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A paralyzed man is challenging Neuralink’s monkey to a match of mind Pong

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Nathan practices Pong


Copeland already uses mental commands to play video games including Sega classics like Sonic the Hedgehog. He admits it was a “tough” question whether to challenge Musk’s monkey or not. “I could get my ass beat,” he says. “But yeah, I would play.”

Copeland issued the challenge in an interview and on today’s episode of the national public radio program Science Friday, where he appeared to discuss brain interfaces.

Neuralink, a secretive company established by Musk in 2016, did not respond to our attempts to relay the Pong challenge.

Nathan Copeland using a neural implant to play Pong with his mind this week at the University of Pittsburgh.

COURTESY OF NATHAN COPELAND

Playing at home

Brain interfaces work by recording the electrical firing of neurons in the motor cortex, the part of the brain which controls movement. Each neuron’s firing rate contains information about movements a subject is making or merely imagining. A “decoder” program then translates the signals into a command that can be conveyed to a computer cursor.

Copeland is one of a handful of humans with an older style of implant, called a Utah array, which he uses in experiments at the University of Pittsburgh to do things including moving robotic arms. Before Copeland performs a task, he begins with a 10-minute training session so an algorithm can map firing signals from his neurons to specific movements. After such a session, Copeland says, he can think a computer cursor left or right, forward or back. Thinking of closing his hand causes a mouse click.

Beginning last March, the Pittsburgh team arranged for Copeland to use his brain implant on his own, at home, to operate a tablet computer. He’s used it to surf the web and draw pictures of a cat with a painting program. Last spring, he was using it six hours a day. “It got me through the pandemic,” he says.

MS Paint cat
This picture of a cat was drawn by Nathan Copeland, who is paralyzed but uses a brain-computer interface to control a computer. The image is for sale as a non-fungible token.

NATHAN COPELAND

The tablet is not particularly powerful, though. And he can only use it with batteries. He’s not supposed to plug his brain into any device directly connected to the electrical grid, since no one knows what effect a power surge could have. “I have encouraged him to be careful what software he puts on it,” says Jeffrey Weiss, a Pittsburgh researcher who works with Copeland. “I don’t have restrictions other than not to break the thing, and don’t get malware on it. It’s just a Windows machine.”

Copeland’s interface was installed by a neurosurgeon six years ago. He has four silicon implants in all. The two on his motor cortex allow him to control a robotic arm used in experiments or a computer cursor. Another two, in the somatosensory part of his brain, allow scientists to send signals into his mind, which he registers as sensations of pressure or tingling on his fingers.

The monkey’s advantage

If a mind match occurs, Neuralink’s primate would have the advantage of a next-generation interface, which the company calls “the Link.” While Copeland has to attach cables to two ports on his skull, Neuralink’s implant is about the size of a soda bottle cap and is embedded entirely in the skull. It transmits the brain recordings wirelessly, via Bluetooth.

“It’s a very promising device, but it’s new, and there are many questions about it,” Weiss says. “No one outside Neuralink has been able to get a look at it.” The company has said it hopes to recruit human subjects, but that will depend on how the implant holds up in animals, including pigs, which Neuralink is performing tests on. “No one knows if it’s going to last six months or six years,” says Weiss.

Tech

Investing in women pays off

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Investing in women pays off


“Starting a business is a privilege,” says Burton O’Toole, who worked at various startups before launching and later selling AdMass, her own marketing technology company. The company gave her access to the HearstLab program in 2016, but she soon discovered that she preferred the investment aspect and became a vice president at HearstLab a year later. “To empower some of the smartest women to do what they love is great,” she says. But in addition to rooting for women, Burton O’Toole loves the work because it’s a great market opportunity. 

“Research shows female-led teams see two and a half times higher returns compared to male-led teams,” she says, adding that women and people of color tend to build more diverse teams and therefore benefit from varied viewpoints and perspectives. She also explains that companies with women on their founding teams are likely to get acquired or go public sooner. “Despite results like this, just 2.3% of venture capital funding goes to teams founded by women. It’s still amazing to me that more investors aren’t taking this data more seriously,” she says. 

Burton O’Toole—who earned a BS from Duke in 2007 before getting an MS and PhD from MIT, all in mechanical engineering—has been a “data nerd” since she can remember. In high school she wanted to become an actuary. “Ten years ago, I never could have imagined this work; I like the idea of doing something in 10 more years I couldn’t imagine now,” she says. 

When starting a business, Burton O’Toole says, “women tend to want all their ducks in a row before they act. They say, ‘I’ll do it when I get this promotion, have enough money, finish this project.’ But there’s only one good way. Make the jump.”

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Preparing for disasters, before it’s too late

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Preparing for disasters, before it’s too late


All too often, the work of developing global disaster and climate resiliency happens when disaster—such as a hurricane, earthquake, or tsunami—has already ravaged entire cities and torn communities apart. But Elizabeth Petheo, MBA ’14, says that recently her work has been focused on preparedness. 

It’s hard to get attention for preparedness efforts, explains Petheo, a principal at Miyamoto International, an engineering and disaster risk reduction consulting firm. “You can always get a lot of attention when there’s a disaster event, but at that point it’s too late,” she adds. 

Petheo leads the firm’s projects and partnerships in the Asia-Pacific region and advises globally on international development and humanitarian assistance. She also works on preparedness in the Asia-Pacific region with the United States Agency for International Development. 

“We’re doing programming on the engagement of the private sector in disaster risk management in Indonesia, which is a very disaster-prone country,” she says. “Smaller and medium-sized businesses are important contributors to job creation and economic development. When they go down, the impact on lives, livelihoods, and the community’s ability to respond and recover effectively is extreme. We work to strengthen their own understanding of their risk and that of their surrounding community, lead them through an action-planning process to build resilience, and link that with larger policy initiatives at the national level.”

Petheo came to MIT with international leadership experience, having managed high-profile global development and risk mitigation initiatives at the World Bank in Washington, DC, as well as with US government agencies and international organizations leading major global humanitarian responses and teams in Sri Lanka and Haiti. But she says her time at Sloan helped her become prepared for this next phase in her career. “Sloan was the experience that put all the pieces together,” she says.

Petheo has maintained strong connections with MIT. In 2018, she received the Margaret L.A. MacVicar ’65, ScD ’67, Award in recognition of her role starting and leading the MIT Sloan Club in Washington, DC, and her work as an inaugural member of the Graduate Alumni Council (GAC). She is also a member of the Friends of the MIT Priscilla King Gray Public Service Center.

“I believe deeply in the power and impact of the Institute’s work and people,” she says. “The moment I graduated, my thought process was, ‘How can I give back, and how can I continue to strengthen the experience of those who will come after me?’”

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The Download: a curb on climate action, and post-Roe period tracking

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The US Supreme Court just gutted the EPA’s power to regulate emissions


Why’s it so controversial?: Geoengineering was long a taboo topic among scientists, and some argue it should remain one. There are questions about its potential environmental side effects, and concerns that the impacts will be felt unevenly across the globe. Some feel it’s too dangerous to ever try or even to investigate, arguing that just talking about the possibility could weaken the need to address the underlying causes of climate change.

But it’s going ahead?: Despite the concerns, as the threat of climate change grows and major nations fail to make rapid progress on emissions, growing numbers of experts are seriously exploring the potential effects of these approaches. Read the full story.

—James Temple

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

1 The belief that AI is alive refuses to die
People want to believe the models are sentient, even when their creators deny it. (Reuters)
+ It’s unsurprising wild religious beliefs find a home in Silicon Valley. (Vox)
+ AI systems are being trained twice as quickly as they were just last year. (Spectrum IEEE)

2 The FBI added the missing cryptoqueen to its most-wanted list
It’s offering a $100,000 reward for information leading to Ruja Ignatova, whose crypto scheme defrauded victims out of more than $4 billion. (BBC)
+ A new documentary on the crypto Ponzi scheme is in the works. (Variety)

3 Social media platforms turn a blind eye to dodgy telehealth ads
Which has played a part in the prescription drugs abuse boom. (Protocol)
+ The doctor will Zoom you now. (MIT Technology Review)

4 We’re addicted to China’s lithium batteries
Which isn’t great news for other countries building electric cars. (Wired $)
+ This battery uses a new anode that lasts 20 times longer than lithium. (Spectrum IEEE)
+ Quantum batteries could, in theory, allow us to drive a million miles between charges. (The Next Web)

5 Far-right extremists are communicating over radio to avoid detection
Making it harder to monitor them and their violent activities. (Slate $)
+ Many of the rioters who stormed the Capitol were carrying radio equipment. (The Guardian)

6 Bro culture has no place in space 🚀
So says NASA’s former deputy administrator, who’s sick and tired of misogyny in the sector. (CNN)

7 A US crypto exchange is gaining traction in Venezuela
It’s helping its growing community battle hyperinflation, but isn’t as decentralized as they believe it to be. (Rest of World)
+ The vast majority of NFT players won’t be around in a decade. (Vox)
+ Exchange Coinbase is working with ICE to track and identify crypto users. (The Intercept)
+ If RadioShack’s edgy tweets shock you, don’t forget it’s a crypto firm now. (NY Mag)

8 It’s time we learned to love our swamps
Draining them prevents them from absorbing CO2 and filtering out our waste. (New Yorker $)
+ The architect making friends with flooding. (MIT Technology Review) 

9 Robots love drawing too 🖍️
Though I’ll bet they don’t get as frustrated as we do when they mess up. (Input)

10 The risky world of teenage brains
Making potentially dangerous decisions is an important part of adolescence, and our brains reflect that. (Knowable Magazine)

Quote of the day

“They shamelessly celebrate an all-inclusive pool party while we can’t even pay our rent!”

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