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Imagine controlling your computer just by thinking. It sounds far-out, but real advances are happening on these so-called brain-computer interfaces. More researchers and companies are moving into the area. Yet major challenges remain, from user training to the reality of invasive brain implant procedures.

Brain controlled computers are becoming a reality but major hurdles remain

Image credit: Pixabay (Free Pixabay license)

Sensors in pig brains – that’s what Elon Musk is currently working on. The entrepreneur is mainly known for his work at Tesla and SpaceX, but he’s also behind Neuralink, a company promising to change brain-computer interfaces. These devices would allow humans to control computers using their brain. Neuralink is testing their new technology on pigs. During a press conference in September Musk even trotted out a pig with a brain implant that tracked stimulation of her snout.

All of this might sound like science fiction, or hype, but this research area holds promise. Brain-computer interfaces or BCIs, might in the near future help patients with brain injuries or impaired motor abilities recover or better engage with their surroundings. Someone with reduced motor abilities could control a mechanised wheelchair with their brain, or maybe even household appliances and devices like a television or thermostat without lifting a finger, increasing their independence. In the long run it might even help enhance people’s cognitive capabilities. But for the moment a range of technological and human challenges remain.

Interfaces

Such challenges are what Dr Fabien Lotte, Research Director at Inria Bordeaux-Sud-Ouest in France, is researching. ‘Most brain-computer interfaces work, but don’t work well,’ he said.

There are two main types of BCIs: non-invasive and invasive. The non-invasive versions are the most common, and are simply sensors placed on the human head, like a high-tech hat full of wires. They measure brain activity and translate that data to a computer. Invasive BCIs on the other hand are sensors placed inside the skull, which is what Neuralink is exploring.

A BCI might want to make a mouse pointer go left or right based on the user’s brain activity. Dr Lotte mentions that, on average, BCIs get it right about 60% to 80% of the time, although this depends on how many mental commands are included. A system that only makes a cursor go left or right includes only two mental commands and has a higher accuracy rate of around 70% to 80%. So once every few attempts the system makes a mistake. ‘If a computer mouse makes that many mistakes, you wouldn’t use it,’ Dr Lotte said.

But for Dr Lotte the problem might also lie not only with the technology but the people using BCIs. ‘Controlling a BCI is a skill you need to learn,’ he said. ‘We don’t only need good technology, we also need well-trained users.’

Dr Lotte leads a research project, called BrainConquest, that designs better training for non-invasive BCI users. The researchers give the users exercises like playing a video game with their brain, where someone thinks about an action that needs to be performed on screen. But the team is also designing better feedback systems, like tactile gloves that provide vibrations on the user’s hand.

Social feedback, like encouragement, is also tested. They even designed an artificial companion, called PEANUT, which looks like a cute cartoon robot, with a screen for a face. ‘It’s very difficult to have a human teacher that is consistent,’ said Dr Lotte, arguing an artificial companion offers a more uniform interpretation of brain activity and can still provide a useful feedback experience.

The research is still underway but shows notable gains in certain users. A combination of tactile and visual feedback gives on average a 5% increase in accuracy for the entire test group. PEANUT has a positive effect on people who like to work in groups. Without PEANUT their accuracy is on average 63%, which goes up between 5% and 10% depending on the user. Users who like to work alone, however, see a decrease in performance when PEANUT is present.

Data

Technology on the other hand also remains a challenge. Dr Aaron Schurger, assistant professor at Chapman University in the US, argues that the approach to data-analysis BCIs use can be improved. Traditionally, BCIs only use the data from when users want to take an action. They, for example, collect large amounts of brain data from when a user wants to make a mouse pointer go left and use that to better realise when they need to take that action.

But Dr Schurger argues we need to look beyond that narrow set of information, and also include data from when the brain is, say, at rest. This is a concept he previously explored in the research project ACTINIT. ‘We’re now looking at all the data,’ said Dr Schurger. ‘Not only the data right before a movement.’

Dr Schurger compares this to weather forecasting, where meteorologists use large amounts of weather data to make predictions about what will happen. ‘If you want to predict when it’s going to rain, you won’t do a very good job if you only look at rainy days. You will miss half the picture that way.’

Yet if BCIs want to really fix the issues that are plaguing them right now, more radical action might be needed than user training or better data analysis. It will require researchers to go beyond non-invasive technologies. One key non-invasive method is called EEG or electroencephalography. Here electrodes are attached to the scalp, which measure the electrical current sent by the neurons inside the brain. ‘EEG measures microcurrents that reflect brain activity,’ said Dr Lotte.

When an individual takes an action or thinks about it, that might fire up hundreds of thousands of neurons, thereby generating electrical current that is large enough to be measured on the scalp. Software systems then try to make sense of this data and connect it to an action or thought.

But for Dr Schurger, EEG has effectively plateaued. ‘People have been working on this problem for three to four decades now, and there haven’t been any major breakthroughs for a long while,’ he said.

Skull

The key question here is the thickness of the skull. It might protect our brain very well, but it also makes it harder to find out what’s going on beneath.

‘The signal from the brain is extremely weak’, said Dr Schurger. ‘Imagine that you position a few microphones above a packed football stadium, and you’re trying to pick up on one conversation. You might realise when a goal is scored, but that single conversation is very hard to distinguish.’

The solution is to go into the stadium, closer to the action. Or for BCIs, drill into the skull and attach sensors directly to the brain. This gives researchers a better signal, and invasive BCIs have been installed in humans since the late 1970s, in experimental cases where they restored partial vision in blind patients and allowed paralysed people to take control of prosthetics. But they also come with a range of medical considerations.

First, doctors need to convince patients and regulators to let them install a device inside a person’s head. On top of that, there might be medical complications. A patient’s body might grow immune tissue around the sensor, or even reject it. Which could lead to a worse signal for the device, or negative health effects for the patient. ‘There’s a foreign object inside your skull,’ said Dr Schurger. ‘The body tends to want to reject that.’

For these reasons, the more futuristic applications where human and machine fuse together to enhance cognitive abilities, will probably have to wait for a while. For now, medical applications will probably dominate the field according to Dr Schurger.

Non-invasive

But even BCI systems that don’t work perfectly well still find applications. Dr Lotte mentions that non-invasive BCIs can help rehabilitation of stroke patients, which he also explored with the Pellegrin hospital in Bordeaux. A stroke patient today already needs to exercise damaged parts of their brain by, for example, thinking about a certain action. A BCI could help the patients by giving them feedback on this brain exercise, although it’s too early in the project to present results on the effectiveness.

‘Here it doesn’t matter that the system isn’t very reliable,’ said Dr Lotte. ‘You’re not trying to control something. You’re trying to re-learn how to use the area and improve the recovery.’

Another use-case Dr Lotte mentions is passive BCI. Here the technology is used to monitor brain activity. High-risk professionals like pilots could in the future wear a non-invasive BCI during a flight to monitor their fatigue and concentration. By monitoring their brain activity, other crew members can detect when they are too tired or overwhelmed. The same concept might even be used to measure engagement levels of students, to determine how to adapt learning materials.

Dr Lotte doesn’t want to make predictions about when BCIs, whether invasive or non-invasive, might see wider adoption. But he’s noticing BCI start-ups pop up more regularly. ‘BCI research has become a hot topic in the last few years,’ he said. ‘Many labs and companies are working on it, but so far it’s not yet reliable.’

Dr Schurger agrees. He warns about the hype, but nevertheless thinks the field is advancing. ‘Use of invasive BCIs will increase in the next five to ten years,’ said Dr Schurger. ‘For medical use we’re likely to see major activity during this period.’

The research in this article was funded by the EU’s European Research Council.

Written by Tom Cassauwers

This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation magazine.




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New computational method detects disrupted pathways in cancer

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Cancer is a notoriously complex disease, in part because it may be caused by mutations among hundreds or even thousands of genes. In addition, most cancers exhibit an extraordinary amount of variation among genetic mutations, even between patients with the same types of cancers.

Consequently, cancer researchers have chosen to study interactions among groups of genes in certain biological pathways that are disrupted.

When genes in certain pathways are frequently mutated or disrupted, that pathway may play a critical role in the initiation or development of cancer. But unravelling the molecular mechanisms underlying those disruptions is extremely complex.

Nw, University at Buffalo researchers have developed a new, statistically more powerful method called FDRnet that can more effectively detect key functional pathways in cancer using genomics data generated by next-generation sequencing technology.

Published in Nature Computational Science, the new method has the potential to give biologists more precise data with which to zero in on therapeutic targets.

“Using the new method, we can find biological pathways in which genes are significantly mutated or disrupted,” explained Yijun Sun, PhD, associate professor of bioinformatics in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB and the corresponding author. “It addresses some key challenges in molecular pathway analysis in cancer studies. Once the tumor biologists obtain this information, they can use it to verify our findings, and from there develop new cancer treatments,” he said.

“By overcoming the limitations of existing approaches, FDRnet can facilitate the detection of key functional pathways in cancer and other genetic diseases,” said Sun.

When Sun and his co-authors tested FDRnet on simulation data and on breast cancer and B-cell lymphoma data, they found that FDRnet was able to detect which subnetworks or pathways are significantly perturbed in these cancers, potentially leading tumour biologists to identify new therapeutic targets.

Source: State University of New York at Buffalo




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Tom & Jerry Release Date in India Set for February 19, a Week Before the US

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Tom & Jerry will now release February 19 in cinemas in India, a full week earlier than originally announced. Warner Bros. India revealed the new release date on Thursday via its social media channels. That puts the Indian release date a week prior to the US, where Tom & Jerry releases February 26 on (US-exclusive streaming service) HBO Max and in cinemas. In India, the hybrid live-action/ animated Tom and Jerry movie will be available in English (the original language), in addition to three local-language dubs: Hindi, Tamil, and Telugu.

The 42 Most Anticipated Movies of 2021, Including Tom & Jerry

However, India won’t be the first market to catch the big-screen return of the iconic cat and mouse duo. Tom & Jerry premieres February 10 in Netherlands, followed by Brazil and Singapore on February 11. India is among the next wave of markets on February 19, alongside Iceland and Lithuania. Russia and Slovakia will follow on February 25, before Tom & Jerry arrives in the US on February 26. Argentina, Czechia, Croatia, and Portugal follow on March 4, with Spain and France release set for March 5. In the UK, Ireland, and Japan, Tom & Jerry is due March 19.

Of course, whether any of this goes according to plan depends on how the COVID-19 situation fares locally. For instance, around 65 percent of theatres remain closed in the US (including the major metropolitan hubs of New York and Los Angeles). Theatres are indefinitely shut across the UK where a third stringent nationwide lockdown is in effect. That is also the case in France, at least until the end of January. In Spain, cinemas are operating at 30–50 percent capacity. But while Americans have the option to watch Tom & Jerry at home (on HBO Max), others do not.

Tom & Jerry Hindi trailer

Tom & Jerry Tamil trailer

Tom & Jerry Telugu trailer

Chloë Grace Moretz (Kick-Ass) is the human lead as event planner Kayla opposite Tom and Jerry in the new movie, alongside the likes of Michael Peña (Ant-Man and the Wasp) the hotel’s deputy general manager Terrance, Rob Delaney (Catastrophe) as the hotel manager Mr. DuBros, Ken Jeong (Community) as the hotel chef Jackie, Colin Jost (Saturday Night Live) as wedding groom Ben, and Pallavi Sharda (Besharam) as the bride Preeta.

William Hanna, Mel Blanc, and June Foray provide vocal effects for Tom and Jerry through archival audio recordings. Hanna is the co-creator of Tom and Jerry along with Joseph Barbera. Tim Story (Ride Along) is directing Tom & Jerry off a script by Kevin Costello (Brigsby Bear). Tom & Jerry is a production of Warner Animation Group, Turner Entertainment Company, and The Story Company.

Watch the First Trailer for the Tom & Jerry Movie

Here’s the official synopsis of Tom & Jerry, from Warner Bros.:

One of the most beloved rivalries in history is reignited when Jerry moves into New York City’s finest hotel on the eve of “the wedding of the century,” forcing the event’s desperate planner to hire Tom to get rid of him, in director Tim Story’s “Tom & Jerry.” The ensuing cat and mouse battle threatens to destroy her career, the wedding and possibly the hotel itself. But soon, an even bigger problem arises: a diabolically ambitious staffer conspiring against all three of them. An eye-popping blend of classic animation and live action, Tom and Jerry’s new big-screen adventure stakes new ground for the iconic characters and forces them to do the unthinkable… work together to save the day.

Tom & Jerry is out February 19 in India in English, Hindi, Tamil, and Telugu.

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How to install Eternal Terminal for persistent SSH connections

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If you have trouble with SSH connections breaking, Jack Wallen shows you how you can enjoy a bit more persistence with the help of Eternal Terminal.

Image: iStock/vadimrysev

If you’re an admin with Linux servers in your data center or cloud hosted account (such as AWS and Google Cloud), chances are pretty good you connect to those machines via SSH. Sometimes you need to remain connected for a good amount of time. You could be debugging code, working on containers or Kubernetes, or just about a thousand other reasons.

Thing is, sometimes those SSH connections get disconnected. This could occur because of a change in IP address or a host of reasons. When that happens, you have to re-connect. I’ve had experiences where SSH was constantly losing its connection, causing me to have to constantly reconnect.

That’s frustrating and time consuming. What can you do to avoid it?

One way around this problem is by using Eternal Terminal (ET), in place of SSH. Eternal Terminal does a great job of re-establishing a connection to a remote machine, without user intervention. That means once you’ve connected, you’ll stay connected until you break the connection manually.

I want to show you how to install and use Eternal Terminal. You can use this tool on Linux, macOS, and even Windows (using WSL). 

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What you’ll need

To make use of Eternal Terminal, you’ll need at least two systems that support the software and you must use Eternal Terminal on both remote and local machines. I’ll be installing ET on Ubuntu Server 20.04 and Ubuntu Desktop 20.04. As far as Linux is concerned, it can be installed on Debian-based distributions and CentOS (via the epel-release repository).

How to install Eternal Terminal

On Ubuntu (both server and desktop), the installation of Eternal Terminal is quite simple. Log in to either the server or desktop and install the software that allows you to add new repositories from PPAs with the command:

sudo apt-get install -y software-properties-common

Next, add the necessary repository:

sudo add-apt-repository ppa:jgmath2000/et

Update apt and install Eternal Terminal with the commands:

sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get install et -y

Make sure to run through the above process on both the server and the desktop.

To install Eternal Terminal on CentOS 8 Stream, first install the epel-release with the command:

sudo dnf install epel-release -y

Install Eternal Terminal with the command:

sudo dnf install et -y

How to use Eternal Terminal

Using Eternal Terminal is exactly the same as using SSH, only you use the et command like so:

et SERVER

Where SERVER is the IP address or domain of the remote server.

Or:

et USER@SERVER

Where USER is the username on the remote server and SERVER is the IP address or domain of the remote server.

Eternal Terminal uses port 2022 by default–you’ll need to make sure that port is available. 

As you use Eternal Terminal, you won’t find anything different than working with SSH, until a connection is broken, at which point ET will appear to be non-responsive. However, it will cache all keystrokes made at this point and, as soon as the connection is re-established, it will execute the cached commands.

Note: This only works if the connection is terminated on the remote side of things. 

The caveat

Of course there’s a caveat. If your connection is broken by the client machine, and not the remote server, an orphaned session is created and you cannot reconnect to that orphaned session. In order to reconnect to the remote server, you’ll have to manually kill the orphan first. This is done with the command:

et -x USER@SERVER

Where USER is the username on the remote server and SERVER is the IP address or domain of the remote server.

And that’s the gist of using Eternal Terminal for persistent SSH connections to your remote Linux servers.

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