than going forward through the process, Insilico works backwards. The company starts with an end objective — say stopping aging — and then uses a toolbox of deep learning algorithms to devise ideal molecules de novo. Those molecules may not exist anywhere in the world, but can be “manufactured” in the lab.

The key underlying technique for the company is what are known as GANs, or generative adversarial networks with reinforcement learning. At a high-level, GANs include a neural net “generator” that creates new products (in this case, molecules), and a discriminator that classifies the new product. Those neural nets then adapt over time in order to compete against each other more effectively.

GANs have been used to create fake photos that look almost photorealistic, but that no camera has ever taken. Zhavoronkov suggested to me that clinical patient data may one day be manufactured — providing far more data while protecting patient privacy.

There’s nothing you can do with a chip in your brain that we can’t do better

From Testing the CTRL-Labs wristband that lets you control computers with your mind – The Verge

CTRL-Labs’ work is built on a technology known as differential electromyography, or EMG. The band’s inside is lined with electrodes, and while they’re touching my skin, they measure electrical pulses along the neurons in my arm. These superlong cells are transmitting orders from my brain to my muscles, so they’re signaling my intentions before I’ve moved or even when I don’t move at all.

EMG is widely used to measure muscle performance, and it’s a promising option for prosthetic limb control. CTRL-Labs isn’t the first company to imagine an EMG-based interface, either. Canadian startup Thalmic Labs sells an EMG gesture-reading armband called the Myo, which detects muscle movements and can handle anything from controlling a computer to translating sign language. (CTRL-Labs used Myo armbands in early prototyping, before designing its own hardware.)

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One issue is interference from what Bouton refers to as motion artifacts. The bands have to process extraneous data from accidental hand movements, external vibrations, and the electrodes shifting around the skin. “All those things can cause extra signal you don’t want,” he says. An electrode headset, he notes, would face similar problems — but they’re serious issues for either system.

Reardon says CTRL-Labs’ band can pick out far more precise neural activity than the Myo, which Thalmic bills as a muscle-reading system rather than a brain-computer interface. And the band is supposed to work consistently anywhere on the wrist or lower arm, as long as it’s fitted snugly. (The prototype felt like wearing a thick, metallic elastic bracelet.) But Bouton, who uses EMG to find and activate muscles of people with paralysis, says users would get the best results from hitting exactly the same spot every time — which the average person might find difficult. “Even just moving a few millimeters can make a difference,” he says

Long, fascinating profile of CTRL-Labs. I saw them presenting in NYC at the O’Reilly AI Conference, when they announced the availability of their wristband within this years.

From Augmented Reality to Altered Reality

From Dehumanization of Warfare: Legal Implications of New Weapon Technologies:

However, where soldiers are equipped with cybernetic implants (brain-machine interfaces) which mediate between an information source and the brain, the right to “receive and impart information without interference from a public authority” gains a new dimension. There are many technologies which provide additional information to armed forces personnel, e.g., heads-up displays for fighter pilots and the Q-warrior augmented reality helmets from BAE Systems, which are unlikely to impact this right.

However, there are technologies in development which are intended to filter data in order to prevent information overload. This may be particularly relevant where the implant or prosthetic removes visual information from view, or is designed to provide targeting information to the soldier. According to reports, software has been devised in Germany which allows for the deletion of visual information by smart glass or contact lens.

As one futurist was quoted as saying “So if you decide you don’t like homeless people in your city, and you use this software and implant it in your contact lenses, then you won’t see them at all.”

An entire section of this book is dedicated to the legal and ethical implications of using supersoldiers, augmented by bionic prosthetics, augmented reality devices, and neural interfaces, in modern warfare. Highly recommended.

The book is now featured in the “Key Books” section of H+.

Our results are nearly indistinguishable from the real video

From Forget DeepFakes, Deep Video Portraits are way better (and worse) | TechCrunch

Deep Video Portraits is the title of a paper submitted for consideration this August at SIGGRAPH; it describes an improved technique for reproducing the motions, facial expressions, and speech movements of one person using the face of another.

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There’s no way to make a person do something or make an expression that’s too far from what they do on camera, though. For instance, the system can’t synthesize a big grin if the person is looking sour the whole time (though it might try and fail hilariously). And naturally there are all kinds of little bugs and artifacts. So for now the hijinks are limited.

Astounding results. You must watch the video.

Now, what happens if this video editing happens in real time to alter the reality perceived through AR glasses? For example, the ones a soldier might use.