David Eagleman, 50, is an American neuroscientist, bestselling author and presenter of the BBC series The Brain, as well as co-founder and chief executive officer of Neosensory, which develops devices for sensory substitution. His area of speciality is brain plasticity, and that is the subject of his new book, Livewired, which examines how experience refashions the brain, and shows that it is a much more adaptable organ than previously thought.
For the past half-century or more the brain has been spoken of in terms of a computer. What are the biggest flaws with that particular model? It’s a very seductive comparison. But in fact, what we’re looking at is three pounds of material in our skulls that is essentially a very alien kind of material to us. It doesn’t write down memories, the way we think of a computer doing it. And it is capable of figuring out its own culture and identity and making leaps into the unknown. I’m here in Silicon Valley. Everything we talk about is hardware and software. But what’s happening in the brain is what I call livewire, where you have 86bn neurons, each with 10,000 connections, and they are constantly reconfiguring every second of your life. Even by the time you get to the end of this paragraph, you’ll be a slightly different person than you were at the beginning.
In what way does the working of the brain resemble drug dealers in Albuquerque? It’s that the brain can accomplish remarkable things without any top-down control. If a child has half their brain removed in surgery, the functions of the brain will rewire themselves on to the remaining real estate. And so I use this example of drug dealers to point out that if suddenly in Albuquerque, where I happened to grow up, there was a terrific earthquake, and half the territory was lost, the drug dealers would rearrange themselves to control the remaining territory. It’s because each one has competition with his neighbours and they fight over whatever territory exists, as opposed to a top-down council meeting where the territory is distributed. And that’s really the way to understand the brain. It’s made up of billions of neurons, each of which is competing for its own territory.
You use this colonial image a lot in the book, a sense of the processes and struggles of evolution being fought out within the brain itself. That’s exactly right. And I think this is a point of view that’s not common in neuroscience. Usually, when we look in a neuroscience textbook, we say here are the areas of the brain and everything looks like it’s getting along just fine. It belongs exactly where it is. But the argument I make in the book is, the only reason it looks that way is because the springs are all wound tight. And the competition for each neuron – each cell in the brain to stay alive against its neighbours – is a constantly waged war. This is why when something changes in the brain, for example, if a person goes blind, or loses an arm or something, you see these massive rearrangements that happen very rapidly in the brain. It’s just as the French lost their territory in North America because the British were sending more people over.
One of the great mysteries of the brain is the purpose of dreams. And you propose a kind of defensive theory about how the brain responds to darkness. One of the big surprises of neuroscience was to understand how rapidly these takeovers can happen. If you blindfold somebody for an hour, you can start to see changes where touch and hearing will start taking over the visual parts of the brain. So what I realised is, because the planet rotates into darkness, the visual system alone is at a disadvantage, which is to say, you can still smell and hear and touch and taste in the dark, but you can’t see any more. I realised this puts the visual system in danger of getting taken over every night. And dreams are the brain’s way of defending that territory. About every 90 minutes a great deal of random activity is smashed into the visual system. And because that’s our visual system, we experience it as a dream, we experience it visually. Evolutionarily, this is our way of defending ourselves against visual system takeover when the planet moves into darkness.
Another mystery is consciousness. Do you think we are close to understanding what consciousness is and how it’s created? There’s a great deal of debate about how to define consciousness, but we are essentially talking about the thing that flickers to life when you wake up in the morning. But as far as understanding why it happens, I don’t know that we’re much closer than we’ve ever been. It’s different from other scientific conundrums in that what we’re asking is, how do you take physical pieces and parts and translate that into private, subjective experience, like the redness of red, or the pain of pain or the smell of cinnamon? And so not only do we not have a theory, but we don’t really know what such a theory would look like that would explain our experience in physical or mathematical terms.
You predict that in the future we’ll be able to glean the details of a person’s life from their brains. What would that mean in terms of personal privacy and liberty? Oh, yeah, it’s going to be a brave new world. Maybe in 100 years, maybe 500, but it’ll certainly happen. Because what we’re looking at is a physical system that gets changed and adjusted based on your experiences. What’s going on with the brain is the most complex system we’ve ever come across in our universe but fundamentally it’s physical pieces and parts and, as our computational capacities are becoming so extraordinary now, it’s just a countdown until we get there. Do we get to keep our inner thoughts private? Almost certainly we will. You can’t stick somebody in a scanner and try to ask them particular kinds of questions. But again, this will happen after our lifetime, so it’s something for the next generations to struggle with.
Do you think in the future that we’ll be able to communicate just by thinking? Communication is a multi-step process. And so in answering your questions, I have many, many thoughts. And I’m getting it down to something that I can say that will communicate clearly what I intend. But if you were to just read my thoughts and say, “OK, give me the answer,” it would be a jumble of half-sentences and words and some random thought, like, Oh, my coffee is spilling. It’s like you wouldn’t want to read somebody’s book that hasn’t been polished by them over many iterations, but instead is burped out of their brain.
What are your views on Elon Musk’s Neuralink enterprise, which is developing implantable brain-machine interfaces? There’s nothing new about it insofar as neuroscientists have been putting electrodes in people’s brains for at least 60 years now. The advance is in his technology, which is making the electrodes denser and also wireless, although even that part’s not new. I think it will be very useful in certain disease states, for example, epilepsy and depression, to be able to put electrodes directly in there and monitor and put activity in. But the mythology of Neuralink is that this is something we can all use to interface faster with our cellphones. I’d certainly like to text 50% faster, but am I going to get an open-head surgery? No, because there’s an expression in neurosurgery: when the air hits your brain, it’s never the same.
You didn’t start out academically in neuroscience. What led you there? I majored in British and American literature. And that was my first love. But I got hooked on neuroscience because I took a number of philosophy courses. I found that we’d constantly get stuck in some philosophical conundrum. We’d spin ourselves into a quagmire and not be able to get out. And I thought, Wow, if we could understand the perceptual machinery by which we view the world, maybe we’d have a shot at answering some of these questions and actually making progress. When I finally discovered neuroscience, I read every book in the college library on the brain – there weren’t that many at the time – and I just never looked back.
How can we maximise our brain power, and what do you do to switch off? There’s this myth that we only use 10% of our brain that, of course, is not true. We’re using 100% of our brain all the time. But the way information can be digested and fed to the brain can be very different. I think the next generation is going to be much smarter than we are. I have two small kids, and any time they want to know something, they ask Alexa or Google Home, and they get the answer right in the context of their curiosity. This is a big deal, because the brain is most flexible when it is curious about something and gets the answer. Regarding switching off, I never take any downtime and I don’t want to. I have a very clear sense of time pressure to do the next things. I hope I don’t die young, but I certainly act as though that is a possibility. One always has to be prepared to say goodbye, so I’m just trying to get everything done before that time.
Qualtrics CEO Zig Serafin sat down with Silicon Republic editor Elaine Burke to discuss his leadership style as an expert in experience management.
It has been an eventful few years for US tech company Qualtrics, and not least because of the pandemic.
The company founded by a family out of Utah was bought by SAP in 2018 for $8bn. It then went public in January 2021 with a successful IPO that valued the company at $15bn. That same year then saw Qualtrics earn $1bn in revenue for its experience management technology. But what is experience management?
CEO Zig Serafin says it’s the “ultimate advantage” for modern businesses. It’s about tuning in to the needs and desires of customers and taking action on that knowledge “with empathy, with speed and at scale”.
Serafin was in Dublin recently while on a tour across Europe meeting with Qualtrics clients. He spoke with SiliconRepublic.com for our Conversations with Leaders series shortly after checking in on the company’s new office in the Irish capital.
Qualtrics’ already substantial footprint a stone’s throw from St Stephen’s Green is expanding in response to the company’s global growth. “Dublin is the epicentre of how we operate across Europe,” said Serafin, and this European HQ is fully equipped with all the fixings of the modern tech office and more – including its own pub.
But Serafin said Qualtrics, a company obsessed with creating optimal experiences, knows that these days workplaces need to offer flexibility and the ability to work from home as well as a workspace that provides a “home from home”.
“Both experiences are important,” he said. “That digital experience and the physical experience, and how they come together.”
Qualtrics’ own research shows that it can take just one negative experience to lose a customer, or an employee, and with the sheer array of tools available to businesses today, it is possible to continuously track and improve experiences. But possible doesn’t mean easy.
There’s plenty of data available – from user analytics to customer support chats to online sentiment analysis and everything in between. And while Qualtrics has all the software and AI capabilities to parse this information and make it not just digestible but actionable, Serafin said the secret sauce is something altogether more human.
“At the end of the day it comes down to this notion of empathy,” he said. And that’s the throughline of Serafin’s leadership, too.
In our interview, he expressed how empathy (and a helping of TACOS) is at the core of Qualtrics. He also shared what he learned about leadership from his early years on the family farm through to 17 years at Microsoft, where he faced a review with Bill Gates in his first week on the job.
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This week marks a truly important video game anniversary: it is 50 years since Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney incorporated Atari Inc, the company that laid the foundations for the video games industry. There have been many appraisals of the company and its landmark achievements in the games press over the past few days – from the arrival of a Pong machine in Andy Capp’s Tavern in Sunnyvale, California, in 1972, through classic titles such as Breakout, Asteroids and Missile Commands, to the iconic home consoles. So many moments of creative genius, so many genres, concepts and conventions bursting into existence at the hands of scruffy engineers and designers such as Ed Logg, Larry Kaplan and Dona Bailey.
But one element that often gets overlooked in these nostalgic reveries is the way in which Atari taught the first generation of electronic gamers how to think symbolically. With two rectangles and a square, Pong invited us to visualise tennis, while Night Driver’s series of moving rectangles convinced us we were driving a car. Some will point to the 1972 console the Magnavox Odyssey as the originator of these concepts, but it was Atari putting them in arcade machines – and later consoles –all over the world.
It was also Atari that generated a whole universe around its simple games. Through beautiful cabinet designs, expert use of iconography and graphic design, and the gorgeous illustrations on its Atari VCS cartridges, the company sought to simulate the imagination of players before they even held the controller. The boxes for titles such as Berzerk and Defender, all highly abstract and visually simple games, were alive with drama; they showed human characters, explosions and colours that were impossible to achieve on screen at the time, quietly providing players with the imaginative tools they needed to become immersed. Would we have cared so much about the fate of the lifeless rock at the base of the screen in Missile Command if it hadn’t been for George Opperman’s package art? The tense commander at his desk, the explosions, the missiles seemingly scorching out of the box itself …
It was George Opperman who also designed Atari’s now legendary logo, consisting of three simple lines, the two exterior shafts curving inwards toward the peak. Over the years Opperman claimed many influences for his design – Mount Fuji, Japanese alphabet symbols, Pong itself – personally, I’ve always viewed it as a spaceship. But it’s how the image seems to sum up the excitement and futuristic promise of the company that really matters. When we see the logo flash briefly on the screen in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, it’s a quick visual signifier that this is a highly technological landscape. It fits in perfectly with a world of androids and flying cars.
Nolan Bushnell saw how video games could naturally bleed from the screen into real space, meat space. During the 1970s, the industry started in pubs and taverns, then moved into arcades and eventually the home, and they had effects on all of them: they changed behaviours and got written into our lives in subtle ways. His introduction of the Chuck E Cheese pizza restaurant chain, which combined family eating with a video game arcade, brilliantly monetised the ways that games, although graphically simple, had worked their way from the TV screen to dinner table conversation. We laugh about how the original VCS console had wood panelling, but this was a deliberate attempt to ape the aesthetics of the 1970s living room, with its wooden furniture, TV and stereo cabinets. Atari understood that assimilation would be a vital element of success.
Even now, in this age of near photorealism, video games rely on the kind of abstractions that Atari perfected. The heart symbols to denote the number of lives we have left; the heavy use of icons and exterior narratives; the endless references to familiar cinema tropes. We saw Atari being played on TV shows and films, we saw Atari in comics. While its games were still being drawn with two sprites each a single byte in size, the iconography of Atari was out there in the world. It’s something Nintendo would learn from, and later Sony, with its cultural melting pot of a console: the PlayStation. Atari was a myth maker too: from the Easter egg hidden in Adventure to the buried copies of E.T. in the California desert, the company itself became a source of digital folklore that took on meanings beyond anything portrayed on your TV.
50 years ago, Atari began to show us that games exist in a strange liminal space between the screen and the brain, and they are constantly able to escape. The dots on the screen are only ever part of the picture, and the picture never stops moving.
What to play
While we’re in a nostalgic mood, I’m really enjoying Capcom Fighting Collection. You’d probably expect a dozen famous titles from the Street Fighter series, but that’s already been covered by Street Fighter 30th Anniversary Collection. Instead, we get five games from the spooky, goth-infused Darkstalkers series, the mid-1990s fantasy-themed Red Earth and a bunch of offbeat Street Fighter dalliances including the ridiculously compelling Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo, which brilliantly combined fighting game dynamics with … Tetris. The games are filled with blistering attacks and truly imaginative character designs, all lovingly updated for the modern era.
Available on: PC, PS4, Switch, Xbox One Approximate playtime: As long as you want
What to read
Eurogamer is running a whole series of features for Pride, including this piece talking to Captain Fluke about being the first openly trans esports commentator and this one on the joy of gay fan faction and mods. Elsewhere, IGN has listed its favourite ever LGBT+ characters in video games.
Verge has a really interesting piece on a group of creatives making branded worlds for big companies in Fortnite. Everyone talks about Facebook when referencing the coming era of the metaverse, but I’m pretty sure Fortnite is going to be just as important as an explorable shared space for interconnected worlds – and the advertising potential therein.
We also found out this week that Hidetaka Miyazaki, the creative genius behind Dark Souls and Elden Ring, is almost finished on his next project. This is good news for me as, after 225 hours, I’m nearing the end of Elden Ring and would be very happy to slide straight into his next game if possible.
If I’ve got you interested in Atari’s design and illustration philosophy, The Art of Atari by Tim Lapetino is a gorgeous book. For a more technical analysis of the company, try Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System by Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost.
This week’s question comes from Tim and his daughter Caitlin, and is answered by Keza:
“We got really into Hades over lockdown, loving the ‘it’s the same each time but really different too’ concept as well as the lore and the artwork. Can you recommend a similar game that we could play together?”
Hades is what’s known as a roguelike – one of those games where you have to start again from the beginning each time, but each playthrough throws different challenges at you – and, happily for you both, this genre has been having a moment over the past few years. Hades is a contender for the very best game in this genre, so it’s hard to rival, but here are some others to try.
Dead Cells is a kind of cyberpunk-fantasy action game where you gradually explore a shapeshifting castle; Spelunky 2 has you delving down below the Earth through caves full of amusing hazards, and has a great sense of humour (you can also play co-op); Into the Breach is something a little different, a strategy game where you have to defend the world from hostile invaders, travelling back in time after each failed attempt. And for a story and art style as good as that of Hades with a different gameplay feel, try developer Supergiant’s previous games Pyre,Transistor and Bastion, if you haven’t already.
China is claiming that as of Wednesday, its Tianwen-1 Mars orbiter has officially photographed the entire Red Planet. And it’s shown off new photos of the southern polar cap and a volcano to prove it.
“It has acquired the medium-resolution image data covering the whole globe of Mars, with all of its scientific payloads realizing a global survey,” state-sponsored media quoted the China National Space Administration (CNSA) announcing.
Among the images are one of Mount Askra with its crater, shots of the South Pole whose ice sheet is believed to consist of solid carbon dioxide and ice, the seven-kilometer deep Valles Marineris canyon, and the geomorphological characteristics of the rim of the Mund crater.
Mount Askela. Click to enlarge
Mars South Pole. Click to enlarge
Valles Marineris. Click to enlarge
Mund crater. Click to enlarge
Tianwen-1 had been in orbit around Mars for 706 days. The orbiter circled Mars 1,344 times, as of an announcement from CNSA. The space org said Tianwen-1 has completed its scheduled missions.
In conjunction with its rover Zhurong, Tianwen-1 amassed 1,040 gigabytes of raw scientific data through 13 onboard scientific payloads.
The mission has allowed CNSA to observe solar occultation and solar wind together with international observatories – including those in Russia, Germany, Italy, Australia and South Africa – to improve the accuracy of space weather forecasts. Good news for Matt Damon.
CNSA said it will share more scientific data with the international community in due course.
In December, Zhurong and the European Space Agency’s Mars Express spacecraft performed an in-orbit relay communication test to demonstrate it was possible to relay data from Zhurong back to Earth via Mars Express. The demonstration was successful, if a bit complicated – Mars Express had to “listen” for Zhurong since the rover was unable to communicate directly because the frequencies used don’t match.
Even though the mission is officially over, the orbiter and rover are still in working order. The orbiter will stay in orbit and continue its remote sensing and data relay activities while Zhurong will hibernate until weather conditions improve – likely in December. ®