Ha ha bloody ha, AI is getting into scary

A feature on Motherboard (and available from quite a few sites on this particularly frightening day in the calendar) informs readers that “MIT is teaching AI to Scare Us”. Well that’s just great. Anyone insufficiently nervous anyway about the potential perils of AI itself, or not already rendered catatonic in anxiety over the conniptions of the American election, can go onto the specially confected Nightmare Machine website and consult a specially prepared timeline that advances from the Celtic stirrings of Hallowe’en two millennia ago to this very year in which AI-boosted “hell itself breathes out contagion to the world.”

The highlight – or murky darkfest – feature of the site is the interactive gallery of faces and places, concocted and continually refined by algorithms seeking to define the essence of scary. So much of what we sense about horror is rather like our sense of what it is that makes humour funny: it is less induced from core principles but is rather deduced from whatever succeeds in eliciting the scream of terror or laughter. It cannot be a surprise, therefore, that the Nightmare Machine mission is proving perfect for machine learning to get its artificial fangs into. Website visitors rank the images for scariness and, the theory goes, the images get scarier.

Another school of thought, reflected in articles like this piece in Salon on the creepy clown phenomenon, sees the fright not so much in what others find frightening as in what serves as a projection of our own internal terrors. The clowns and gargoyles that stalk the political landscape are to a large extent projections of ourselves: of our own deepest fears for the more empathetic among us, or as simple avenging avatars for the morally bereft or culturally dispossessed.

When AI moves beyond its current picture recognition capabilities into deeper areas of understanding our own inner fears and darkest thoughts, the ultimate fright will no longer lie in some collection of pixels. It will seep from the knowing look you get from your android doppelganger — to all intents and purposes you to the very life — as your watching friend asks, “Which you is actually you?” Your friend doesn’t know, but you know, and of course it knows . . . and it knows that you know that it knows . . .

Bailey on books: making the brain accessible



Attempting to describe the workings of a human brain in just six chapters of a 246-page paperback might seem like an impossible task but David Eagleman has had a very creditable go at it in The Brain, The Story of You.

Further, what he has put into print has lived up to the expectations generated by his recent and highly acclaimed TV series on the same subject. (Interestingly, Eagleman writes that in childhood he and his family rarely watched television; Carl Sagan’s Cosmos being a rare exception but no surprise.) In fact much of what he rehearsed in that TV series is refreshed in this slim volume. But the real value of The Brain, The Story of You is its style; punchy, straightforward and mostly written in a simple style that requires little if any re-reading, so clear is Eagleman’s exposition throughout. To match his style the layout follows on admirably with a large readable typeface, good line spacing, plenty of white space and some interesting graphics.

The author has avoided over-elaboration by the use of scientifically verified examples. The danger is that developments in neuroscience are moving so fast that new discoveries are likely to surmount some of what has been set down here almost before the ink has time to dry. But no matter, because there is at present no more easily digested review of what has been described as the most complex structure in the universe.

Eagleman deserves every success for providing readers with such an easy-to-follow guide as to who we are and how and why we think the way we do. One of the positive features of the text are the boxed summaries that give readers time to absorb the significance of what has been read previously. These include clear interpretations and examples of how research and experimentation have helped determined brain function.

Nothing is left out in this comprehensive review including details of operations that didn’t work out well but added to the scant knowledge of brain function as recently as the mid-twentieth century. Experiments that were always dubious or chancy on those who were clearly unwell also are covered. Added to this, the Endnotes, of which there are plenty, form a very useful bibliography and the descriptive glossary is invaluable in furthering better understanding of what Eagleman has described.

This book is worth carrying around to read of course but also to use in translating and understanding our own behaviour and that of others with whom we interact.

The Brain, The Story of You is published by Canongate Books. For further information go to http://www.canongate.tv/the-brain-ebook.html or have a look at David Eagleman’s website.


Books editor John Bailey was for many years one of London’s best known journalists and spent most of his career in what was Fleet Street. He is an avid bibliophile and record collector, champion advocate for press freedom, and a student of history whose guided tours of London are known to and fondly recalled by exhausted walkers on all five continents.

How does consciousness evaluate itself?

If “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”, perhaps the attempt to reflect conclusively on consciousness is like the old picture of Baron Munchausen trying to pull himself out of a swamp by his own pigtail. Despite the usual carpings in the commentary whenever any serious thinking is done online (gosh, if only the author had consulted with me first . . .) an article in Aeon Magazine by cognitive robotics professor Murray Shanahan of London’s Imperial College makes some important distinctions between human consciousness and what he terms “conscious exotica”. The key question he poses is summed up in the sub-headline: “From algorithms to aliens, could humans ever understand minds that are radically unlike our own?”

It’s a great question, even without wondering how much more difficult such an understanding must be when it eludes most of us even in understanding minds very much like our own. Shanahan sets out from a premising definition of intelligence as what it is that “measures an agent’s general ability to achieve goals in a wide range of environments”, from which we can infer a definition of consciousness as what it is when the measuring agent is the agent herself.

From there, Shanahan works up a spectrum of consciousness ranging from awareness through self-awareness, to empathy for other people and on to integrated cognition, wondering along the way if the displayed symptoms of consciousness might disguise distinctions in the internal experience of consciousness between biological and non-biological beings. The jury will remain out on the latter until Super AI is upon us, but reflections on the evolution of biological consciousness prompt another thought on the process of evolution itself.

There is nothing absolute about human consciousness. We are where we are now: our ancient ancestors might have gawped uncomprehendingly at the messages in White Rabbits, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and the rest of them, but the doors that were opened by the 60s counterculture were less about means than about ends. Enhanced consciousness was shown to be possible if not downright mind-blowing. We in our time can only gawp in wondrous anticipation of what future consciousness may tell us about all manner of things, including even and possibly especially dances about architecture.

“Teach me half the gladness that thy brain must know, Such harmonious madness From my lips would flow The world should listen then, as I am listening now.” — Shelley”s To a Skylark

Bailey on Books: What is actually going on inside?


Many of us were introduced to neuroscience in 1997 by The Human Brain, A Guided Tour, Susan Greenfield’s ground-breaking second publication about the brain. Few of us will be surprised to learn that despite the controversy some of her prognostications have aroused, she continues to provide valuable insights into what has now become a stand-alone science. And her latest treatise provides more of the same.

I am referring to A Day in the Life of the Brain, The Neuroscience of Consciousness from Dawn to Dusk, Susan’s latest attempt to make us more familiar with how our brains work in most circumstances during an average day and night.

Following more than two decades of unremitting exploration of the workings of the brain, Susan is excellently placed to offer some highly plausible thoughts about consciousness. The Private Life of The Brain was a prequel to her latest attempt to help define consciousness and now she has added measurably to our understanding of one of neuroscience’s greatest challenges. And defining the ultimate in this regard is something she continues to investigate with her colleagues in her laboratory at Oxford.

Following the form of her earlier books, she divides A Day in the Life into clearly defined chapters that represent specific daily activities, thoughts and problems. But before that, and on the very first page of her preface, she recalls disavowing her science studies, instead choosing Latin, Greek, ancient history and maths. She writes: “. . . the essence of one’s own individuality seemed to be so much better met by history and literature”.

As with so much in this book, that’s a thought worth pondering. However, via psychology and physiology she moved back to science and eventually to her natural home of neuroscience and the study of neurodegenerative disorders.

All this shows that she is no ordinary neuroscientist, a fact underlined in A Day in the Life as she forensically examines and largely refutes most of the present notions of consciousness in an entertaining style that will engage both novices and those who live permanently in her rarified world. Outlining the complexities we face during an average day and how our brains both initiate and cope with our actions, Susan explores what we know of how we think and provides a comprehensive guide to our further understanding of consciousness.


Baroness Susan Greenfield CBE is a Senior Research Fellow at Lincoln College, Oxford University. A Day in the Life of the Brain, The Neuroscience of Consciousness from Dawn to Dusk is published by Allen Lane.

Susan Greenfield will be speaking at the London School of Economics on Thursday, 3rd November 2016, 6:30pm-8:00pm. For details of this free event go to: http://www.susangreenfield.com/


Books editor John Bailey was for many years one of London’s best known journalists and spent most of his career in what was Fleet Street. He is an avid bibliophile and record collector, champion advocate for press freedom, and a student of history whose guided tours of London are known to and fondly recalled by exhausted walkers on all five continents.

Bailey on Books: An intriguing study of brains in balance


At a time when neuroscience is making huge advances in the understanding of consciousness and regular updates on the physical workings of our brains are proliferating (see Susan Greenfield’s latest thinking on A Day in the Life of the Brain in our next review), it is timely to look at a landmark publishing event in neuroscience advancement.

The Master and his Emissary, first published by Yale University Press in 2010, provides a perfect introduction to brain functionality with a remarkable prescience about developments in neuroscience since its publication.

Author Iain McGilchrist’s comprehensive review of brain power and how the left and right hemispheres work singularly and together to best effect, has been an extremely reliable guide to current thinking and has no doubt fuelled many further advances.

His belief “that many of the disputes about the nature of the human world can be delivered to us by the two hemispheres, both of which can have a ring of authenticity about them, and both of which are hugely valuable; but they stand in opposition to each other and so need to be kept apart – hence the bi-hemispheric structure of the brain” has the simplicity and elegant writing style that is a virtue throughout this book of revelations. Added to this there is a constant philosophical element that supports the author’s thoughts, ideas and explanations.

First reading can give an impression of denseness but this is a reflection of the depth of analysis and the novel intricacies of brain function first encountered. The idea that each hemisphere has fundamentally different sets of values and priorities so that at some stage they are likely to come into conflict is not a concept easily accepted. However, McGilchrist’s exhaustive research and his engaging rationale make it an undeniable matter of fact.

Apart from why the structure of the brain is so relevant to how we experience the world, perhaps most important is the increasing and concerning dominance of the left hemisphere. This and its worrying consequences for our increasingly mechanistic view of the world, is addressed in straightforward terms but with the full authority of an expert in his field.

For a clear understanding of the structure of the brain and its functionality, this publication must rank as the set text. It also scores highly as a source of entertainment as well as being a rich source of the experimental research that it has no doubt promoted.


Iain McGilchrist author of The Master and his Emissary, The Divided Brain and Making of the Modern World, is a former Consultant Psychiatrist and Clinical director at the Bethlem Royal & Maudsley Hospital. Readers looking for more about, and from him can go to his website, which includes an animated lecture which is also available on the TEDTalks website.


Books editor John Bailey was for many years one of London’s best known journalists and spent most of his career in what was Fleet Street. He is an avid bibliophile and record collector, champion advocate for press freedom, and a student of history whose guided tours of London are known to and fondly recalled by exhausted walkers on all five continents.

Thursday’s Guest Blog: John Bailey on Books


The speed of developments in neuroscience could mean that anything on the subject published more than a couple of years ago is bound to be behind the curve. But patently this is not the case so far as The Brain Supremacy is concerned. Author Kathleen Taylor, who is affiliated to the Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics at Oxford University, has built into her book elementary as well as far-reaching factors about neuroscience that are fundamental to an understanding of this emerging science.

This makes The Brain Supremacy, published by OUP in 2012, a reference source of basic knowledge on the subject and an informed guide to future innovation. She tackles head-on the problems as well as the advantages that developments in neuroscience will have on people’s thinking, feelings and even their existence. Not unexpectedly morality is integral to her thinking as she assesses technologies that could change our view of the world around us; that could even alter our perceptions of good and evil. These and other difficult topics that include telepathy and epigenetics in brain development, are covered expertly but in a highly readable form.

Not far from all the provisos that relate to the future of neuroscience, we are reminded that the amount we have learned about the brain and its working is far outweighed by what we still do not know. This includes just how closely bound are our brains to our immune systems, hormones and other bodily functions.

Such mysteries are guaranteed to keep us closely involved, at least until we reach the section on future developments. After thoroughly exploring how the brain has reached its status of supremacy, this section is the most intriguing because it is a guide to how we might come to terms with a new understanding of ourselves. However, the warning is there, that infinite care is needed when it comes to developing technologies that can bypass our skulls and directly manipulate our brains.

It is unlikely, Kathleen Taylor writes, that such technologies will be morally neutral and consequently she does not avoid detailing the likely costs that must be paid for brain supremacy to retain its exalted position.

Read more here about The Brain Supremacy and other titles by this acclaimed author including Brainwashing: The Science of Thought Control and Cruelty. For information about Dr Taylor’s Fellowship at the Institute for Food, Brain and Behaviour, click here.

Rosetta, Peres and Trump: a study in contrasts

On the day that the Rosetta mission reached a deliberate and lonely climax on a distant comet, and Shimon Peres was buried in Israel, we saw the peaking of two great narrative arcs that define so much of the glory of what it means to be human. The first represents another great triumph of science with a research journey further into space than our species has ever ventured while observing in such detail as it flew. The legacy is a mountain of data for scientists to assimilate for decades to come following the last pulse of intelligence from the expired satellite itself.

The second is up there with the Mandela story: Shimon Peres, international statesman and Israeli icon, a man of peace who can bring the planet’s greatest and best to attend his funeral. But like Mandela before him, Peres shines especially as a man whose odyssey took him through violence to an understanding that there is more security and happiness in peace than there is in war. Tough getting there, tough staying there, but worth the effort – and inspiring to everyone who believes that as monkeys became human, so humans may one day become something better yet.

Rosetta and Peres, science and statesmanship, collaborate on this day to remind humanity of the benefits of evolutionary progress.

Agnotologist Donald Trump stands apart from both. He too has become an icon: not of progress and hope but of the wages of ignorance, the triumphs of fear and bias, the submission of means to ends and the subversion of truth to the primacy of the pre-ordained outcome. While he himself represents no triumph of evolution, he at least is prompting reflections on how the human mind works (or doesn’t), particularly in its possible impact on other minds.

Another Donald once bemused the world with his musings on “known knowns” – the things we know that we know. He distinguished them from things we know we don’t know, and the unknown things that remain unknown to us. In ignoring the fourth permutation – the unknown knowns — The Donald that was Rumsfeld ignored the very patron saint of ignorance.

So many things were known to Shimon Peres, and are known to contemporary science that will forever be unknown to Donald Trump. His universe of ignorance remains as bleak and alien and dead as the distant comet with which humanity has at least established a first connection.