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Turning brainwaves into sound

18 October, 2011 1 comment
BrainImage

Image from news.Discovery.com

My best friend in college gave me Tuesdays with Morrie while we were in our third year to keep me entertained as I was traveling about visiting graduate schools. I remember nearing the end of the book while sitting in the back of a 737, sobbing so uncontrollably that a flight attendant came to check on me.

This book launched me into the stark realization of the existence of ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), also known as Lou-Gehrig’s disease, named after a famous Yankees baseball player who was diagnosed in 1939. This disease affects the central nervous system and ultimately leads to complete paralysis of the body while the brain remains otherwise unaffected and lucid. This condition of complete physical paralysis combined with intact cognitive ability is known as locked-in syndrome and affects approximately 50,000 Americans as a result of injury or a disease such as ALS. Frank Guenther of Boston University and his team have developed a system that uses an EEG cap to read brainwaves through the scalp to move a cursor on a computer screen (see here). When the cursor moves into one of three circles, the computer will produce either an “uw”, “aa”, or “iy” sound. While this is still far from producing actual speech, it is the start to giving locked-in patients the ability to interact with society again. They can also use a similar system to move a robot.

Interestingly, back in 2009, the team also tested a more invasive device that involved implanting an electrode in the brain and using a computer system to interpret the patient’s thoughts. They actually performed this procedure on a 26-year old who had been paralyzed by a brain stem stroke. A few months after implanting the electrode, nerve cells grew into the electrode and produced detectable signals. Once the team developed software that could detect the elements of speech through all the “neural noise”, they were able to help this patient reproduce speech with an approximate 50 millisecond delay — a speed comparable to what we typically take when speaking naturally! See more on this study here.

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Categories: Uncategorized

Evolution and genomics in anti-malware software

16 December, 2010 Leave a comment

While most “normal” people look forward to the cinnamon spices, roasted turkey, and holiday cheer typical of this time of year, starting just before Thanksgiving, I start my mad annual scramble to get posters and/or talks completed, and proposals perfected for early January deadlines. This year has been no different, as I planned in September to have a proposal written by November, and drafts circulating with knowledgeable colleagues throughout December so that I could kick back and enjoy the holidays. Yet now I find myself still drafting the first section with only one month remaining, leaping out of bed early in the morning to catch a few hours of writing before heading to work, and then rushing home in the evenings to continue the mental onslaught on my computer…

I returned last night, ready to spend an evening typing away ferociously; but upon opening my computer, I was greeted with a series of error messages and the following window:

A screenshot of the window created by malware HDDTools, meant to scare users into purchasing software.

Needless to say, this sent me into a flurry of activity. For once, I was actually relieved to discover that my hard drive was not indeed about to implode, and that this was instead the spawn of a rogue app spread by a trojan (the fact that the malware then launches into a system scan is a clue… since if my hard drive was indeed failing, it certainly wouldn’t be able to execute a scan!).

In the hours that ensued as I tried to manually remove all components of this app from my computer and then protect it against further breaches, I discovered Ad-Aware’s Genotype detection system. Here is what CNET (6 December 2010) says about Genotype:

Lavasoft first started changing Ad-Aware’s protection engine more than a year ago in version 8.1, when it introduced Genotype. This heuristics-based technology identified identical snippets of code across multiple threat mutations. In version 9, Genotype receives support from what Lavasoft calls “Dedicated Detection.” This tech looks inside files, analyzes the code, and creates a loose pattern for finding families of related malware. The company touts that a single dedicated detection signature can detect hundreds of thousands of threats. More importantly, Lavasoft expects that dedicated detection will lower false positive rates by creating more points of comparison.

So while traditional detection software worked by matching a threat to a list in a database which needed to be repeatedly updated, Genotype looks for commonalities among the components of an app to determine threat level. What this permits is a sort of almost predictive detection capability that works by evolution of known threats, permitting dynamic detection over the old, static methods. Pretty cool, no?

To read more about this, click here.

Categories: Uncategorized

It’s not easy being green

29 September, 2010 Leave a comment

Some of you may remember Kermit the Frog singing the 1970s song by Joe Raposo, “Bein’ green”. In this song, Kermit laments the fact that green is such a boring color because he blends in with leaves, so no one notices him. Interestingly, an article published today in the New York Times (Green, but Still Feeling Guilty) revives this concern, but in a different context. In fact, the article shows that indeed, it really isn’t easy to be green, especially by the modern-day definition of green.

Each of the wonderful vignettes in this article profiles an individual with a particular connection to the Green Revolution: authors, architects, a random dude who lives in a geodesic dome… yet each of these people are doing something or embracing something in their daily lives that is distinctly not green. [Just a note: the guy in the geodesic dome is practically a saint for what extremes he has gone to to be green.]

So this brings up an interesting conundrum: is it impossible, with all the technology we depend on now for anyone to be fully green? Or, approaching it from a different direction, can being green be a bit like a weight-loss program? Is there a point when we can say that we are being “green enough” so that we can have that little slice of non-green pie to keep the motivation — and our creature comforts — up?

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Hairy feet and scuttling cockroaches… oh my!

7 September, 2010 Leave a comment

As an undergraduate at Berkeley, I found myself dumbfounded and awestruck by the awesome adhesive powers of gecko toepads. For months, I poured hour after hour into removing single toe pad hairs (setae), sticking them to a filed down insect pin, and pressing them against a thin filament of silver wire. I had already stuck a dead gecko on a smooth door and seen it dangling by a single toe with a heavy metal stapler tied to its hips, so I knew there was something spectacular about its adhesive powers (Note: no animals were injured or tormented to discover this!). Yet, each time I pressed a seta to the wire, absolutely nothing would happen. It took countless late night hours of pushing setae to wires with (an arguably) stupidly optimistic outlook, until suddenly, the seta began to stick!

Much of this motivation and inspiration for continuing onwards in this quest was in no small part due to a particularly spectacular advisor, Dr. Robert Full. In the hopes of having him also inspire all of you with his big dreams and creativity, I’ve posted one of his TED conference talks below. I hope you enjoy this as much as I do!

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