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Becoming a mother in the age of neurotoxins: Reflections from the International Meeting for Autism Research 2016

This article can also be found on the Huffington Post.

Becoming a parent, especially a mother, is one of the biggest responsibilities that one can assume in ones lifetime. Creating and nurturing a new life is an immensely complex task, which requires a lot of dedication, love and also skill and knowledge. Being a mother is hard even when the child is healthy and growing harmoniously, but the challenges of parenthood are multiplied so many times over when the child’s development goes awry, for example when the child has autism or other neurodevelopmental disorders.

About 1 in 68 children will develop autism, and even though we don’t yet fully understand what causes it, our knowledge about what puts someone at risk for autism is growing each day. For example, we now know that autism is a heritable disorder: a child who has a first degree relative (a parent or sibling) with autism has a 1 in 5 chance of developing autism as well. These children are considered to have a high risk for autism. But the risk for autism is not purely genetic: it is also environmental. There is a growing body of research showing that autism risk is elevated by certain environmental factors such as toxins. In fact, one of the overarching themes at this year’s International Meeting for Autism Research (IMFAR) was the issue of environmental causes of autism – what factors in our environment are responsible for elevated autism risk, and can they explain part of the recent rise in the number of children diagnosed with autism?

When thinking about “environment”, we usually conjure up images of the air we breathe, the water we drink, the soil we step on, the buildings we live in, etc. But much of the research on environmental risks for autism focuses instead on the pre-birth environment. In this case the environment is the mother, her body, the nutrients in her blood, the air in her lungs, the function of her various organs, etc. And even though traditionally, the mother’s womb has been praised as being one of the safest places on earth, recent research warns us of lurking dangers. For example the mother’s exposure to organophosphate pesticides at some point during pregnancy was associated with increased risk for autism for the child, with exposure during the third trimester of pregnancy doubling the autism risk. Air pollution has also been associated with increased risk for autism: mothers of autistic children autism were more likely to have lived in homes exposed to high traffic-related air pollution during their pregnancy. Also, mothers who had a metabolic condition such as diabetes, or who were obese during pregnancy, were more likely to have children with autism or developmental delay.

These findings are particularly worrisome given that sales of organic food (food free of pesticides) represents only 4% of the total U.S. food sales and it can be 30%-100% more expensive. More than 46.2 million people in the US live in an area with high levels of air pollution, more than a third of U.S. adults (78.6 million people) are obese, and 9.3% (29.1 million people) have diabetes.

This suggests that becoming a mother has become an even harder endeavor than before: it requires more knowledge and awareness about risk factors, more money to be able to afford avoiding them, and more discipline and a restrictive life-style. We have unfortunately created a world that is cruel to mothers-to-be, a world that places tremendous burdens on their shoulders for ensuring the health of their children. This is a world in which mothers have to worry about the most basic and automatic decisions humans make, such as eating, breathing or simply having a well functioning body. By putting neurotoxins in the food we eat, polluting the air that we breathe and generating societal trends of food consumption that lead to obesity and diabetes, we have created a world that restricts tremendously the lives of women who choose to responsibly become mothers.

Reducing the environmental risk of autism is not just a health issue – it’s also a gender equality issue about the basic rights and freedoms of women. There is an old saying: “It takes a village to raise a child.” We women should demand that our extended village, our society and world, takes better care of our children and of us by providing us with food, air and water that won’t put our children at risk for autism or other neurodevelopmental disorders.

What’s so exciting about AI? Conversations at the Nobel Week Dialogue

This article can also be found on the Huffington Post.

Each year, the Nobel Prize brings together some of the brightest minds to celebrate accomplishments and people that have changed life on Earth for the better. Through a suite of events ranging from lectures and panel discussions to art exhibits, concerts and glamorous banquets, the Nobel Prize doesn’t just celebrate accomplishments, but also celebrates work in progress: open questions and new, tantalizing opportunities for research and innovation.

This year, the topic of the Nobel Week Dialogue was “The Future of Intelligence”. The conference gathered some of the leading researchers and innovators in Artificial Intelligence and generated discussions on topics such as these: What is intelligence? Is the digital age changing us? Should we fear or welcome the Singularity? How will AI change the World?

Although both challenges in developing AI and concerns about human-computer interaction were expressed, let’s in the celebratory spirit of the Nobel Prize focus on the future possibilities of AI that were deemed most exciting and worth celebrating by some of the leaders in the field. Michael Levitt, the 2013 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, expressed excitement regarding the potential of AI to simulate and model very complex phenomena. His work on developing multiscale models for complex chemical systems, for which he received the Nobel Prize, stands as testimony to the great power of modeling, more of which could be unleashed through further development of AI.

Harry Shum, the executive Vice President of Microsoft’s Technology and Research group, was excited about the creation of a machine alter-ego, with which humans could comfortably share data and preferences, and which would intelligently use this to help us accomplish our goals and improve our lives. His vision was that of a symbiotic relationship between human and artificial intelligence where information could be fully, fluidly and seamlessly shared between the “natural” ego and the “artificial” alter ego resulting in intelligence enhancement.

Barbara Grosz, professor at Harvard University, felt that a very exciting role for AI would be that of providing advice and expertise, and through it enhance people’s abilities in governance. Also, by applying artificial intelligence to information sharing, team-making could be perfected and enhanced. A concrete example would be that of creating efficient medical teams by moving past a schizophrenic healthcare system where experts often do not receive relevant information from each other. AI could instead serve as a bridge, as a curator of information by (intelligently) deciding what information to share with whom and when for the maximum benefit of the patient.

Stuart Russell, professor at UC Berkeley, highlighted AIs potential to collect and synthesize information and expressed excitement about ingenious applications of this potential. His vision was that of building “consensus systems” – systems that would collect and synthesize information and create consensus on what is known, unknown, certain and uncertain in a specific field. This, he thought, could be applied not just to the functioning of nature and life in the biological sense, but also to history. Having a “consensus history”, a history that we would all agree upon, could help humanity learn from its mistakes and maybe even build a more-goal directed view of our future.

As regards the future of AI, there is much to celebrate and be excited about, but much work remains to be done to ensure that, in the words of Alfred Nobel, AI will “confer the greatest benefit to mankind”.

Future of AI at SciFoo 2015

This article can also be found on the Huffington Post.

Every year approximately 200 people meet at Google in Mountain View, California for an event called SciFoo, probably one of the most famous unconferences. Innovators from various disciplines are given access to Google’s cafeterias, to rooms with funky names such as neuralyzer, flux and capacitor and are left to organize sessions where they discuss freely, present bold ideas, give demos of gadgets etc. No topic is considered too crazy or taboo, and half-baked thoughts and ideas are encouraged rather than rebuked. The outcome is a glorious mess of ideas and inspiration that one needs weeks to digest afterwards.

One of the sessions at SciFoo this year, organized by Nick Bostrom, Gary Marcus, Jaan Tallin, Max Tegmark, and Murray Shanahan, discussed the future of artificial intelligence. Each of the organizers presented a 5 minute thought piece after which the floor was open for discussion. SciFoo operates under a “frieNDA” policy where people’s comments can only be reported with their permission – I’m grateful to the five speakers for consenting.

Murray Shanahan began by delineating the distinction between on one hand specialist AI (being developed with certainty in the short term, on a time frame of 5-10 years), and general AI (with a long time horizon, the full development of which for now pertains to the domain of science fiction visions). Then Shanahan raised three question-ideas:

  1. Do we want to build properly autonomous machines or do we want to ensure that they are just tools?
  2. If we could create a powerful AI that could give us anything we wanted, what would we get it to do?
  3. Should we create our own evolutionary successors?

While Murray Shanahan opened with philosophical idea-questions, taking as a given the development of general, strong AI, Gary Marcus adopted the position of the skeptic and focused on the issue of the imminence of strong AI. To the question of how soon will strong AI come, he expressed the opinion that there is still very little progress done on strong AI and that the focus is almost entirely concentrated on narrow AI.

Deep learning, the most promising avenue towards strong AI, is easily fooled, he felt, and doesn’t conceive of the world as we do. He exemplified by referring to the T-shirt he was wearing the previous day imprinted with a wavy pattern and having the inscription “Don’t worry killer robot, I am a starfish” – a mocking allusion to the fact that image recognition algorithms are still plagued by very basic mistakes, such as confusing wavy patterns with starfish. Therefore, at least 20 to 40 years to strong, general AI concluded Marcus. Even though concerned about strong AI, he didn’t think it would come soon, mainly because we are still missing a solution to a crucial problem: how to instantiate common sense in a machine.

Nick Bostrom opened his remarks by stating that it is hard to tell how far we are from human level AI. However, an interesting question according to him was: what happens next? Very likely we will get an intelligence explosion. This means that things that are compatible with the laws of physics but are currently part of science fiction could happen. So what can we do to increase the chance of beneficial outcomes? Bostrom felt that responders to this question usually belong to two camps: those who believe that this is not a special problem, therefore no special effort is needed and we will just solve this as we go along, and those who believe there is no point in trying because we cannot control it anyway. Bostrom, however, wanted to point out that there could instead be a third way of thinking about this: what if this is a difficult but solvable problem? he asked.
Jaan Tallinn talked about his personal history of increasing concern regarding the development of AI, from his first encounter with the writings of Elizer Yudkowsky to his involvement and support of organizations that attempt to steer the development of AI towards beneficial outcomes. Max Tegmark introduced one of these organizations supported by Tallinn, the Future of Life Institute which has steered the effort behind the open letter signed by more than 6000 people, among which top AI researchers and developers, an open letter underlining the importance of building AI that is robust and beneficial to humanity. The letter and accompanying research priorities document received financial support from Elon Musk, which enabled a grant program for AI safety research.

The presentations were followed by a lively general discussion. Below are some of the questions from the public and the remarks of the panel.

Do you think we can achieve AI without it having a physical body and emotions?

The panel remarked that intelligence is a multifaceted thing and that artificial intelligence is already ahead of us in some ways. A better way of thinking about intelligence is that it simply means that you are really good at accomplishing your goals.

Since cognition is embodied, for example opportunities for acquiring and using language depend on motor control, calculations depend on hands, is it possible to separate software from hardware in terms of cognition?

Robots have bodies, sensors, so to the extent that that matters, it is not an obstacle, it is merely a challenge. Embodyment is not a necessary condition for cognition. The fact that machines don’t have bodies won’t save us.

What do we do with strong AI? Why is its fate ours to choose?

At the end of the day you have to be a consequentialist and ask yourself: why are you involved in a project that randomizes the world? What is the range of futures ahead of you? Also, this question has different answers depending on what kind of AI you imagine building: one that is dead inside but can do amazing things for us, or something that is conscious and able to suffer.

Isn’t AI inevitable if we want to colonize the Universe?

Indeed when contemplating the kind of AI we want to develop, we have to think beyond the near future and the limits of our planet, we should also think about humanity’s cosmic endowment.

In order to design a system that is more moral, how do you decide what is moral?

We should not underestimate the whole ecosystem of values that might be vastly different than any human’s. We should also think not just about the initial set of moral values but also what we want to allow in terms of moral development.

We are already creating corporations that we feel have intentions and an independent existence. In fact we create many entities, social or technological that demonstrate volition, hostility, morality. So are we in a sense simply the microbiome of future AI (echoing another session at SciFoo that tackled the controversial question of whether we indeed have free will or are in large part controlled by our microbiome, our gut bacteria)?

The panel responded that one of the issues concerning us, the potential “microbiome” of future entities, is whether we are going to get a unipolar or a multipolar outcome (a single AI entity or a diverse ecosystem of AIs). The idea of the intelligence explosion coming out of a system that is able to improve itself seems to point towards a unipolar outcome. In the end it very much depends on the rate at which the AI will improve itself.

Another issue is the building of machines that not only do what we literally ask them to do but what we really want – the key to remaining a thriving microbiome. Some panelists felt this was a big challenge: could we really create AI that is not self-reflective? It seems like a lot would hinge upon aspects of the world that the AI could represent. Once an oracle machine (generally considered safe because this machine only answers questions like an oracle, it does not act upon the world) starts modeling the people who ask the questions its response would start covering manipulative answers as well. Indeed, in some sense our DNA has invented our brains to help reproduce itself better, but we found ways to circumvent that through birth-control for example (similarly we have found ways to hack our gut bacteria). So would our “microbiome-goals” be retained by entities smarter than us?

Finally another related question is what would the machines be able to learn. What kind of values and action schemas would be “innate” (pre-programmed) and what would the AI learn?

The session ended in a true SciFoo spirit with an honest recognition of our limited knowledge but also with a bold thought about the limitless possibilities for discovery and creativity:

Even in psychology we don’t know what general intelligence really means so in modeling cognitive processes in a sense we can’t even claim that we are either near or far from general AI.

To this thought from the public the panel remarked that even though the threshold of general or super intelligence might be deceiving in a sense, being fluid and ill defined, there is no issue in principle with creating general intelligence – after all our own brains are existence proof that you can have it.

Questioning authority in The School of Athens

This article can also be found on the Huffington Post.

On a recent trip to Rome, I was walking through the halls of the Vatican museums and after entering one of the Raphael rooms, I turned my head to discover, to my amazement, my favorite fresco: The School of Athens. I had somehow forgotten that this image resided inside the walls of the Vatican, so the unexpected encounter with it was the most delightful surprise.

The School of Athens has been one of my favorite artworks for a while, partly because of all the nostalgic memories of entire afternoons spent in my college library reading the works of the philosophers depicted in it. I had seen photos of it on computer screens and poster prints, but facing it in its grand, original enormity felt like I was there too, among my philosophy heroes.

However, it is not just the nostalgic memories of my own intellectual journey that make me love this painting. I love it also because I feel it represents the most exciting feature of the human spirit: the passion for knowledge, for figuring out the world. The other three walls of the room are also covered in gorgeous frescoes, representing theology, art and law, but to me the School of Athens is the grandest and most inspiring of them. This image represents the giants on the shoulders of which we climbed to reach for knowledge that has far surpassed their wildest imaginations. Sometimes those shoulders were flimsy and unstable, like Aristotle’s theory of motion, but the spirit of the School of Athens, the invitation to ask big questions, the public place to propose tentative answers and have them bolstered or refuted – that lives on and is still the engine behind any true quest for knowledge.

I spent a long time taking in the details of the painting, trying to recognize in the postures of the characters the spirit of different schools of thought or the personalities of different philosophers – a joyful exercise. The one charter that struck me the most was the poorly clad old man laying nonchalantly on the steps of the school, blocking the way of Plato and Aristotle who are approaching from the background. Rumor has it that this is Diogenes of Sinope, the “father of cynicism”.

On the plane back from Rome, I went back to the sources, the Lives of Eminent Philosophers (by another Diogenes, Diogenes Laertius) to read up on him and refresh my memories. The account portrays Diogenes of Sinope as a frustrating individual, devoted to a life of boastful simplicity (he was a beggar who slept in a giant ceramic jar in the marketplace) and unhindered defiance of social norms (when at a feast, certain people threw bones at him the way they would to a dog, Diogenes played a dog trick and urinated on them). He had a sharp intellect and an even sharper tongue that he used to taunt all authority figures of his time. He often disrupted Plato’s lectures and when Alexander the Great, leaning over him, offered to give him anything he wanted, Diogenes famously retorted “Stand out of my light.”. The collection of anecdotes about Diogenes of Sinope is a copious read, at times funny, at times outrageous, at times profound, and the central character, Diogenes himself, is a pain – an uncomfortable pebble in the shoe of all who have taken on an intellectual journey through the land of big questions.

The sentence that touched me the most in the entire piece on Diogenes was this: “Still he was loved by the Athenians.” The idea of this sentence is, I feel, beautifully reflected in Raphael’s fresco. I love first of all that Raphael chose to depict Diogenes, and I love how he depicted him. I love the fact that Diogenes occupies a central place in the image. I see this as a metaphor for a profound idea – that in the space of knowledge seeking, the uncomfortable questioning of authority has to take a central place; it has to be loved just like the Athenians loved Diogenes. An important part of seeking the truth is doubting, questioning, challenging. If the path you are on is never crossed by the authority-questioning spirit of Diogenes, it is not a path towards knowledge, and if you do not let yourself be crossed by him, you are not a knowledge seeker.

I also like a few other things about the way in which Diogenes is depicted. I like that he is the only one who has a split audience. While other characters are enwrapped in solitary contemplation, like the front left character writing at the table (thought to be Heraclitus), or demonstrating to a group of awe-struck followers like the front right character drawing with a compass (thought to be Euclid), Diogenes’ audience is torn. The man in blue points to the approaching intellectual authorities, Plato and Aristotle, while the man in green makes an exasperated gesture to acknowledge Diogenes. Questioning authority gives us options, alternatives, it will make us feel torn between competing theories. I also liked that Diogenes does not entirely block the path of Plato and Aristotle but he does force them into a slight detour, just like questioning authority does not stifle the quest for knowledge, but makes us seek new and better routes. Finally, I like the fact that Diogenes is defiant yet vulnerable, exposing his bare chest in a non-aggressive posture. This is just like questioning authority, challenging and doubting should be. The role of doubts is not to stay with us forever but to expose themselves to careful examination and to force us to take a closer look at what we think we know.

On the first day of teaching after spring break, I showed my students the photos I had taken of the painting, introduced them to Diogenes and encouraged them to question authority – my authority as a teacher, the authority of their textbooks and the hardest authority to question of all – that of their own entrenched assumptions about the world. I asked them to embrace the spirit of the annoying Diogenes and to love him just like the Athenians did, because the School of Athens would not be the powerful, inspiring place that it is without a Diogenes of Sinope.

GPS for The Brain

This article can also be found on the Huffington Post.

I only met The Brain fairly late in my intellectual and self-discovery pursuits, but when I did, it completely changed the way I thought about the world and about myself. I call it The Brain because I feel that the boom in neuroscience research and the media attention it gets has transformed this organ into a cultural phenomenon, into a character that one meets frequently (Google returns 2,430,000,000 results when you search for the word brain), sometimes uncomfortably (not all of us are OK with being reduced to a blob of neurons), sometimes reassuringly (some think that if scientists see it in the brain, it must be real!), a character that haunts our collective imagination. The Brain is here to trick us in sketchy accounts about right hemisphere and left hemisphere people, to genuinely disturb us in reports of new versions of Libet’s experiments on free will, and to wow us in very SF sounding like mind-reading studies. The Brain has become a rock star, and as a true rock star it’s here to rock our world, our imagination, our souls.

For all of us trying to better navigate the intricate paths of the soul, getting to meet and know The Brain can be a transformative journey in itself. It certainly was for me and I wonder if you too resonate with it. For a very long time I had an attitude of respectful indifference towards The Brain. I had a healthy fear of traumatic brain injuries and meningitis from my mom who is a doctor, but at the same time the idea that all the richness of experience, of learning, loving and being could be reduced to patterns of neural firing was more than unintuitive to me, it was downright appalling. It took many years until it dawned on me that the brain was central to the shaping of the landscapes of the mind, of the soul, of that intricate structure that I called my experience and my world-view.

I remember the moment very vividly. I was taking a neuropsychology class and we were discussing a case of Wernicke’s aphasia, reading through a transcript of a conversation with a patient. What struck me was how undisturbed the patient seemed by her inability to understand what others were trying to communicate to her. I remember the professor commenting on this and saying that the patient does not understand that she does not understand. Her language was simply gone. A stroke, a tiny damage to this blob of neurons, and to her, language just stopped existing.

These days I get to spend a great amount of time thinking about The Brain in the context of my research on autism, but I also think about it when attempting to follow the imperative “know thyself”. Here are a three of the many things I learned about myself from The Brain:

  1. Happiness belongs to the brain as well.

I used to believe that meanings were purely in the mind, that they were the results of thought processes and that they followed the logic of a thought process, but then I learned about reward systems in the brain and how differently they create meaning. Back then I was in the bad habit of always making myself predict bad outcomes: being harshly criticized for an idea should I share it, being rejected should I approach someone etc. In my mind I was doing this in order to lower my expectations and be pleasantly surprised whenever something good happened. But that pleasant surprise never came, even when good things did happen, (which was actually most of the time). Why were the meanings of my experiences so negative all the time? Why didn’t they follow the logic of my reasoning? If one looks at the way reward systems work in the brain the picture becomes more clear. In the brain, dopamine gets released whenever a prediction is actually confirmed. That’s how we learn to notice patterns in the world, that’s how we learn to associate actions with their consequences. When a prediction turns out to be wrong, the brain responds with a drop in dopamine levels, which gives rise to a negative emotion. That’s how we learn to reevaluate things. What I was doing to myself was simply cruel. Whenever something negative would happen that would confirm my prediction, my brain would reward that with dopamine. But that wasn’t enough to make me feel happy, since something bad had just happened! Whenever something good happened, my brain would get a dopamine drop to teach me to reevaluate my predictions, which in turn did not allow me to stay happy and enjoy the positive nature of the outcome! So I had to learn to make my brain happy, not just my mind.

  1. Experience should not be taken for granted.

Experience as well, became so much more complex and rich for me when I started thinking of it as the result of a brain process. Every time I climb a mountain now, I climb it in awe not just of the beautiful scenery but also of the amazing ability of my brain to calculate with such precision all the bumps in the trail and carry me to the top unharmed. But even more fundamental than the processes that allow me to navigate the world and enjoy the exhilarating experience of the mountain-top view, I am in awe of the pure existence of this experience. You’ve probably heard of people with hemineglect, who are simply not aware of half of their visual field. So when they draw a clock, for example, they only draw the left side of it. What keeps fascinating me about this condition, just like in the case of Wernicke’s aphasia, is the fact that these people are undisturbed by their condition. It’s not that they cannot see half of their world, but half of their world simply does not exist to them anymore. This has taught me that having an experience, having a world manifested in my mind is something I should not take for granted. Therefore, pondering on how a world can emerge for each of us from the firing of neurons, how this world’s features can be shaped by these firing patterns, attempting to understand consciousness as a state of the brain is to me the most exciting adventure we can embark on.

  1. Neurons deserve respect.

But how can experience emerge from the brain, from a blob of flesh? As I already confessed, this idea seemed to me very confusing and dissatisfying – so what got me fired up about it? It was firing neurons! Or rather an enactment of firing neurons. Several times I played the role of a little firing neuron in a neural network game where people “fire” (wave their hands) according to some pre-established rules. After repeated trials one can get the group of people to blindly wave in ways that correspond to recognizing letters. It’s a very intricate game and getting the network to recognize letters is a difficult process. However, one time, we managed to get our network to read a word – “no”. We didn’t mean to, but the person who was supposed to select the letters to be recognized accidentally picked two instead of one. We couldn’t believe it! Our simulated neural network could read! The idea that something as intelligent as reading can arise from a process so simple as firing according to basic rules taught me to be deeply respectful and mindful of the blob of neurons in my head, of the substrate of my mind and consciousness. This to me means things like eating right and sleeping right, taking care of these precious cells that allow me to read, to think, to love.

Learning how to think and love myself as a brain has been one of the most transformative and exciting experiences of my life. When I look back, I think of my initial indifference towards The Brain as lack of imagination. My husband likes to put it this way: thinking of one’s consciousness as firing patterns in a brain takes a leap of imagination analogous to the one it takes to realize that a cute bunny is simply rearranged grass. But once that leap of imagination is taken the repertoire of self-knowledge increases tenfold. People often say that we need to meet others in order to get to know who we are. I needed to meet this colosal character, The Brain in order to discover and get to love the brain in me.