By Inge Lasser, Centre for Integrative Neuroscience and Neurodynamics, University of Reading

Professor Doug Saddy’s lecture entitled “Augmented Humans: mind and machine” changed the way I think about myself and about the role that brain science will play in the progression of society. As an administrative manager at the Centre for Integrative Neuroscience and Neurodynamics (CINN), of which Doug Saddy is the Director, I speak to brain scientists every day. I hear them talk about data, methodology, analytics, responses, levels, and everything that matters for doing fundamental research. Like all scientists, the members of the CINN rejoice when a new study is funded or a paper has been accepted. What Saddy’s presentation gave me is a hugely fascinating view of the “bigger picture” in cognitive neuroscience.

Listen to Saddy and you will learn that you extend into the environment beyond your physical self. In other words, we are all incessantly generating not only acoustic signals, but also electrical, magnetic and biochemical information, voluntarily and involuntarily. Vice versa, our environment extends into us. Humans constantly leak and absorb information. This leads to them, you and me, being in a constant mode of change.

Technology developers recognise this fact and tune in to these varied types of information. Smaller, more powerful, and distributed – thus connected – computational devices are in the making. Software is getting intelligent as it is becoming self-learning. Smart analytics and modelling techniques extract the interesting bits from the vast amount of data generated. Saddy illustrates how the  “the Internet of Things” will soon have become ”the internet of everything,” where the environment is populated with rather tiny and nifty devices embedded in objects everywhere, interacting with us in the way cell phones do today, just even more intelligently. Is the combination of these developments scary?

No, not scary in nature. Humans have always interacted with their environment. Saddy quite legitimately asks “What else is new” – and notes that new and improved ways of interacting have previously resulted in an explosion of new possibilities – such as when with writing systems we became able to communicate with others who are not in the same room or even not yet alive at the time we wrote something down. Literacy has also changed our brains, as he is able to impressively illustrate.

Today, as technology developments allow us to consume information at a faster rate, we are making our environment smarter, and exploiting a much larger range of information types. Taking this for granted, a host of challenges involving cognitive neuroscience research are before us. Understanding how the brain absorbs and measures signals and reacts to them, will tell us about our options to shape those new ways of interacting. How does emotion translate into physiological measures and how are these connected to brain responses? The answer to this question is no longer just interesting in itself, but has consequences for how we interact with machines. How does the gut talk to the brain and vice versa? How can mathematics help improve the use of the imaging techniques we have available? Excitingly, at the University of Reading, contributions to all of these questions (and many more) are being made.

Two key notions in Saddy’s lecture were connectedness and continuous change. Both are inevitable and have always been present. Saddy made me realise the multitude of ways that I extend into the environment and the many levels on which everything is bound to undergo change. Being connected and under development also means that as a person I am part of a bigger picture, a picture that’s still blurry but so intriguing to explore.

View Professor Doug Saddy’s lecture online ‘Augmented Humans: Mind and Machine’