Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Mind-controlled robot avatars inch towards reality


A researcher minds the robot's balance as it is commanded to pick up a canned drink by an ...
A researcher minds the robot's balance as it is commanded to pick up a canned drink by an operator (off camera)
Researchers at the CNRS-AIST Joint Robotics Laboratory (a collaboration between France's Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique and Japan's National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology) are developing software that allows a person to drive a robot with their thoughts alone. The technology could one day give a paralyzed patient greater autonomy through a robotic agent or avatar.

The system requires that a patient concentrate their attention on a symbol displayed on a computer screen (such as a flashing arrow). An electroencephalography (EEG) cap outfitted with electrodes reads the electrical activity in their brain, which is interpreted by a signal processor. Finally, the desired command is sent to the robot to carry out.

The system does not provide direct fine-grain motor control: the robot is simply performing a preset action such as walking forward, turning right or left, and so on. The robot's artificial intelligence, developed over several years at the lab, allows it to perform more delicate tasks such as picking up an object from a table without needing human input. In this scenario, the robot's camera images are parsed by object recognition software, allowing the patient to choose one of the objects on a table by focusing their attention on it.

Object recognition software automatically detects and highlights the bottled water and can...
Object recognition software automatically detects and highlights the bottled water and canned drink in the robot's camera images, and by focusing on one of them the patient can command the robot to retrieve it
With training, the user can direct the robot's movements and pick up beverages or other objects in their surroundings. The system can be seen in use in the DigInfo video at the bottom of the page.
This is similar to but more sophisticated than previous projects, one involving Honda's ASIMO robot from 2006, and another at the University of Washington from 2007.

A different but more direct approach would be to track a patient's eye movements. Recent research conducted at the Université Pierre et Marie Curie-Paris enabled cursive writing on a computer screen through eye movement alone. The same technology could allow a patient to move a cursor and select from a multitude of action icons without having to go through the EEG middle-man. The hitch is that – in some circumstances – eye movement isn't possible or can't be tracked reliably due to eye conditions. In that case, brain implants may be the way to go.

No matter how you slice it, researchers aren't giving up, and with further progress robot avatars may cease being the stuff of science fiction. No doubt patients would feel empowered and liberated by this technology, but it will be awhile before it can be implemented, and the robots being deployed will likely look more like Toyota's recently unveiled Human Support Robot than advanced bipedal robots.
Source: AIST-CNRS JRL (Japanese) via DigInfo News
UMUC Computer Security -
Advance your education with a degree in Cybersecurity.

About the Author Jason Falconer Jason is a freelance writer based in central Canada with a background in computer graphics. He has written about hundreds of humanoid robots on his website Plastic Pals and is an avid gamer with an unsightly collection of retro consoles, cartridges, and controllers.   All articles by Jason Falconer

Robots replacing human workers

There is an ideal that everyone should pursue their ultimate potential - self actualize - to make a better world.

If everyone fulfilled their potential, our factories and service jobs would be empty and we would have to replace workers with robots or do without. These jobs are temporary vehicles for some, and careers for others.

One major concern for corporations is retention - HR works hard to keep people from leaving jobs by offering self help courses that make employees feel like they are growing and learning. They use industrial psychologists to identify talent and fast track those who can actually grow and contribute, and the others just keep rowing the boat.

Most people don't have rock star jobs, but can take pride in their work by being engaged because it's what they have to do, to make the best of their existence and strive to get a better condition along the way. There are others who may avoid getting a 'real job' at any cost and will find ways to 'work the system' even if it means a lesser quality of life; perhaps they even consider working for someone a form of 'selling out'.

But back to the robots - this from

"Foxconn, the Chinese electronics manufacturer that builds numerous mobile devices and gaming consoles, previously said the company would be aiming to replace 1 million Foxconn workers with robots within 3 years. It appears as if Foxconn has started the ball in motion. Since the announcement, a first batch of 10,000 robots — aptly named Foxbots — appear to have made their way into at least one factory, and by the end of 2012, another 20,000 more will be installed"

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Evidence for Unconscious Math, Language Processing Abilities

Summary from Slashdot

"It's hard to determine what the unconscious brain is doing since, after all, we're not aware of it. But in a neat set of experiments, researchers from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's consciousness lab found evidence that the unconscious brain can parse language and perform simple arithmetic. The researchers flashed colorful patterns at test subjects that took up all their attention and allowed for the subliminal presentation of sentences or equations. In the language processing experiment, researchers found that subjects became consciously aware of a sentence sooner if it was jarring and nonsensical (like, for example, the sentence 'I ironed coffee')."

Research by Hebrew University Consciousness Lab


Your Unconscious Brain Can Do Math, Process Language

POSTED BY: Eliza Strickland
 The unconscious brain may not be able to ace an SAT test, but new research suggests that it can handle more complex language processing and arithmetic tasks than anyone has previously believed. According to these findings, just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, we may be blithely unaware of all the hard work the unconscious brain is doing.

In their experiments, researchers from Hebrew University in Israel used a cutting-edge "masking" technique to keep their test subjects from consciously perceiving certain stimuli. With this technique, known as continuous flash suppression, the researchers show a rapidly changing series of colorful patterns to just one of the subject's eyes. The bright patterns dominate the subject's awareness to such an extent that when researchers show less flashy material to the other eye (like words or equations), it takes several seconds before the brain consciously registers it.

This masking technique is "a game changer in the study of the unconscious," the scientists write, "because unlike all previous methods, it gives unconscious processes ample time to engage with and operate on subliminal stimuli."

To study the unconscious brain's ability to process language, the researchers subliminally showed the subject short phrases that made variable amounts of sense: For example, subjects might see the phrase "I ironed coffee" or "I ironed clothes." The researchers gradually turned up the contrast between the phrase and its background, and measured how long it took for the phrase to "pop" into the subject's conscious awareness. As the nonsensical phrases popped sooner, the researchers hypothesize that the unconscious brain processed the sentence, found it surprising and odd, and quickly passed it along to the conscious brain for further examination.

To determine the unconscious brain's mathematical abilities, the researchers presented a simple subtraction or addition equation (for example, "9 3 4 = ") to a subject, but took it away before it could pop into consciousness. Then they stopped the masking pattern and displayed a single number, asking the viewer to pronounce the number as soon as it registered. When the number was the answer to the subtraction equation (for example, "2"), the subject was quicker to pronounce it. The researchers argue that the viewer was "primed" to respond to that number because the unconscious brain had solved the equation. Oddly, they didn't find the same clear effect with easier addition equations. 

Why is IEEE Spectrum covering this? We could argue that until we understand the workings of consciousness in the human brain, we'll never be able to build an artificial intelligence that can be described as conscious and aware. Or we could admit that we just thought the study was nifty.

 Reading and doing arithmetic nonconsciously

  1. Ran R. Hassina,c,2
+ Author Affiliations
  1. aPsychology Department,
  2. bCognitive Science Department, and
  3. cCenter for the Study of Rationality, Hebrew University, Jerusalem 91905, Israel
  1. Edited* by Michael I. Posner, University of Oregon, Eugene, OR, and approved October 5, 2012 (received for review July 12, 2012)


The modal view in the cognitive and neural sciences holds that consciousness is necessary for abstract, symbolic, and rule-following computations. Hence, semantic processing of multiple-word expressions, and performing of abstract mathematical computations, are widely believed to require consciousness. We report a series of experiments in which we show that multiple-word verbal expressions can be processed outside conscious awareness and that multistep, effortful arithmetic equations can be solved unconsciously. All experiments used Continuous Flash Suppression to render stimuli invisible for relatively long durations (up to 2,000 ms). Where appropriate, unawareness was verified using both objective and subjective measures. The results show that novel word combinations, in the form of expressions that contain semantic violations, become conscious before expressions that do not contain semantic violations, that the more negative a verbal expression is, the more quickly it becomes conscious, and that subliminal arithmetic equations prime their results. These findings call for a significant update of our view of conscious and unconscious processes.


  • Author contributions: A.Y.S., N.L., A.G., R.M., A.M., and R.R.H. designed research; A.Y.S., N.L., A.G., R.M., and A.M. performed research; A.Y.S., N.L., A.G., and R.M. analyzed data; and A.Y.S. and R.R.H. wrote the paper.
  • The authors declare no conflict of interest.
  • *This Direct Submission article had a prearranged editor.
  • To control for the effects of the single words on popping times, we conducted a regression with expressions' affective value, the mean affective value of the individual words, and the length (number of letters) of the expression. The model was marginally significant [F(3,42) = 2.804, P = 0.051]. Word affectivity and length did not predict popping times (P > 0.3). The expression's affective value, however, remained a significant predictor [β = 0.377, t(42) = 2.627, P = 0.012]. The same analysis for Experiment 4b yielded similar results: a significant model [F(3,42) = 8.666, P < 0.001] and a significant effect of the expressions' affective value [β = 0.353, t(42) = 2.856, P = 0.007]. The valence of the single words and their length also predicted popping times [β = −0.294, t(42) = −2.380, P = 0.022 and β = −0.441, t(42) = −3.634, P = 0.001]. Importantly, these analyses show that the affective value of multiple-word expressions predicts popping time, even when the effects of the single words are statistically controlled.
  • To further examine awareness, we regressed subtraction facilitation scores (RTs for incongruent minus congruent trials) on objective block scores (centered so that a score of zero indicated chance level) (39). The results showed significant facilitation when accuracy in the objective block is at chance [βintercept = 14.78, t(15) = 3.91, P = 0.001] and insignificant slope [β = 86.85, t(15) = 1.47, P = 0.161].
  • §This explanation was verified in the pilot described. The results showed that addition equations were, indeed, solved faster than subtraction equations [mean = 1,795.01 ms, SD = 274.36 and mean = 2,167.78 ms, SD = 494.33, respectively; t(20) = 3.69, P = 0.001].
  • As a group, participants fared better than chance on the objective block (P < 0.01). However, there was a significant negative correlation between facilitation scores and objective block scores (r = −0.39, P = 0.032). Awareness of the equations, then, reduced facilitation, thereby working against the hypothesized effect. Another way of verifying that subtle awareness is not producing the effects is to use the regression method described above. This analysis showed significant facilitation, even when accuracy in the objective block was at chance [βintercept = 20.32, t(29) = 3.33, P = 0.002].
  • One other possible difference between addition and subtraction is that magnitude matters. The solutions to addition equations were larger than the solutions for subtraction equations and hence, more difficult to compute. The data, however, show no differences between addition equations that yielded high vs. low solutions (all P values > 0.17). These results suggest that magnitude does not play a crucial role here.
  • **There was a marginal effect on RTs (P = 0.08), raising the possibility that participants were also slower on incompatible trials. This result may suggest that the presentation of nonconscious equations results in strategic changes in processing. Because this effect was not hypothesized, we do not wish to make much of it.
  • This article contains supporting information online at

Monday, November 12, 2012

3D photo printing

3D printing photo booth set for scan

November 11, 2012

Ever wanted a life-like miniature of yourself or loved ones? Now's your chance, thanks to Omote 3D, which will soon be opening a 3D printing photo booth in Harajuku, Japan. There, visitors will have their bodies scanned into a computer, a process which takes about 15 minutes. Then the company prints your statuette on their 3D color printer in one of three sizes. Of course, this "photo" booth isn't cheap – 3D printing is still a fairly expensive novelty, especially for prints of this quality. And you can forget about trying to scan fidgety children or pets, as the data would get all skewed from their movements. Check out the prices based on the sizes:
  • Small (Max. 10cm, 20g), US$264
  • Medium (Max. 15cm, 50g), US$403
  • Large (Max. 20cm, 200g), US$528
If that seems a bit steep, the company is offering discounts for couples and families. Before you leave, you'll also be given the chance to adjust the colors of the hair and clothing on the 3D model if you so desire.
A close-up showing the level of detail possible by Otome 3D's scanning and color printing ...
A close-up showing the level of detail possible by Otome 3D's scanning and color printing process
Omote 3D will continue to offer the service everyday from November 24th to January 13th, 2013 at the EYE OF GYRE exhibition space. Given the time it takes to do the scanning, you may want to make reservations at the company's website in advance.

Although it has been described as a "world first", as pointed out by a Abel in the comments, this type of service has been around for a couple of years already in Spain by a company called ThreeDeeYou.
Source: Omote 3D (Japanese) via Spoon & Tamago

Invisibility cloak 'inevitable'

Duke University creates perfect, centimeter-scale invisibility cloak

Scientists at Duke University have created the first invisibility cloak that perfectly hides centimeter-scale objects. While invisibility cloaks have been created before, they have all reflected some of the incident light, ruining the illusion. In this case, the incident light is perfectly channeled around the object, creating perfect invisibility.

There are some caveats, of course. You didn’t really think you’d soon be sneaking away with Ron or Hermione (delete as applicable) into the woods, did you? For now, the Duke invisibility cloak only works with microwave radiation — and perhaps more importantly, the cloak is unidirectional (it only provides invisibility from one very specific direction). The big news here, though, is that it is even possible to create an invisibility cloak of any description. It is now just a matter of time before visible-light, omnidirectional invisibility cloaks are created.
Duke University's invisibility cloak

So far, all invisibility cloaks — including Duke’s (pictured right) — are constructed out of metamaterials. In general, a metamaterial is an artificial, man-made material that has unnatural properties. In practice, metamaterials nearly always refer to materials that have a negative refractive index — a property that never occurs in nature, where every material has a positive refractive index. A negative refractive index allows for the creation of some crazy things, such as superlenses that go beyond the diffraction limit, or invisibility cloaks.

In theory, invisibility cloaks operate by bending electromagnetic waves around objects — so that instead of seeing the object, you see what’s behind the object. Negative index metamaterials get you most of the way, but they still need to be arranged in such a way that the illusion is perfect. To get around a 3D object, you have to turn a corner at some point — and previous cloaks have struggled to fashion metamaterials that bend waves around corners without causing reflections, which ruin the illusion. In this case, Nathan Landy, a graduate student at Duke University, tweaked the metamaterial itself, and then fashioned it into a diamond, which is apparently the best shape for minimizing reflections.

The end result is an invisibility cloak that can perfectly hide a 3×0.4-inch (7.5x1cm) cylinder from microwave radiation. This obviously isn’t quite as awesome as an invisibility cloak that operates in the visible light spectra, but microwaves are still very important in the realms of telecommunications and defense (think radar, and the ultimate stealth vehicles). A very basic application might be in fiber optic networks, where invisibility cloaks could be used to bend light around corners without attenuating the signal.

The next step for the Duke University team is to create an omnidirectional, 3D microwave invisibility cloak. Then, eventually, when we work out how to create metamaterials that can bend visible light in interesting ways, we might get an actual invisibility cloak. That’s a few years away yet, though.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Massachusetts Euthenasia

Massachusetts Vote May Change How the Nation Dies

Why it matters that Death With Dignity is poised to become the new norm.

Cody Curtis, right, in How To Die in Oregon
Still from Clear Cut Films/IMDB.

This Election Day, Massachusetts is poised to approve the Death With Dignity Act. “Death with dignity” is a modernized, sanitized, politically palatable term that replaces the now-antiquated expression “physician-assisted suicide.” Four polls conducted in the past couple of months have shown strong support for the ballot question, although a well-funded media blitz by the opposition is kicking in during the final several weeks and may influence voter opinions.
Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act has been in effect for the past 14 years, and the state of Washington followed suit with a similar law in 2008. Despite concerns of skeptics, the sky has not fallen; civilization in the Northwest remains intact; the poor, disenfranchised, elderly, and vulnerable have not been victimized; and Oregon has become a leader in the provision of excellent palliative medicine services.

But the Massachusetts ballot question has the potential to turn death with dignity from a legislative experiment into the new national norm. The state is the home of America’s leading medical publication (the New England Journal of Medicine), hospital (Massachusetts General), and four medical schools (Harvard, Boston University, University of Massachusetts, and Tufts).  Passage of the law would represent a crucial milestone for the death with dignity movement, especially since 42 percent of the state is Catholic and the church hierarchy vehemently opposes assisted dying. Vermont and New Jersey are already entertaining similar legislature, and if the act passes in Massachusetts, other states that have previously had unsuccessful campaigns will certainly be emboldened to revisit this subject.

The American right-to-die movement began in the 1980s and 1990s with Derek Humphry’s book, Final Exit, and his organization, the Hemlock Society. It was a reaction to a wave of technological advances, including antibiotics, antifungal medications, ventilators, dialysis machines, cardiopulmonary resuscitation, organ transplantation, and intensive care units. Death appeared to be on the run, cure was truly possible, and patients were politely requested to be quiet and allow physicians to heroically perform miracles. And that is when Dr. Jack Kevorkian—the bad boy of medicine—appeared on the scene.

Kevorkian was a revolutionary. He was beloved by patients and their families because of his gutsy intention to overthrow the medical establishment’s prevailing ethos and hubris about dying. Clad in his nerdy, light-blue cardigan sweater, Kevorkian paraded in front of the cameras to show off homemade suicide gadgets and the Volkswagen van he occasionally drove on house calls to help suffering people end their lives. Before receiving an 11-to-20-year sentence for the second-degree murder of Thomas Youck, a 52-year-old Michigan accountant who suffered from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease), Judge Jessica Cooper said, “You had the audacity to go on national television, show the world what you did and dare the legal system to stop you. Well sir, consider yourself stopped.”

So let’s fast forward to December 2007, when Cody Curtis was diagnosed with cholangiocarcinoma. This is an unusual and deadly cancer of the bile duct, the tube that runs through the liver. Depending on the size of the tumor and whether it has spread throughout the body, patients with this cancer are offered surgery, chemoradiation, and sometimes a liver transplant. Even with aggressive treatment, however, cholangiocarcinoma is usually a fatal diagnosis.
On a website called How We Die, Cody wrote with characteristic brio and wit:

It’s interesting how I was diagnosed—for my 52nd birthday I had gotten four, count them, four boxes of chocolate. And I ate them all. Afterwards I felt (deservedly) awful. I looked up my symptoms on the Internet and decided I was having a gall bladder attack like my father had earlier that year. It was a Saturday night so I didn’t want to go to the emergency room.
But I thought it was really weird, so a few weeks later I went in to see the doctor. She ordered an ultrasound. When I went back to her office to get the results, she looked at me and burst into tears. She said, “Your gall bladder’s fine, but you have a big mass in your liver.” The tumor was roughly the size of a grapefruit.

After Cody’s primary care physician calmed down, she discussed the implications of the finding and referred her to a local oncology surgeon, Dr. Katherine Morris—whom Cody and her family came to know as Dr. Kate.

Cody’s postings about her illness remained upbeat but realistic:
The good news was the location of the tumor made a resection of my liver possible. Your liver regenerates and within six weeks you have a new liver. I had the first surgery, which cut out about 60 percent of my liver. But there were complications and I ended up in the hospital for 50 days. I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t feed myself. My daughter lives in Washington D.C. She visited for a week and I didn’t know she was there. And a year after the original surgery, the cancer came back, metastasized to the liver, lungs, and lymph nodes.

When Cody and Dr. Kate met for the first time, the surgeon was 39 years old. During the preceding three years, she had established a vibrant solo private practice based in Portland, Ore., while also helping run a research and tumor banking program at a tertiary care center. She was happily married and highly satisfied with her professional life.

When I write medical stories, I routinely ask people to describe themselves and find that most physicians become flustered when asked this question. Although trained observers, doctors spend little time looking in a mirror or wryly considering their own appearance. They are no more or less narcissistic than the general public but rarely manage to put together a coherent description of themselves—let alone one that contains humor and modern cultural references. So I was delighted when Dr. Kate immediately responded: “I am hopeless at this, but will suggest, instead, a series of words to consider and words to avoid.” Among the words and phrases to eschew were “stout, stumpy, Rubenesque, jolly, looks like Austin Powers minus the chest hair.” Among those worthy of consideration are “a less anorexic Angelina Jolie, statuesque, willowy, serene, poised.” She continued: “I’m 5'4"; have dark, shoulder-length hair; kinda hazel eyes; and teeth I should have had straightened as a kid, but refused to have braces.” This was followed by the admission that, “I’ve a tendency to be willful!”

Dr. Kate grew up in a bucolic setting on the outskirts of Olympia, Wash., in a home that abounded with horses, cats, and dogs. One of her earliest lessons was that you don’t allow animals to suffer. She was raised as a Catholic and attended parochial school through eighth grade. She learned other lessons: People are responsible for themselves and their bodies, and autonomy is a cherished ethical principle to always be respected. Dr. Kate moved to Oregon to attend medical school and complete a surgical residency. She then traveled to New York City and Memorial Sloan-Kettering, where she did a surgical oncology fellowship focusing on cancers of the liver and pancreas. Portland, however, is not an easy city to leave, and she returned to establish a private practice and conduct clinical research. When Cody came to see Dr. Kate, she was one of a select group of surgeons specializing in the treatment of this particular kind of cancer.

Thanks to Cody’s case, Dr. Kate is now among the pantheon of a growing number of medical professionals who have been transformed by death with dignity. Perhaps it takes the dramatic actions of a flawed advocate like Dr. Jack Kevorkian to catalyze change that leads to the appearance of more reasonable and likable physician reformers. Physicians of this new generation do not seek out or necessarily welcome the role, but, having accepted it, they are irreversibly changed. Most are modest, highly intellectual, and intensely private professionals who are drawn to medicine because it offers a challenge and an opportunity to help relieve distress. Most are workaholics who accept the drudgery and frequent frustrations of the profession because it is occasionally interrupted by the incomparable pleasure that comes with vanquishing an illness, ameliorating suffering, and saving a life. Few of these physicians would ever have dreamed that their greatest accomplishment might entail helping patients to die. Not one of them would have imagined him- or herself becoming a death-with-dignity advocate.

These doctors defy the deeply ingrained taboo against death and they are soft-spoken combatants in this professional and cultural war. The media has briefly illuminated a few of them. Dr. Timothy Quill is a bioethicist and primary care physician who wrote a provocative New England Journal of Medicine article that is death with dignity’s literary equivalent of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The first-person essay resulted in a grand jury investigation (he faced the possibility of indictment for murder or manslaughter), and it led to his eventual role as a plaintiff in a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case. Tim is this year’s president of the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine.

Dr. Marcia Angell is another member of this group. She was the first female editor of the New England Journal of Medicine and has recently been attracting attention in her capacity as an eloquent spokesperson for the Massachusetts ballot question campaign. She fervently believes that it is vastly preferable for dying people to be offered a legal option of death with dignity than to secretly, fearfully, and often brutally kill themselves.

And then there is Dr. Kate Morris. At the time Cody became her patient, filmmaker Peter Richardson, a young native Oregonian, was absorbed by his state’s decision to legalize death with dignity. Cody eagerly agreed to participate in his film, and Dr. Kate grudgingly acquiesced. Both women poignantly described to Peter the aftermath of the surgery, the complicated recuperation, the resumption of a vibrant life, and finally the recurrence of cancer. In the end, the camera respectfully hovered outside of Cody’s bedroom, where her family gathered and where she ingested the lethal dose of barbiturates that allowed her the death with dignity she desired.

When I interviewed Richardson, he was still in shock that How To Die in Oregon had just received the Grand Jury Prize Documentary Award at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. Since then, it has been broadcast on HBO and is contending for an Emmy. At the festival, Dr. Kate shared a few intense minutes in the klieg lights with Cody Curtis’ widower and her adult children, as they nervously answered audience questions.

Before moving to New Mexico for an academic position, the surgeon helped one more patient to use Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act. She has since volunteered to be the lead physician plaintiff in a case challenging New Mexico’s law against assisted dying.

For people like Cody Curtis and Dr. Kate, death with dignity is not incompatible with palliative care, and data show that 90 percent of Oregon patients who choose assisted dying are simultaneously enrolled in hospice, and 95 percent die at home. Death with dignity epitomizes self-determination at a moment when palliative medicine bumps up against its limits, when patients are undergoing irremediable existential suffering and are in the process of losing everything that is meaningful to them.

After her patient’s death, Dr. Kate concluded, “I think Cody taught me that ‘first, do no harm,’ is different for every patient. Harm for her would have meant taking away the control and saying, ‘No, no, no! You have got to do this the way your body decides, as opposed to the way you as the person decides.’ ”

Dr. Kate’s epiphany goes to the heart of the dilemma faced by physicians who are requested to assist in hastening dying. Most have been taught to adopt a passive stance and resist doing something rather than risk causing more harm than good. The ethical principle of non-maleficence has been a rationale for feigning deafness, and for ignoring or refusing to participate in a death with dignity. However, Dr. Kate has realized that another, more important principle—respect for patient autonomy—should supersede in these cases. Whether or not you would consider assisted dying as a personal option, we should allow others to exercise their preferences. It is time we became pro-choice at the end of life.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Buddhist monk is the world's happiest man

Tibetan monk and molecular geneticist Matthieu Ricard is the happiest man in the world according to researchers at the University of Wisconsin. The 66-year-old’s brain produces a level of gamma waves - those linked to consciousness, attention, learning and memory - never before reported in neuroscience.

As he grins serenely and his burgundy robes billow in the fresh Himalayan wind, it is not difficult to see why scientists declared Matthieu Ricard the happiest man they had ever tested.

The monk, molecular geneticist and confidant of the Dalai Lama, is passionately setting out why meditation can alter the brain and improve people's happiness in the same way that lifting weights puts on muscle.

"It's a wonderful area of research because it shows that meditation is not just blissing out under a mango tree but it completely changes your brain and therefore changes what you are," the Frenchman told AFP.

Ricard, a globe-trotting polymath who left everything behind to become a Tibetan Buddhist in a Himalayan hermitage, says anyone can be happy if they only train their brain.

Neuroscientist Richard Davidson wired up Ricard's skull with 256 sensors at the University of Wisconsin four years ago as part of research on hundreds of advanced practitioners of meditation.
The scans showed that when meditating on compassion, Ricard's brain produces a level of gamma waves -- those linked to consciousness, attention, learning and memory -- "never reported before in the neuroscience literature", Davidson said.

The scans also showed excessive activity in his brain's left prefrontal cortex compared to its right counterpart, giving him an abnormally large capacity for happiness and a reduced propensity towards negativity, researchers believe.

Research into the phenomenon, known as "neuroplasticity," is in its infancy and Ricard has been at the forefront of ground-breaking experiments along with other leading scientists across the world.
"We have been looking for 12 years at the effect of short and long-term mind-training through meditation on attention, on compassion, on emotional balance," he said.

"We've found remarkable results with long-term practitioners who did 50,000 rounds of meditation, but also with three weeks of 20 minutes a day, which of course is more applicable to our modern times."

The 66-year-old, accompanying other senior Tibetan monks at a festival in the remote Nepalese Himalayan region of Upper Dolpa, has become a globally respected Buddhist and is one of the religion's leading western scholars.

But he has not always been on the path to enlightenment.

Ricard grew up among the Paris intellectual elite as the son of celebrated French libertarian philosopher Jean-Francois Revel and abstract watercolor painter Yahne Le Toumelin.

"All these people used to come around, most of Paris intellectual life. We had all the French painters and I was myself interested in classical music so I met a lot of musicians," he said.

"At lunch we'd have three Nobel Prize winners eating with us. It was fantastic... Some of them were wonderful but some could be difficult."

By the time he got his PhD in cell genetics from the Institut Pasteur in Paris in 1972 he had become disillusioned with the dinner party debates and had already begun to journey to Darjeeling in India during his holidays.

Eschewing intimate relationships and a career, he moved to India to study Buddhism and emerged 26 years later as something of celebrity thanks to "The Monk And The Philosopher," a dialogue on the meaning of life he wrote with his father.

"That was the end of my quiet time because it was a bestseller. Suddenly I was projected into the western world. Then I did more dialogues with scientists and the whole thing started to spin off out of control.

"I got really involved in science research and the science of meditation."

A prominent monk in Kathmandu's Shechen Monastery, Ricard divides his year between isolated meditation, scientific research and accompanying the Dalai Lama as his adviser on trips to French-speaking countries and science conferences.

He addressed the World Economic Forum in Davos at the height of the financial crisis in 2009 to tell gathered heads of state and business leaders it was time to give up greed in favor of "enlightened altruism."

His other works include "Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life's Most Important Skill" and several collections of photographs of the landscape, people and spiritual masters of the Himalayas.
Ricard donates all proceeds of his books to 110 humanitarian projects which have built schools for 21,000 children and provide healthcare for 100,000 patients a year.

He was awarded the French National Order of Merit for his work in preserving Himalayan culture but it is his work on the science of happiness which perhaps defines him best.

Ricard sees living a good life, and showing compassion, not as a religious edict revealed from on high, but as a practical route to happiness.

"Try sincerely to check, to investigate," he said. "That's what Buddhism has been trying to unravel -- the mechanism of happiness and suffering. It is a science of the mind."
Copyright (2012) AFP. All rights reserved.

Read more: