Cybernetics and Computer Vision

16 January 2005
Presented by Chris Smith, Helen Scales


This week we merge man and machine as Kevin Warwick joins us to discuss cyborgs, upgrading humans through mechanical implants, and his own experience of a sixth sense. He is joined by computer vision expert William Clocksin who talks about improving machine vision by making computers more human, and Andrew Gosler describes how an application of computer vision has revealed why some bird eggs are speckled.

In this episode

New Treatment For Crohn's

Researchers have stumbled upon a possible new treatment for the inflammatory intestinal condition Crohn's disease - a dose of worms ! The immune systems of patients with Crohn's are thought to be over-reacting to the good bacteria in the intestine, producing painful and recurrent inflammation, ulceration, weight loss and intestinal obstruction. The disease tends to be much more common in the developed world than in the third world, where most people carry intestinal parasites such as worms, leading doctors to speculate that worms in some way help to damp-down the immune response in the gut. So, over a 6 month period, doctors gave 29 volunteers with Crohn's disease regular doses of the eggs of a species of worm, called Trichuris suis, that normally infects pigs. After 12 weeks of worm therapy, 19 of the patients were completely free of Crohn's symptoms. By the end of the study, 80% of the patients had responded to the therapy, and 73% had gone into remission and were symptom free. No one in the study developed any side effects. The benefit of using pig worms is that once they hatch the worms remain in the bowel without invading other parts of the body, and the eggs don't pose a threat to other people because they need to be incubated in soil for at least a week before they can colonise another person. The authors suggest that the worms are producing factors which help to suppress the over-activity of the immune system in the bowel, and that worm-therapy might be a simple alternative, or even addition, to Crohn's therapy in future.

What Do Dolphins And a Football Team Have in Common?

A team of US scientists has discovered that dolphins have specific positions within their pod, and thus act just like a football team! The Miami researchers studied feeding individuals in two different pods, which they were able to recognise by the different markings on their fins. They found that certain dolphins always performed certain jobs when the pod was hunting for fish. One particular dolphin was always the driver. It would herd fish towards a wall of waiting team mates, and then drive the fish up towards the surface to be eaten. Such specialisation within groups is unusual for the animal kingdom, and is only otherwise seen in lioness groups in Africa. In this case, a group of lionesses herds the prey towards the centre of the hunting ground where another lioness is waiting to go in for the kill. As it is often difficult to identify individuals, it is possible that there are many other species that work as a team, but they are yet to be discovered.

Nano-capsules For Drug Delivery

Scientists in Australia have developed minute nanocapsules which can be used to target anti-cancer drugs to tumours, sparing other healthy tissue from side effects. The capsules, which measure about 1 micron across - or 1 thousandth of a millimetre - can be coated with an antibody which directs them from the bloodstream to a tumour. Once they are in the tumour, a quick blast with a harmless skin-penetrating laser producing near-infrared light causes the capsules to open up, discharging their contents. To make them, Frank Caruso and his team from the University of Melbourne, Australia, have engineered a polymer which they add to a suspension of drug particles so that the polymer forms a sphere enclosing the drug, several layers thick. They then add tiny gold particles 6 nanometres - that's 6 millionths of a millimetre across - which stick onto the surface of the polymer, rather like the speckles on a bird's egg. It's these gold particles which are sensitive to the laser light and allow the capsules to deploy their drug cargo at the desired time. When near-infrared light hits the gold spots they instantaneously melt, rupturing the capsule, but without harming the contents. The outermost layer of the nanocapsules consists of a fatty (lipid) layer to which a variety of antibodies can be attached to help target the capsules to specific tumours. So far they have tested the technique using a simple enzyme, called lysozyme, without any loss of activity from the enzyme when it was released from the capsule. The next step for Caruso and his team is to shrink the nanocapsules even further, and then test whether they can safely be administered to a living creature.

Sperm Whales Get The Bends

Scientists have discovered that sonar from ships and submarines might be causing sperm whales to get the bends. Whales were thought to be immune to this condition, but Michael Moore and Greg Early, from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institutute in the States, have found evidence of bone damage caused by the bends in a number of sperm whales, some as old as 111 years. The damage to the whales' bones is thought to be the result of surfacing too quickly which, just as in human scuba divers, causes tiny nitrogen bubbles to form in the blood, blocking small blood vessels and damaging the tissues they supply. The scientists think that whales, which often hunt at hours at a time at depths of over a mile underwater, normally control their surfacing behaviour very carefully to prevent themselves from developing the bends. But, if the whales are disturbed by underwater noises like sonar, explosions from sea-floor mapping, or even earthquakes, they might surface too quickly, and develop the condition. It's not just whales that are the victims either. Recently large numbers of dead giant squid have been washing up on beaches in South America with damaged ears, which is thought to be the result of exposure to underwater explosions detonated by companies surveying the sea floor for oil reserves.

- Cyborgs And Upgrading Humans

The Naked Scientists spoke to Dr. Kevin Warwick, University of Reading Chris - You were saying earlier that the whole point of putting implants into humans...

Cyborgs And Upgrading Humans
with Dr. Kevin Warwick, University of Reading Chris - You were saying earlier that the whole point of putting implants into humans is to make them better. Do we really need to do that?

Kevin - It's a big ethical question. The technology can be used to help people who have been paralysed, are blind, have motor neurone disease and other problems. An implant can help them. In Parkinson's disease, implants can send impulses into the brain to counteract the shaky symptoms of the disease. Implants also provide the opportunity for upgrading. Your brain might be fine and everything is healthy, but can we make it even better? At the moment we have five senses, but why not have more?

I myself have had an ultrasonic sense. This is not science fiction. With a blindfold on, I could move around and detect objects so I didn't bump into things.

Chris - How does that work?

Kevin - We fed ultrasonic signals down through a baseball cap into my nervous system. It took about six weeks to train my brain to recognise electric pulses so that as I got nearer an object, y brain was being stimulated by more and more pulses of current. The implants were put into my median nerve, which is the main bunch of nerve fibres that run down your arm between your brain and your hand.

Helen - What did that feel like?

Kevin - It felt like something was close! When we were training my brain to recognise the pulses, the sense it made of the signals when nothing else was happening was that my finger was being twiddled a little bit. When we were doing the experiment, every time the signals came in, I knew something was close. My brain made that link and I could navigate around the room by the frequency of pulse signals. The pulses went straight into the nervous system. Helen - Do you think you'll be able to find a way to 'see' with ultrasound like bats do?

Kevin - I'm sure there is a way, but our experiment just looked at the simple case of whether there is an object there or not. If we had carried on the experiment, then maybe I would have been able to do that. The only problem with ultrasonic signals is that they are quite wide, so it's difficult to get good resolution like you can with a laser. It would be interesting to try other wavelengths like infrared or x-rays as signals. With x-ray sense you have the possibility of checking people at customs to see if they have a gun in their pocket. With infrared sense, which would detect heat, you would be able to see if someone was hiding behind a wall. It opens up all sorts of possibilities.

Chris - If someone has gone blind and we want to restore an eye, how close are we to being able to harness the optic nerve and feed back in signals so they can see?

Kevin - It's very difficult. There has been much more success with cochlea implants for hearing where the auditory nerve is still functioning. However, even with a functioning optic nerve, artificial retina research has only provided vague outlines. Blind people have been able to see shapes and letters when bright lights have been shone in their eyes, but the computer software has had to be specially adjusted for each person. This shows that there is still a very long way to go in this area. Saying that, at least it's a step forward.

Chris - When you had your implants in your wrist, you picked up mobile phone signals. Tell me some more about that.

Kevin - It didn't happen all the time but there was one case that was particularly interesting. We were looking at my brain signals on a screen when suddenly they started getting much bigger. I was quite concerned as I wasn't sure what was happening to my nervous system! We found out that while this was happening, one of the researchers received a text message on his mobile phone. When he went out of the room, the signals went back to normal. This shows the mobile phone was having an effect on my nervous system.

Chris - We've been talking about putting things into the body, but what about taking things out of the body and putting them in a dish? I read a paper a few months ago about some people who grew some nerve cells in a dish, connected them up to a computer and eventually trained them to fly a flight simulator.

Kevin - Yes, this is the research of Steve Butters. Rat brains are being used quite a lot. They are being cultured, being kept alive for quite a while and being taught. By stimulating the brain in certain ways you can get it to strengthen pathways in the brain, which makes it more likely to do things. You must remember that these simulators are just that: rats couldn't fly a plane!

- Humanising Machines

The Naked Scientists spoke to Professor William Clocksin, Oxford Brookes University Chris - we've been talking about making man more like a machine, but...

Humanising Machines
with Professor William Clocksin, Oxford Brookes University Chris - we've been talking about making man more like a machine, but you work on trying to make machines more humanised.

William - That's right. I work on vision, which is our preferred sense. We get a lot of information from it, so we want to find out how it works and how we can enable computer systems to see like we do. We use vision to make judgements that are intuitive and subjective: judgements that we don't really know how to explain. This means that vision isn't just something simple we do. It is tied in with our emotions, desires and everything else that makes us human.

Helen - Is it right that one of the things that is most difficult to do is to get machines to recognise individual faces?

William - Yes. Faces are interesting. Humans are very good at recognising the faces of people we are well acquainted with, but we're not very good at recognising the faces of people we've never met but only seen in photos.

Chris - Isn't there a special area of the brain that's just to do with faces? Some stroke victims can lose the part of their brain that enables them to remember faces; even of people they have known for years.

William - Yes, this does show that faces are important to us.

Chris - Is one of the main goals for people working on computer vision to make computers that fall for optical illusions like humans do?

William - This is already happening and we are arriving at a much better solution for how these illusions work. In my group, we are more interested in practical applications such as the detection of genetic disease by looking at chromosomes. At the moment, this is done manually and is very labour intensive. In the future we hope to pass this task over to computers who will be able to spot defects.

Chris - When a woman is pregnant, the only tests she can have done to see if her foetus has any birth defects are invasive. These may cause the foetus to spontaneously abort. How does your work improve on this?

William - It has been known for some time that some of the cells in the mother's blood stream come from the unborn baby. We need a few drops of the blood for us to be able to find enough of foetal cells to look at. We then subject the cells to a number of tests we have developed to see if there are any genetic defects. These cells are viable and are a good representation of the cells in the unborn child. Our method is currently in the very early stages of development and there are other people around the world who are also working on it. We're looking forward to some very exciting new tests that will be able to give us accurate information.

Chris - How does the computer spot the foetal cell? Surely cells look very alike.

William - They do, but imagine this situation: if you spot a cell in the mother's blood stream that has a male chromosome in it, it can't possibly be hers. We use tests like this to spot that they don't belong to the mother. Chris - There has been lots in the news recently about microwaves from mobile phones harming the brain. You think that this is unlikely to happen. Why do you think that?

William - I'm no expert on this, but if you look at the wavelength of microwave radiation and compare it with the wavelengths that brain tissue is able to pick up, they are in completely different regions. Overall, I'm not sure. There are many complex processes involved in disease and I wouldn't like to hazard a guess at whether mobile phones are a cause.

Chris - I do worry that mobile phones will affect me. Kevin has already said that he saw his brain patterns changing in response to a text message coming in. How do we know what the long term effects will be? How do we know that our brain cells aren't having extra genes switched on in response to long-term exposure? If extra genes are switched on, it might also switch on growth factors that may cause cells in our brains to grow uncontrollably.

Kevin - I think that anyone who says that there is no effect at all is wrong. I don't think that's the case at all as it obviously has some effect. The problem is knowing what will happen long-term. I think it will be similar to what happened with smoking, which was once advertised as a good thing. Only time will tell whether mobile phones affect us or not.

- Why Birds Eggs Have Speckles

The Naked Scientists spoke to Dr Andrew Gosler, Oxford University

Why Birds Eggs Have Speckles
with Dr Andrew Gosler, Oxford University

Chris - You have been working with William Clocksin and looking at finding out why there are speckles on bird eggs.

Andrew - People have been wondering for at least 200 years why there are little spots on certain sorts of birds eggs. The patterns on most eggs are not actually explainable. We know that in some ground-nesting wader birds the eggs have speckles for camouflage purposes, but most species actually have white eggs. The birds I have been looking at, the great tit, have white eggs with little brown-red spots on them. People have been looking at these and thought that they must be some kind of visual signal. It's definitely not camouflage because they don't look like their background and the mother covers the eggs anyway.

Chris - So why do they have these spots?

Andrew - The story is that the molecule that makes up these little red - brown spots (protoporphorin) has some very useful properties. Small birds are short of calcium and they find it very hard to find enough to form their egg shells during the breeding season. When they are particularly short of calcium they can put in this protoporphorin instead of some of the calcium. One of the properties it has is that it is a semi-crystalline substance which may act a strengthening agent.

Chris - When you are doing this research, you must have to carefully map out where the spots are on the eggs.

Andrew - I've been using a very simple system where I simply look at the eggs and record the spot patterns on different scales depending on the intensity of pigment and the distribution of the spots. That's been fine for the last 15 years with just me doing it, but we want to extend the work further in this species and more importantly, in other species too. This is where William's work comes in. We are hoping he will be able to write a program that will help map out the patterns.

Chris - Do these spots have any significance for the birds inside the eggs that are actually developing? Does it give then a target to peck at, like a weakness in the egg?

Andrew - That's a very interesting question. It turns out that the protoporphorin spots do mark particularly thin areas of shell. In the pigment spots, the shell is on average 18% thinner than the rest of the shell. The spots tend to form a ring around the sir space of the egg and that is actually where young birds hatch from. It is unlikely that they form a map for the chicks I look at because they are blind while they are in the egg. However, it is worth bearing mind that a lubricant within the shell that strengthens the shell from pressure outside would actually weaken the shell from pressure inside. So it would make sense that they peck where those spots are.

- Would the implants you are talking about help people with MS?

Would the implants you are talking about help people with MS?

Would the implants you are talking about help people with MS?

It could help make their lives a lot better, even if it can't cure them. In some cases, the brain can be functioning ok but the signals just can't get through to their destination. The implants could take the signals to where they are going and hence bring back movements and restore functions. Some people have had brain implants that allow them to control the cursor on a screen by connecting the thought about moving the cursor to the movement of the hand. Improvements on this could allow people to drive cars, make coffee and call people on their mobile phones; things they might not have been able to do otherwise. So in answer to the question, I think there are enormous possibilities but there are not enough people doing research in this area.

- What does the word bionic actually mean and how would a bionic object be incorporated into the body?

What does the word bionic actually mean and how would a bionic object be incorporated into the body?

What does the word bionic actually mean and how would a bionic object be incorporated into the body?

Bionic is probably biological and electronic put together. As for incorporating them into the body, we already have things like pacemakers for the heart and cochlea implants. The materials used are pretty inert, so the body usually just encapsulates them, which is a good thing because it helps protect the implant.

- Should humans become cyborgs?

I want to say that I'm very much in favour of the work Kevin is doing. I think it's great to look into improving humans and giving us som...

Should humans become cyborgs?

Thank you for your support. I'm sure there are lots of people who would like to have implants so they can understand different things and have different experiences.

- Will aftershave relieve the pain of spondylitis?

I've got spondylitis of the spine and neck. A first-aider friend of mine suggested rubbing aftershave into the small of my back. I haven'...

Will aftershave relieve the pain of spondylitis?

I'm going to agree with your friend. If you hit your head on a wall, the first thing you'd do would be to rub it. In 1965, Patrick Wall and Ronald Melzack came up with the Gate Theory of Pain. It said that if you gently rub an area of skin, that kind of stimulus can 'gate' or stop the flow of pain up the spinal cord. That's why when you hit something your first instinct is to rub it. Apart from smelling really bad, what these treatments like deep heat get you to do is to rub the affected area. This might be why rubbing in aftershave might work. Some people have implants that control pain. (Kevin) Yes they do. Some people in continual pain, such with bad cases of arthritis, have the possibility of counteracting the pain with an implant that short-circuits the pain going up the spinal cord.

- When will we be able to use brain implants to add information to the brain?

When do you think it will be possible to experience direct input into the brain and will we be able to have false memories?

When will we be able to use brain implants to add information to the brain?

I think it could be possible within the next decade as there are a few experiments going on already with brain-computer interfaces. It is exciting to look at whether we will be able to experience memories of things we never experienced. Stimulating memories we have had by blasting in electronic signals could be very useful. It would be like psychiatry from the inside. I find the possibility of having memories you never had is very exciting.

- What's the difference between a cochlea implant and a normal hearing aid?

What's the difference between a cochlea implant and a normal hearing aid?

What's the difference between a cochlea implant and a normal hearing aid?

A cochlea implant is connected directly onto and into the nerve fibres, whereas a hearing aid is on the outside. A cochlea implant replaces the part of the ear that's missing.


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