Neuroscientist, technologist and TV host David Eagleman discusses why the liveware of the human brain is like a computer, only more.
“As engineers and technologists, essentially all we think about is hardware or software,” says David Eagleman. But as a neuroscientist and a technologist developing products that interface between the human and electronic machine, Eagleman needs more flexibility in the vocabulary that describes what’s going on.
In his new book, “Livewired,” Eagleman uses the word “liveware,” “because to me it captures what the brain is doing. It’s a different kind of system than what we know how to build.” And when we say the brain is different from systems like factories, computers, or cars, “we mean the kind of factories, computers, or cars that we’re currently building.
” When you build a car, the American TV host says, “What you is basically building a chassis and running some software on top of that. But what happens in biology is you have adaptive systems that change themselves on the fly in proportion to their experience of the world.
That’s what happens. with the brain. It’s a huge forest of 86 billion neurons that are plugging in and out and seeking and finding new places. This forest is constantly moving.” Your brain has changed in the time it took you to read this paragraph, and the reason you will hopefully remember the contents of this article is because there has been a change in the structure of your brain as you read it.
of the themes of ‘Livewired,’ Eagleman’s focus is on how the STEM community can strive to build machines that work in a similar way.
“To do this, we should leave behind the idea that we are software or hardware, and we should be building liveware.
” To demonstrate the point, Eagleman tells two stories that contrast the fate of the Mars Rover Spirit that got stuck in the sands of Mars and “essentially died,” and that of the wolf who got its paw in a trap and chewed its own paw off to free itself.” It then ran away on only three legs.
Obviously the wolf brain didn’t evolve to handle a three-legged body But it’s possible find out.” Meanwhile, Spirit has sent his last message to Earth.
The reason the wolf was able to adapt and the Mars Rover couldn’t is “because brains aren’t preprogrammed to perform in a certain way.
They are preprogrammed to figure out how to interact with the world in a way that enhances their ability to to thrive.Imagine you could drop any engine on any car chassis and work it out how to evolve.
Imagine a piece of commercial real estate that finds that there is a lot of traffic going to the toilets, and thus only but more urinals are ‘growing’. This sounds crazy to us now. But this is exactly what the brain does – and we can take a lot of inspiration from this.”
‘Livewired: The Inside Story of the Ever-changing Brain’
Unlike the machines people currently make, the brain is so much more than a combination of hardware and software. In fact, David Eagleman says in his new book “Livewired,” we need a new word to describe what goes on in the immense forest of neurons that make up the human brain:
“liveware.” By understanding the brain’s adaptability, we can mimic how it works to produce better, more intelligent machines in the future.
The magic of the brain, says Eagleman, is not in the parts that make up it, but in the way those parts endlessly re-weave themselves into an electrical, living fabric.
Packed with a mix of illustrative anecdotes, Livewired also has the scientific rigor that comes from decades as a leading researcher — including new discoveries from Eagleman’s own lab — in the field of brain plasticity.
To illustrate how human senses interact and evolve, Eagleman proposed a plug-and-play principle that, in its simplest form, works just like the young children’s toy formerly known as Mr. Potato Head, but after its gender-neutral makeover now just Potato Head.
But, he says, you could also see it in the way our desktop computers’ peripheral connectivity works. If you think back a few decades ago, Eagleman says, printing everything was the bane of all office life.
Getting a printer to work was nearly impossible because you tracked down and installed drivers before you gave up. Now you can just plug in (or connect wirelessly) pretty much any device and the computer “calculates what’s on the other side of the USB and it will just happen.
That’s what happens to the brain. Instead of the brain having to change, it can work and adapt to anything plugged into it — eyes, nose, fingertips, or whatever — treating them as plug-and-play peripherals in this analogy.
” Spread this across the animal kingdom and you will find “all kinds of different inputs: infrared, electro-reception, magneto-reception and so on. These are typical things that different animal species have. But the point is, their brains are the same as ours.
All that happens is the peripheral detectors translate anything they translate — photons, air compression waves, temperature or pressure — into spikes of electricity that travel past neurons.
Which means the brain is a general purpose computing device that says, here’s how I can use that data to do something meaningful. For the reader who thinks “Livewired” is just another brain book to skip, because books on the brain repeat the same approaches these days, it’s time to think again.
“When you pick up a book about the brain,” Eagleman says, “it inevitably describes the different parts of seeing, hearing, decision making, etc.
So that’s the wrong way to do it. this had to approach, especially as we are looking at an extremely fluid system that changes itself at every moment of its existence.”
There are “literally thousands” of academic papers on brain plasticity, but “there was nothing that put all this together in a framework that really allowed us to think about what this means in terms of how the system works.
So my goal in writing of this book was to distill the 30,000 academic papers on the subject into the principle of what we are looking at.
” While Eagleman acknowledges that technology has come a long way in a short period of time, “I see it as a door opening to a whole new realm of things to be done that we just haven’t done yet.” He remains convinced that we haven’t really started our technological evolution yet.
“Like so many of us, I studied engineering as a bachelor and was inspired by the fact that we could literally go to the moon.
But later, when I became a biologist, I realized that technology will look very different a century from now.” ‘Livewired: The Inside Story of the Ever-changing Brain’ by David Eagleman is from Canongate, £9.99
The Potato Head principle
The brain is a very efficient kind of machine. It is a general purpose computing device. It absorbs the available signals and determines – almost optimally – what it can do with them.
And that strategy, I suggest, frees Mother Nature to tinker with different kinds of input channels. I call this the Potato Head model of evolution. I use this name to emphasize that all the sensors we know and love — like our eyes and our ears — are just plug-and-play peripheral devices.
You put them in and you’re good to go. The brain decides what to do with the data that comes in. Mother Nature can build new senses simply by building new peripherals. Once she has discovered the brain’s working principles, she can tinker with different types of input channels to pick up different energy sources from the world.
Information carried by the reflection of electromagnetic radiation is captured by the photon detectors in the eyes. Air compression waves are picked up by the sound detectors of the ears. Information about heat and texture is collected by the sensory material we call skin.
Chemical signatures are sniffed and licked up through the nose or tongue. And it’s all translated into spikes running around the dark vault of the skull.
This remarkable ability of the brain to accept sensory input shifts the burden of research and development of new senses to the external sensors.
In the same way you can plug in any nose or eyes or mouth for Potato Head, nature also plugs in a wide variety of instruments in the brain to detect energy sources in the outside world, much in the same way that you add plug-and- play peripherals to your computer. Edited excerpt from ‘Livewired:
The Inside Story of the Ever-changing Brain’ by David Eagleman, reproduced with permission.