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.
Google, Apple and Microsoft reported record-breaking quarterly sales and profits on Tuesday night as the firms continue to benefit from a pandemic that has created a “perfect positive storm” for big tech.
Apple made a $21.7bn (£15.6bn) profit for the three-month period that ended in June, its best fiscal third quarter in its 45-year history, boosted by strong sales of the iPhone 12 and growth in its services business.
Alphabet, Google’s parent company, reported second-quarter revenue of $61.8bn (£44.5bn), a 62% increase on the same period a year earlier, and a profit of over $18.5bn (£13.3bn), more than twice its profits for the same period last year. The company’s advertising revenues rose 69% from last year.
Microsoft, too, beat expectations, reporting revenues of over $46bn (£33bn) for the quarter – a rise of 21% compared to the same quarter last year.
The results come after Tesla reported a record profit on Monday in one of the busiest ever weeks for quarterly US earnings results. The big tech blowout earnings continue with Facebook on Wednesday and Amazon on Thursday.
Collectively, the market value of Google, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and Facebook is now worth more than a third of the entire S&P 500 index of America’s 500 largest traded companies, as their share prices have soared during the pandemic.
Thomas Philippon, an economist and professor of finance at New York University, said big tech firms have been the biggest economic winners from the pandemic as global lockdowns have pushed more businesses and consumers to use their services.
“They were already on the rise and had been for the best part of a decade, and the pandemic was unique,” Philippon said. “For them it was a perfect positive storm.”
Analysts at Morgan Stanley reckon Alphabet is on course to achieve full-year net income of $65bn, a 59% increase on 2020. Its annual sales are, the bank reckons, on track for $243bn – a $60bn increase on last year.
Alphabet’s shares have risen by 75% in the past year to a record $2,670, but analysts predict they could climb higher still despite regulators around the world threatening to curb its dominance of the internet search market. Morgan Stanley said the stock could reach as high as $3,060, and even under a worse case scenario is unlikely to fall below $1,800.
Morgan Stanley analyst Brian Nowak said pandemic lockdowns had boosted Google as consumers spent more time online researching potential purchases. He said survey data showed that 54% of retailers ranked Google search products, including YouTube, as “their first place to go to research products online, up from 50% in past surveys”.
“Google websites growth is likely to rebound in ’21 as we believe there are several underappreciated products driven by mobile search, strong YouTube contribution, and continued innovation, such as Maps monetisation,” Nowak said in a note to clients.
Apple has been making so much money that over the past eight years it has bought back $421bn worth of shares, but it still has about $80bn of cash sitting on its balance sheet.
When Microsoft reported a 31% rise in profits at its last quarterly results, its chief executive, Satya Nadella, said it was “just the beginning” as the shift to digital technology was “accelerating” fast.
The share price rise of the big tech firms has made billions for their super-rich founders and early investors. Forbes magazine calculated recently that there are now 365 billionaires who made their fortunes in technology, compared with 241 before the pandemic.
Collectively, the world’s tech billionaires hold personal fortunes of $2.5tn, up 80% on $1.4tn in March 2020. Amazon’s founder and chief executive, Jeff Bezos, remains the world’s richest person with an estimated $212bn fortune, and is closely followed in the league table of the wealthy by Tesla co-founder Elon Musk with $180bn, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates with $151bn, and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg with about $138bn.
Zuckerberg believes the internet will take on an even bigger role in people’s day-to-day lives in the future, and instead of interacting with it via mobile phones people will be immersed via virtual reality headsets.
He said Facebook would transition from a social media platform to a “metaverse company”, where people can work, play and communicate in a virtual environment. Zuckerberg said it would be “an embodied internet where instead of just viewing content – you are in it”.
The Tech Support Scams YouTube channel has been erased from existence in a blaze of irony as host and creator Jim Browning fell victim to a tech support scam that convinced him to secure his account – by deleting it.
“So to prove that anyone can be scammed,” Browning announced via Twitter following the attack, “I was convinced to delete my YouTube channel because I was convinced I was talking [to YouTube] support. I never lost control of the channel, but the sneaky s**t managed to get me to delete the channel. Hope to recover soon.”
To fool Browning, the ruse must have been convincing: “I track down the people who scam others on the Internet,” he writes on his Patreon page. “This is usually those ‘tech support’ call frauds using phone calls or pop-ups. I explain what I do by guiding others in how to recognise a scam and, more importantly, how to turn the tables on scammers by tracking them down.”
Browning has made a name for himself with self-described “scam baiting” videos, in which he sets up honeypot systems and pretends to fall for scams in which supposed support staffers need remote access to fix a problem or remove a virus – in reality scouring the hard drive for sensitive files or planting malware of their own.
“I am hoping that YouTube Support can recover the situation by 29th July,” Browning wrote in a Patreon update, “and I can get the channel back, but they’ve not promised anything as yet. I just hope it is recoverable.”
Whether Browning is able to recover the account, and the 3.28 million subscribers he had gathered over his career as a scam-baiter, he’s hoping to turn his misfortune into another lesson. “I will make a video on how all of this went down,” he pledged, “but suffice to say, it was pretty convincing until the very end.”
Tech support scams have been going on for about as long as people have needed technical support, but a report published by Microsoft last month suggested the volume may be declining. The same report found that the 18-37 age group was the most likely to fall victim – and that 10 per cent of those surveyed had lost money to a scammer.
YouTube was approached for an explanation of how deleted accounts could be restored and what precautions it has in place to prevent its users – even those with considerable experience in the field of con-artistry – from falling victim to tech support scams, but was unable to provide comment in time for publication.
Browning did not respond to a request for comment. ®
A member of the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group spotted the humpback whale while out conducting a survey on marine life off the Donegal coast.
Marine mammal observer Dr Justin Judge described the moment he spotted a lone humpback whale off the coast of Donegal as “a dream sighting.”
Judge spotted the whale at 9.30 on the morning of 9 July while representing the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) on board the Marine Institute’s RV Celtic Explorer.
The group of researchers and observers was out on the waters around 60 kilometres north-northwest of Malin Head when they saw the whale. They were carrying out the annual Western European Shelf Pelagic Acoustic (WESPAS) survey.
“This is a dream sighting for a marine mammal observer,” Judge said. He explained that the creature would be nicknamed Orion – which had a personal meaning for Judge and his family.
“The individual humpback whale ‘Orion’ has been named after the Greek mythological hunter, since the whale was moving with the fish stocks for food. It is also my son’s middle name so fitting on both fronts,” Judge said.
He added that the team had also observed “a lot of feeding action from a multitude of cetacean species that day, including bottlenose, common, Risso’s and white-sided dolphins, grey seals and minke whales.”
To date, the IWDG has documented 112 individual humpback whales in Irish waters since 1999, many of which are recorded year after year. Humpback whales are frequent visitors to Irish waters as they are an ideal feeding area for humpback whales stopping off in the area on their migration across the Atlantic.
The beasts are identifiable thanks to the distinctive pattern on the underside, which is unique to every individual whale.
“Observing any apex predator in its natural environment is exciting but a new humpback whale for Irish waters, this is special,” WESPAS survey scientist, Ciaran O’Donnell of the Marine Institute said.
The Marine Institute’s WESPAS survey is carried out annually, and surveys shelf seas from France northwards to Scotland, and west of Ireland. WESPAS is the largest single vessel survey of its kind in the Northeast Atlantic, covering upwards of 60,000 nautical miles every summer. The survey is funded through the European Maritime Fisheries and Aquaculture Fund under the Data Collection Programme which is run by the Marine Institute.