Brains, robots, and their evolution

What can we learn from technology, and what can it learn from us?


The Bay Area is fully engaged with the technology industry, triggering political flare-ups over Google Glass, tech buses, and larger debates over how the tech industry is morphing the Bay Area's social and economic landscape. Meanwhile, university researchers are busily putting technology to use in service of their studies, or carefully examining how technology is shaping people's lives.

A pair of recent events in San Francisco and Berkeley illuminate how web-based technology has become deeply embedded in everyday life, helping to shape human realms as personal and unique as emotions, brain health, and behavior.

Medical researchers at the University of California San Francisco have devised a tool they hope will advance our understanding of neuroscience and brain disease. On April 8, UCSF researchers launched a new project called the Brain Health Registry, which uses the Internet to recruit volunteer research subjects who play online brain games as part of the enrollment.

Across the bay at UC Berkeley's Center for New Media, a recent symposium explored the implications of living in a world increasingly populated with robots and "smart" technologies that are designed to anticipate and respond to human behavior and dynamic environments. The April 4 event, called Robots and New Media, highlighted some thorny and intriguing questions about how robots "play a critical new role as extensions of ourselves," according to the event description.

With discussion from cognitive neuroscientists about what happens to the human brain during interactions with robots, the talk also dived into questions about how much trust people should be willing to lend to emerging technologies.



Michael Weiner often wonders whether swimming in the San Francisco Bay can be credited with sharpening the mind. "I can tell you this: It sure makes you feel good," said Weiner, who frequently plunges into the frigid bay waters as a member of the Dolphin Club.

For Weiner, a professor of radiology at the University of San Francisco who specializes in Alzheimer's research, the curiosity goes beyond idle speculation. He'd like to conduct a clinical study to explore the impact that swimming in cold water has on mental functioning. But at the moment, he and a team of UCSF researchers are focused on a much bigger project.

Weiner is the founder of UCSF's Brain Health Registry, designed to answer these brain impact questions by making it easier to do clinical studies. Realizing that the high cost of recruiting volunteers can slow down cognitive research, he's turned to the Internet to build a database of volunteer subjects.

"The idea is to collect tens of thousands of people into a registry and then use it to select subjects for clinical trial," he explained. To enroll, participants provide their names and other personal information, and answer questions about their patterns around sleep, mood, exercise, medications, use of alcohol, and other behaviors. They also take online cognitive tests provided by Lumosity, a brain-game company.

Their test results and personal information are then entered into the registry, which can be used to aid research in several ways. It can be analyzed to detect trends — for example, are there patterns suggesting a linkage between sleep disorders and poor cognitive functioning? It could be used to help researchers detect people with very early Alzheimer's, Weiner noted. And UCSF researchers can contact registry volunteers to invite them in for clinical studies.

"I want 50,000 people of all ages within the San Francisco Bay Area," Weiner said of his initial goal. By the end of 2017, the recruitment goal is 100,000. So far, 2,000 have signed up as volunteer subjects.