Catalytic Philanthropy: Bill Gates & A Call for Crazy Ideas


Social change is a messy process in which the willpower of a determined and influential person can often tip the balance.  Image: Jim Carey in The Truman Show.

Why do people give to charities? In a civilized community, although it may be composed of self-reliant individuals, there will be some persons who will be unable at some period of their lives to look after themselves, and the question of what is to happen to them may be solved in three ways – they may be neglected, they may be cared for by the organised community as of right, or they may be left to the goodwill of individuals in the community

Philanthropy is indeed a powerful tool for social progress. Conventional philanthropy serves an essential function in supporting major nonprofit institutions, enriching many lives, and providing assistance to countless individuals in need. Venture philanthropy and social entrepreneurship also play important roles by helping effective organizations and talented leaders expand the scale of their impact. The variety in types of philanthropy is one of the reasons for the nonprofit sector’s vitality, and society would be dramatically worse off were it not for the billions of dollars in annual charitable contributions from conventional donors.

Clement Richard Attlee, 1st Earl Attlee was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1945 to 1951 questioned the idea that looking after the poor could be left to voluntary action. Coming from an upper middle class background, Attlee was converted to socialism through working in the East End of London. In 1920, Attlee wrote his first book, The Social Worker, which set out many of the principles that informed his political philosophy and that were to underpin the actions of his government in later years.

“A right established by law, such as that to an old age pension, is less galling than an allowance made by a rich man to a poor one, dependent on his view of the recipient’s character, and terminable at his caprice.”

However, donors who are serious about solving social problems take a catalytic role, mounting a campaign and knitting together the pieces of a solution in ways that the fragmented nonprofit sector cannot do for itself.  For example rather than writing a check to a local nonprofit, Bill and Melinda Gates founded  Grand Challenges, an organisation that has its roots in catalytic philanthropy. It’s designed to fix market failures—places where capitalism and government fails to meet the needs of the poor.


To prevent Truman from discovering his false reality, Christof has invented means of dissuading his sense of exploration. Yet despite Christof’s control, Trueman manages to behave in unexpected ways.

Bill Gates writes:

“Why is there so much more research done on baldness than on malaria? Because rich people go bald, and they don’t die of malaria. Grand Challenges is like a venture capital fund in the sense that it backs a lot of ideas, knowing that many will fail, but a few could have a big impact. I’ll be delighted if five years from now, 20 percent of the initial projects are being deployed and saving lives.”

Mobilizing and coordinating stakeholders is messier and slower than funding a compelling grant request. Systemic change depends on a sustained campaign to increase the capacity and coordination of an entire field, together with greater public awareness and, often, stronger government policies. Catalytic philanthropists have the wherewithal to heighten awareness, raise expectations, and coordinate the many disparate efforts of other funders, nonprofits, corporations, and governments.


Sylvia becomes part of a “Free Truman” campaign that fights to free him from the show and to reveal his identity.

However, actionable knowledge can also have an impact on government spending priorities. For example, in 2004, Pew commissioned a study showing that extending preschool to the 4 million children under age 5 living below the poverty line would produce a net benefit to the economy of more than $511 billion—a $16 return from higher earnings and fewer welfare payments for every dollar spent. This study enabled advocates to make a compelling case for increased state spending. Between 2005 and 2008 total state spending in the United States on prekindergarten programs grew by 66 percent from $2.9 billion to $4.8 billion; seven states have pledged universal preschool for all 4-year-olds, and three other states have promised preschool for all children in low-income families.


Despite the best efforts of his family and friends, Truman starts wondering about his near-perfect life, realizing how the world seems to revolve and shape around him.

Bill Gates explains:

“I’m a card-carrying member of the capitalism fan club. Capitalism is the best system ever devised for harnessing self-interest to drive innovation and fuel economic growth. But let’s face it: Capitalism is not good at meeting the needs of the very poor. Entrepreneurs and investors generally don’t sink their time, treasure, and talent into developing products for people who can’t afford to pay for them. Government can offer services where the market does not and thus offer a safety net. But many governments do not take the long view, because of the short length of election cycles. And it’s hard for rich governments to justify big investments in research that may only benefit people in far-off countries—and they’re not well suited to bringing successful ideas to market. When you come to the end of the innovations that business and government are willing to invest in, you still find a huge unexplored space of innovation where the returns can be fantastic. This space is a fertile area for what I’ve called “catalytic philanthropy.” There are innovations out there that could generate earth-shaking returns. But if you’re in the private sector, you can’t even look at these investments because the returns won’t come to the innovator; they’ll go to poor people or society generally. The magic of philanthropy is that it throws off that constraint.”


Truman reaches the edge of the dome, his boats bow piercing through the dome’s painted sky.

We should not pretend that Capitalism is the best system to meet the needs of everyone. In point of fact it often creates the situations of poverty that allows disease to flourish. But we should also not pretend that criticism of Capitalism or conventional philanthropic contributions will change the status quo. Instead, a much smaller set of donors who have the desire and opportunity to achieve change—whether professionals at foundations and corporations or individual philanthropists with the time and resources to become personally involved—must step forward to become catalytic philanthropists. If they do, they will begin to see measurable impact from their efforts and the potential to change social conditions meaningfully. And perhaps in the process, change themselves.


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Under The Knife : Surgical Robots


In the Sci-fi film Logans Run, the device with which the cosmetic surgery is conducted is delightfully called the Aesculaptor Mark III. Doc brags that it is “the latest. It’s completely self-contained.”

In the Sci-fi classic Logans Run, the patient lies flat in a recess on a rounded table, the tilt and orientation of which is computer controlled. Above the table is a metallic sphere with six spidery articulated arms. Some of these house laser scalpels and some of these house healing sprays. The whole mechanism is contained in a cylinder of glass. To control the system, ‘Doc’ has a panel made up of unlabeled buttons and dials, a single blue monitor, and another panel displaying a random five-digit number and two levers. One is labeled “ANODYNE” and the other is labeled “KINESIS.”

The idea of a surgical robot might conjure up an image of Star Wars’ C-3PO in scrubs, but many medical machines are closer to the robots used to build cars. With its four arms hanging over the patient, the da Vinci Surgical System looks more like a machine out of Alien than something that belongs in an operating theatre. Yet as of the end of June Intuitive Surgical had installed 3,102 da Vinci Surgical Systems in hospitals worldwide, and more than two million surgical procedures had been performed since the system’s approval by the US Food And Drug Administration in 2000. Since 2000, more than two million operations worldwide have been performed by surgical robots.

While each one fills a decent-sized room, their “hands” are super-small, high-precision instruments. Now researchers are racing to develop the next generation of surgical robots to help to seek and destroy cancers, set bones or hold a camera during an operation. According to Catherine Mohr, vice-president for medical research at Intuitive, the robot was “the brainchild of Darpa [Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency], who wanted a robot to work on soldiers injured in battle but didn’t want a surgeon exposed to the frontline”. With this dream on hold, the focus has shifted to minimally invasive surgery for operations on patients with, for example, heart, urinary or prostate problems. This requires rearranging the conventional operating theatre to accommodate the console at which the surgeon sits to control the robot, as well as the cart with its four arms. “A surgeon with a handheld tool can be accurate to 100 micrometres, or one tenth of a millimetre,” says Mohr. “But using da Vinci even someone untrained can be accurate to 50 micrometres.” Although the da Vinci robot has been subject to a number of lawsuits, Mohr argues that surgery is never without risk and that Intuitive Surgical was found not liable the one time a case went to trial.

In the future, the da Vinci System could help the surgeon make better decisions, for example with “surgery by numbers” – where the monitor highlights target areas then helps guide the surgeon to the exact spot. But it’s unlikely to go the whole hog and end up driverless. “I would never say never about AI,” says Mohr, “but to be able to deal with the demands of an operating theatre the AI would have to learn like us, and we are simply not there yet.”

Dr Sanja Dogramadzi loves a puzzle and Professor Roger Atkins, an orthopaedic surgeon at University Hospitals Bristol, gave her a difficult one to solve – the solution to which they will soon be testing on human cadavers. According to Dogramadzi, on a daily basis surgeons face the “difficult problem of having to solve the three-dimensional challenge of putting very small pieces of broken bones back together with two-dimensional images on their monitors: get it wrong and someone may never walk again”. First she saw it as a mathematical puzzle, then had a revelation about how her robots could come to the rescue: “All we needed to do was put robots there, then we could sort out the fracture accurately, without the need for a major incision.” The solution was two imaging systems allowing the robots to grasp pieces of bone and put them back together in the right combination. One of the imaging systems is a standard CT scan on a computer, while the other is an external positioning system much like the Kinect motion-sensing input device used on Xbox gaming computers.

This tells the surgeon where the robots and their tools are in real time. For Dogramadzi it came down to “a systems integration problem of making the hardware and software work together and achieve a degree of accuracy that is better than the surgeon – or at least the same as a surgeon”. Some very small movements can even be completed by the robots independently. With this technique, Dogramadzi believes that she and Atkins have developed a unique way to repair fractures in an operating theatre, using minimally invasive robot surgery. She believes that the technology could help repair a wider range of fractures and even have non-medical uses, such as helping archaeologists to put broken vases back together.


Undifferentiated controls? Unlabeled controls? No visual hierarchy? Only the device itself and an oscilloscope to monitor the system and the patient’s trending state? Un-safeguarded knife switches for the primary controls? And note that the fail state is in the direction of gravity. If that knife switch gets loose, oops, you’re screwed.

However, in reality it is a bit different “It’s not that the robots do any of the surgery themselves,” says Tony Belpaeme, professor of cognitive systems and robotics at Plymouth University. “They are instruments for the surgeons to use for keyhole surgery, as they offer greater precision than handheld tools, particularly in hard-to-access parts of the body such as close to the spinal cord, and recovery is then so much faster because the operation is so precise.”

Not that a lack of automation is anything to be sniffy about; these machines still use powerful computers to carry out difficult jobs. Their lack of automation is down to the technological challenges of giving a robot the skill and judgment of a surgeon, as well as the lurking fear of legal action and even just the desirable reassurance of having an expert on hand for those awful “what-ifs”.

Where the researchers are taking their cue from the seriously sexy technology of driverless cars is, for example, in the development of domestic robots for palliative care, be it helping you make a cup of tea or alerting the doctor if you skip your medication. “I don’t see any application for artificial intelligence during surgery at the moment,” says Belpaeme. “For a computer to do something intelligent, it has to be able to see what’s happening. Now that’s OK in a structured environment, but the operating theatre is just a mess to a computer and it will be very hard for it to make sensible decisions. However, I do see a role in the future for more autonomous robots giving surgeons a helping hand as an assistant during operation.”


Initially, the vision behind the da Vinci robot was that a surgeon in London could operate in safety on a sick child in Liberia or a wounded soldier in Afghanistan, but financial, technological and communication worries have, for the present, put paid to such dreams. Now the promise of medical robotics lies in facilitating operations that are quicker and more accurate, meaning shorter hospital stays, greater patient turnover, lower chances of patients catching hospital superbugs and an overall saving of money. Robots in the home offer further support, keeping patients eating, moving and medicating.

For surgeons, who are often backing the development of these robots, the benefits of a machine like the da Vinci system are manifold. “The natural instinct of a surgeon is to be hands on the patients, so sitting at a console staring at a screen controlling a robot does take some getting used to,” says Pardeep Kumar, consultant urological surgeon at the Royal Marsden, London, who regularly operates using the da Vinci robot. “But it is such an immersive experience that I’ve been able to carry out more operations, more quickly and successfully than I could have dreamed of. I just bumped into one of my patients being discharged three to four days after an operation using the robot, instead of the three to four weeks it would have taken in the past.”

But it isn’t just about high precision. “The physical demands of surgery aren’t talked about much,” says Kumar. “As a surgeon I have vowed to keep going until I am in my mid to late fifties, but the strain on the neck, shoulders and back make it difficult to keep going for much longer than that. However, operating sitting down using a robot means I could keep going for longer than I had thought.”

logansrun177 (1)

It isn’t just keyhole surgery that can benefit from cutting-edge tech. Sanja Dogramadzi, a reader in robotics in the department of engineering design and mathematics at the University of the West of England, is a pioneers of medical robotic technology for the operating theatre. In collaboration with Professor Roger Atkins, an orthopaedic surgeon at University Hospitals Bristol, she designed what is believed to be the first robot-assisted system to tackle the problem of complex joint fractures. For her, the attraction of medical robotics is about solving complex problems that can change lives: “Medical robotics has lots of potential to transform the quality of life of every single one of us. If you can put bones back together, then people can walk again. What’s more important than that?” For Dogramadzi, the main technological challenge is achieving accuracy while avoiding what some see as the cumbersome form of systems like the da Vinci. “We are building a modular system that consists of a number of small interlinked robots. And while each component can be accurate down to less than a millimetre or degree, the problem is, how accurate is the whole system when it is working together?”

However, she too believes it could be a while before autonomous systems are admitted to theatre. “Hardware would, for example, need positional sensors and safety stops to prevent accidents,” Dogramadzi says. “The software would have to be able to work on many different levels at the same time – what the scalpel was doing, what was going on with the auxiliary staff in the operating theatre – then bring it all together to make a decision. This is a big challenge. By keeping the surgeon in the operating theatre it makes our research easier, cheaper and quicker.”


Logan’s Run took place long before the lessons of the Therac-25, with its tragic interface and programming problems that resulted in the deaths of several cancer patients, but even audiences in 1976 would not believe that any medical device would have such an easy means of disabling the only aspect of it that keeps it from becoming an abattoir.

But if physically constructing medical robots is difficult, the real sticking ground is the quagmire of ethics. “Who is responsible if something goes wrong? It is not always going to be one organisation. It’s going to be complicated,” says Dogramadzi.

Yet while scalpel-wielding robots might alarm patients, there is evidence that, for some procedures at least, they may be cautiously welcomed. “The initial pilot study in 2013 into patients’ perceptions of using robots in foot fracture surgery was generally positive,” Dogramadzi says. But, as she points out, surgeons were clearly in the picture. “I doubt that the response would have been so positive if the robot was fully autonomous.”

These are issues of huge import, yet to those at the bench it makes progress frustratingly slow. “Obviously you should not be able to go and do whatever you want,” Dogramadzi says, “but there are so many obstacles in the way of actually doing a project like this.”

One that has risen to the fore in the wake of the NSA revelations is that of privacy and security. Indeed, while home-help robots, such asMobiserv, have a beguilingly innocent face, the data they hold could make them prime targets for hackers. Autonomous surgeons, robotic pills and contraceptive chips take concerns to a whole new level.

And well they might. This year a security audit published by Essentia Health, which runs about 100 hospitals, doctor’s surgeries and pharmacies in Minnesota and neighbouring states, helped to reveal to the public how badly protected much of our current healthcare technology is. Critical equipment, such as pumps that distribute antibiotics around the body and defibrillators, were, according to the report, vulnerable to hackingwith one of the issues being the poor use of passwords and rare employment of data encryption. It was even possible to change medical records or reboot machines or reboot machines. The firewalls of surgical robots in particular were easy to take down.


Despite such concerns, Dogramadzi, believes there will be a rise in robotics in many areas of medicine. “I am working now with a radiographer to see how we can use novel robotic technology to help position people during radiography,” she says. But it seems that even if questions of security and privacy can be ironed out, some procedures that will always be tackled the analogue way: “Culturally we still like to have a human there to look after you if something goes wrong, like in childbirth. We could go in that direction – but probably shouldn’t.”

It may seem hard to imagine that this robot, with its ridiculous balloon-shaped head and a tablet computer strapped to the front, might possibly mean the difference between life and death.

Yet if you were elderly and unwell, or recovering from a serious operation, it just might. The robot is designed to work with you to share certain information – such as your heart rate, eating habits and even whether you have taken your medication – with your family, doctor and other carers. It can summon help if it notes unusual behaviour. And in extreme situations – say if you had a heart attack or stroke – it is planned that future models could even take control of the situation.

As part of their research for the European FP7 programme, researchers at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory were, according to project leader Dr Praminda Caleb-Solly, “exploring embodiments” – an important part of how to make the domestic care robot’s interface more friendly for older adults who might not feel comfortable with technology.

“Mobiserv” was a European research project on smart technology that ran from 2009 to 2013. The aim was to develop robots, smart clothing, activity recognition systems and even smart medicine bottles to assist older people to maintain active, independent lives.

“What we found is that people want to be able to customise and personalise the robot by such means as changing the way it speaks, for instance giving it a cheeky character, making it hum while working and even giving it a smell,” says Caleb-Solly. But she says the negative portrayal of robots in popular culture is a problem –people may simply be alarmed by robo-helpers. “For example if you suddenly found the robot by the side of your bed in the night because you’d had a heart attack, demonstrating some degree of intelligence and taking control when you are not able to.” With more field-testing Caleb-Solly and her team hope to fine tune the robot to optimise their usefulness around the house in a range of situations.

It is said that a hi-fi system is only as good as its speakers. Similarly for keyhole surgery, according to Jeremy Russell, CEO of OR Productivity which includes FreeHand 2010: “An operating theatre is only as good as the person who holds the camera for the surgeon.” The FreeHand system replaces what can be a wobbly picture with a rock-steady image controlled by a camera on a scope held in the iron grip of a robotic arm. It has been estimated this robot can help to speed up operations by 10% by improving the quality of the image a surgeon sees on their monitor. The FreeHand works by giving the surgeon direct control over where the camera goes via a hands-free controller on a headband. The direction of the camera is controlled by a movement of the head, the three-speed unit is started and stopped by touching a foot pedal, and a tap on the table enables the zoom.

According to Robert J Webster III, director of the Medical and Electromedical Design Lab at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, the vision that unites the innovations coming out of his laboratory is simple: “To help doctors heal people more effectively by engineering better tools for them to use in doing so.”
It is not surprising that Webster was attracted to solving the problem of blood clots in the brain – his father had one, though he was lucky and survived. Forty per cent of the people who develop one will go on to die from it. Webster’s team came up with a miniature robot made of a series of curved flexible tubes which allow it to navigate through delicate brain matter along a route mapped out by a doctor from a brain scan.

The doctor determines how much material is to be removed and the robot’s computer-controlled needle tip does the rest. Studies have suggested that it should be able to remove up to 92% of the clot. For Webster, integrating the robot with medical imaging equipment was the greatest challenge. He says it could take between four and 10 years before we see the robot used in hospitals, depending on how quickly the technology is transferred to a commercial partner. Webster has moved on to other projects, including robots that use arms inspired by octopus tentacles and elephant trunks, enabling them to pick up and manipulate small objects more effectively.

It might be chalky white and fairly bulky, but could transform someone’s life after a stroke has left them with no feeling in an arm or unable to grip things tightly. That is at least the hope of Dr Thomas Burton, who designed the exoskeleton during his PhD at the Bristol robotics laboratory and built it using 3D-printing technology. This makes it easier to manufacture made-to-measure exoskeletons, which have the added advantage of enabling the mechanical joints to align with each person’s natural hand joints to improve what’s called biocompatibility. The exoskeleton is controlled by a computer which receives messages from sensors when the person tries to manipulate or grasp an object – picking up a cup of tea, for example – then activates motors to create a natural grasping motion, including an opposable thumb. The aim is to give patients extra confidence to perform even basic tasks at home, as well as improving muscle tone. Now that the technology has been shown to make a real difference, the race is on to make it sleeker and suitable for anyone who needs support in everyday life.


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Better Man Than He


“Musician Sivu spent two hours inside an MRI machine to film the music video for his song “Better Man Than He.” The result is this hypnotic video, which lets us see what literally goes on in Sivu’s head as he sings.”

Earlier this year, unsigned singer Sivu and director Adam Powell made a mesmerising video for single Better Than Me using an MRI scanner at London’s St Bart’s Hospital. The incredible footage was created using hundreds of MRI scans. It’s an innovative technique – the video is allegedly the first to use real time MRI scans – and the result is visually striking.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (NMRI), or magnetic resonance tomography (MRT) is a medical imaging technique used in radiology to investigate the anatomy and physiology of the body in both health and disease. MRI scanners use strong magnetic fields and radiowaves to form images of the body. The technique is widely used in hospitals for medical diagnosis, staging of disease and for follow-up without exposure to ionizing radiation.

Better Man Than He features footage of Sivu singing into an MRI machine, which uses magnetic fields and radio waves to generate images of the body. The three-minute film offers a fascinating glimspe at the singer’s brain, muscles and movements, with additional effects added in post production.

Sivu contacted doctors Marc Miguel and Andrew Scott, who had spent a year researching how to capture moving images using MRI machines in an attempt to learn more about cleft palates and agreed to help make the film at St Bart’s. As Miguel and Scott explain, Page was required to wear a large head covering, known as a coil, while inside the scanner, which allowed it to generate detailed images depicting ‘slices’ of his head.

The video was released in January this year and has since received more than 600,000 views on YouTube. As Page explains in a new film on the making of the project, Powell, then his flatmate, suggested using an MRI scanner as a cheaper alternative to using costly cameras and filming equipment. Since its release, Sivu has been signed to Atlantic Records, while Powell has since directed promos for The 1975 and Example. The film has also been screened in medical conferences and university lectures.

Sivu has released a short film revealing how the promo was made.


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Strange Porn: Life Seen Through (MRI) Magnetic Resonance Imaging


Incredible footage was created using hundreds of MRI scans. It exposes every detail of an intimate moment, starting with the heart beating faster as two people kiss. 

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (NMRI), or magnetic resonance tomography (MRT) is a medical imaging technique used in radiology to investigate the anatomy and physiology of the body in both health and disease.
MRI scanners use strong magnetic fields and radiowaves to form images of the body. The technique is widely used in hospitals for medical diagnosis, staging of disease and for follow-up without exposure to ionizing radiation
Watch the full video here. Warning this video shows graphic images of a sexual nature.
Unlike X-rays and CAT scans, Magnetic Resonance Imaging doesn’t use harmful radiation so it can take more pictures. It produces detailed images through magnetic fields that map the position of water molecules, which exist at different densities in different types of tissue.However this video is a mash-up of various different MRI scans including a couple French couple, a baby in the womb, a horn player blowing his instrument and someone swallowing pineapple juice. 
‘Taking magnetic resonance images (MRI) of the male and female genitals during coitus is feasible and contributes to understanding of anatomy.’
And the scientific reason for filming the ‘insides’ of a man and woman during their most intimate moment? ‘To find out whether taking images of the male and female genitals during coitus is feasible and to find out whether former and current ideas about the anatomy during sexual intercourse and during female sexual arousal are based on assumptions or on facts,’ according to the British Medical Journal. This is perhaps something you don’t want to see in the morning as you tuck into your Corn Flakes. An MRI scan of a couple during sex.

MRI has a wide range of applications in medical diagnosis and there are estimated to be over 25,000 scanners in use worldwide. MRI has an impact on diagnosis and treatment in many specialties although the effect on improved health outcomes is uncertain. Since MRI does not use any ionizing radiation its use is recommended in preference to CT when either modality could yield the same information. MRI is in general a safe technique but the number of incidents causing patient harm have risen. Contraindications to MRI include most cochlear implants and cardiac pacemakers, shrapnel and metallic foreign bodies in the orbits, and some ferromagnetic surgical implants. The safety of MRI during the first trimester of pregnancy is uncertain, but it may be preferable to alternative options.


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Brain Movies: Scientists Turn Memories Into Video Recordings


Imagine tapping into the mind of a coma patient, or watching one’s own dream on YouTube. With a cutting-edge blend of brain imaging and computer simulation, scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, are bringing these futuristic scenarios within reach. Image: Christopher Walken in Brainstorm, 1983

Now I know what you are thinking. Mind-reading through brain imaging technology is a common sci-fi theme. In the film Brainstorm we meet a group of scientists that are experimenting with a new kind of machine, a helmet that can record whatever your experience. The innovative part is that someone else can later watch the recording and relive the experience, all sensory input included. Commercial and military applications immediately abound for an invention like this one. But like any new invention, there’s always a dark side, for example, what happens when someone decides to record their death?

Using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and computational models, UC Berkeley researchers have succeeded in decoding and reconstructing people’s dynamic visual experiences – in this case, watching Hollywood movie trailers.

“This is a major leap toward reconstructing internal imagery,” said Professor Jack Gallant, a UC Berkeley neuroscientist and coauthor of the study published online today (Sept. 22) in the journal Current Biology. “We are opening a window into the movies in our minds.”

Brainstorm1983Eventually, practical applications of the technology could include a better understanding of what goes on in the minds of people who cannot communicate verbally, such as stroke victims, coma patients and people with neurodegenerative diseases. It may also lay the groundwork for brain-machine interface so that people with cerebral palsy or paralysis, for example, can guide computers with their minds.

However, researchers point out that the technology is decades from allowing users to read others’ thoughts and intentions, as portrayed in such sci-fi classics as “Brainstorm,” in which scientists recorded a person’s sensations so that others could experience them.

Previously, Gallant and fellow researchers recorded brain activity in the visual cortex while a subject viewed black-and-white photographs. They then built a computational model that enabled them to predict with overwhelming accuracy which picture the subject was looking at.

In their latest experiment, researchers say they have solved a much more difficult problem by actually decoding brain signals generated by moving pictures.

“Our natural visual experience is like watching a movie,” said Shinji Nishimoto, lead author of the study and a post-doctoral researcher in Gallant’s lab. “In order for this technology to have wide applicability, we must understand how the brain processes these dynamic visual experiences.”  

The left clip is a segment of a Hollywood movie trailer that the subject viewed while in the magnet. The right clip shows the reconstruction of this segment from brain activity measured using fMRI.

Nishimoto and two other research team members served as subjects for the experiment, because the procedure requires volunteers to remain still inside the MRI scanner for hours at a time.

They watched two separate sets of Hollywood movie trailers, while fMRI was used to measure blood flow through the visual cortex, the part of the brain that processes visual information. On the computer, the brain was divided into small, three-dimensional cubes known as volumetric pixels, or “voxels.”

“We built a model for each voxel that describes how shape and motion information in the movie is mapped into brain activity,” Nishimoto said.

The brain activity recorded while subjects viewed the first set of clips was fed into a computer program that learned, second by second, to associate visual patterns in the movie with the corresponding brain activity.

Brain activity evoked by the second set of clips was used to test the movie reconstruction algorithm. This was done by feeding 18 million seconds of random YouTube videos into the computer program so that it could predict the brain activity that each film clip would most likely evoke in each subject.

In this clip the movie that each subject viewed while in the magnet is shown at upper left. Reconstructions for three subjects are shown in the three rows at bottom. All these reconstructions were obtained using only each subject’s brain activity and a library of 18 million seconds of random YouTube video that did not include the movies used as stimuli.

Finally, the 100 clips that the computer program decided were most similar to the clip that the subject had probably seen were merged to produce a blurry yet continuous reconstruction of the original movie.

Reconstructing movies using brain scans has been challenging because the blood flow signals measured using fMRI change much more slowly than the neural signals that encode dynamic information in movies, researchers said. For this reason, most previous attempts to decode brain activity have focused on static images.

“We addressed this problem by developing a two-stage model that separately describes the underlying neural population and blood flow signals,” Nishimoto said.

Ultimately, Nishimoto said, scientists need to understand how the brain processes dynamic visual events that we experience in everyday life.

“We need to know how the brain works in naturalistic conditions,” he said. “For that, we need to first understand how the brain works while we are watching movies.”

Other coauthors of the study are Thomas Naselaris with UC Berkeley’s Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute; An T. Vu with UC Berkeley’s Joint Graduate Group in Bioengineering; and Yuval Benjamini and Professor Bin Yu with the UC Berkeley Department of Statistics.

However as of yet, the technology can only reconstruct movie clips people have already viewed. However, the breakthrough paves the way for reproducing the movies inside our heads that no one else sees, such as dreams and memories, according to researchers.


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The V&A Digital Design Weekend


The LDF Digital Design Weekend is a weekend of events celebrating collaborations in digital art, design and science, coinciding with the London Design Festival at the V&A. As part of this year’s programme, ICN Gallery and the Japan Foundation will present Magnetic Field Record by designer Kouichi Okamoto, a suspended device recording and visualising the earth’s magnetic and gravitational forces into drawings.

A unique collaboration between the world’s leading museum of art and design and London’s foremost contemporary design festival and now in it’s fourth year, the Digital Design Weekend explores and promotes contemporary digital art and design and presents cutting edge work and research projects, giving audiences the opportunity to meet the artists, designers and researchers and find out more about processes while engaging in dialogue, debate and the creation of culture.

The Digital Design Weekend transforms the V&A into one big workshop; studios and galleries become makerspaces, tinkerspaces or labs, where visitors come together with artists and designers to discuss and think about objects, making and working collaboratively.


This year participants and audiences can explore digital value, cultural value and ‘making’ value, so we are inviting everyone to join in a weekend of collaborating, networking, sharing knowledge, tools, practice and of course playing! Encouraging experimentation they want to get people involved with design and making through provocative and surprising displays and workshops.

The programme includes many exciting projects such as Heidi Hinder’s Money No Object, which explores a new significance for material and physical currencies in an increasingly immaterial digital world, one where smart payment transactions are imperceptible, but human emotions, creativity and culture retain a value that money can’t buy. Or, Knyttan, sharing tools for pioneering the democratisation of manufacturing, the Restart Project helping people understand the impact of electronic waste and how to negate it and Flora Bowden and Dan Lockton’s Drawing Energy & Powerchord that explores energy use and everyday life, investigating and communicating data in meaningful ways.

London Design Festival is coming back to the V&A soon and with the annual Digital Design Weekend, The museum will be filled with activities for the curious, designers, students, hackers, makers and families and it is also a chance to see LDF’s installations before the end of the festival.

Over nine days in September, the London Design Festival features hundreds of events which take place across London, showcasing the city’s pivotal role in global design. The London Design Festival 2014 will take place from 13-21 September. The centerpeices of the Festival are commissions, the Landmark Projects. For these Landmark Projects the Festival commissioned some of the world’s greatest architects and designers to create pieces of work in London’s best-loved public spaces.


Candela by designer Felix de Pass, ceramicist Ian McIntyre, graphic designer Michael MontgomeryInstallation Brompton Design District 10am – 5.45pm


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The Guggenheim: Action Plan on The Northern Edge of Europe


From the smallest seaside town to the greatest European capital the story is the same: bring in a starchitect, build a gallery. If we build it they will come. Image: The history of Finland extracted from the Guggenheim Helsinki Museum Competition Brief

From the moment Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum was unveiled along the banks of the Nervión river in 1997, the term “Bilbao Effect” emerged as a battle cry from civic leaders, architects and city planners intent on revitalizing dilapidated city centers and elevating their status in a competitive global market. Funny how artists who would never admit to entering a chain fast food restaurant are queing in places like New York in order to be shown in a regional chain museum.

In fact, there was reason for elated optimism, as market research showed Gehry’s new building bringing an extra 3 million visitors to the city each year, with additional tax revenue and corporate sponsorship invading the flourishing post-industrial region. However, the success of the project would not rely on a single object, but on an inspiring urban strategy that cleared the city’s waterfront of old shipbuilding industries and introduced accessible green space that was capable of hosting popular city activities and attractions throughout the year.

The city, eager for a museum to compliment the region,  gave the Guggenheim foundation complete control of the project throughout the process. The result was an efficient, yet impressive construction. Nevertheless, it was obvious to the media and aspiring cities that the “Icon” resulted in the sudden fortune of Bilbao, elevating an emerging cultural industry in architecture that relies on the shock of iconographic structures for supremacy in a global market.


Guggenheim Helsinki site context map (image via Guggenheim Helsinki proposal)

Helsinki has long been a target for the foundation, but their proposals have brought opposition from many Finns. Their last proposal focused on a site in the Katajanokka district of the city, but was voted down by city councillors. The Swedish People’s Party and National Coalition supported the idea, but Green and Leftist representatives were opposed. National Coalition mayor Jussi Pajunen has been a strong supporter of the Guggenheim project.

Finland is already an extremely creative country for its size , and certainly doesn’t need a load of international art investor super-rich fotzen winding everyone up and edging out the local art scene with hyped up squashy buildings and Damian-Hirst-mäßig nonsense. If I were running Helsinki, I would replace this whole project with ‘the world institute of Heavy Metal’. That would probably also attract a tremendous amount of tourists, and also ones who are not total tubes. Fantastic country. Wahey!

However, after several visits to Finland over the summer, the foundation is now ready to try again. As the official Guggenheim Helsinki design competition drew to a close this week, a rival contest was announced: Next Helsinki, backed by the New York architecture and urban policy think tank Terreform, Finnish nonprofit arts organization Checkpoint Helsinki, and the Gulf Labor offshoot Gulf Ultra Luxury Faction (GULF) along with Occupy Museums.

The foundation’s website states:

“Helsinki is one of the world’s great cities – a beautiful and cultivated place, dancing by the water. But it is a city – like all others – with real needs.  For housing that is abundant and affordable. For an on-going retrofit for sustainability that is such an urgent part of the future of all the world’s cities. For rational transportation. For inventive platforms for experiencing and producing art. And for public spaces and a public culture that can generate decent livelihoods and be accountable to communities.”

The counter-competition is seeking submissions in any media across a wide range of disciplines and approaches. For jury chair Michael Sorkin of Terreform, this ethos encompasses “any representational conceit that [entrants] think is transparent to their intentions … inventive reflections on the future of Helsinki on any scale.”

It seems that the Guggenheim Foundation wanted Helsinki to produce an innovative and educative arts laboratory, a new kind of museum concept for the future, whereas Helsinki most of all wanted a landmark attraction with a lot of eye-candy for wealthy tourists. The latter would naturally have required some really iconic architecture, and names like Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid were already circulated in people’s wildest dreams. New York University sociologist Andrew Ross, an organizer with GULF, explained to Hyperallergic that the Next Helsinki contest is intentionally structured to reject the “traditional” confines of an architectural competition.

“We tried to get a spectrum of voices — pure architects, scholarly urbanists, arts practitioners, people who do urban consulting — not a typical jury,” Ross said.

The competition represents a joining of forces between urban policy thinkers suspicious of neoliberal cultural development models, groups opposed to the Guggenheim’s Abu Dhabi outpost, and a long-standing local opposition in Helsinki seeking an institution more in line with the domestic art scene.


But the tide has turned regarding these projects. They are becoming ever more frequently seen as impositions, and the rhetoric of regeneration that accompanies them. According to a New York Times article about the Finnish opposition to the Guggenheim proposal earlier this summer, a majority of Helsinki residents objected to the plans in 2012 newspaper polls. But the need for counter-gestures remains exigent, according to Ross. “Advocates of Guggenheim are ascendant in Finnish politics, which is becoming more neoliberal,” he said.

The idea of a subversive competition is partially borrowed from GULF, which in March published a spoof website,, mimicking the format of the official Guggenheim website and seeking plans for a “Sustainable Design Competition” to replace the institution’s soon-to-be-constructed Frank Gehry-designed Abu Dhabi franchise.

The Guggenheim debate demonstrates how the cultural landscape in Finland has changed. Since the 1960s arts and culture have been the protege of the political left, whereas conservatives have favoured more material things like highways, shopping centres – and, of course, lower taxes. But today art is seen as a creative industry and a good investment. Hence, it was the conservatives who backed Guggenheim, and the left and the greens who smashed it. According to the Guggenheim action plan, the museum would have brought Helsinki so many visitors and so much tax money that it would have more than covered its costs. Some high flyers even saw Helsinki as a northern Bilbao, drawing arts crowds from all over Europe, Russia and even Asia.What was funny about the whole Guggenheim debate in Finland was the meagre amount of space given to discussion about the actual art which would have been presented in the supposed museum (or gallery). Maybe the question was never about the art itself, maybe the debate was properly political and for once those usually suppressed political divisions surfaced.

Over fifteen years have passed since Bilbao grabbed headlines from all over the world. In those years, the population of urban centers around the world began to exceed those of rural areas and the tourism industry was surging with no sign of abating, leading to an assortment of cities to invest heavily in their cultural infrastructure during the economic ‘boom years’. This initiative was spearheaded by substantial performing-arts complexes (theaters, concert halls and opera houses) and lead to a total metamorphic shift in the live-art industry with efforts to combat inclusion, globalization and a dwindling audience. Now, architects were forced to balance between civic responsibility and a new form of city-branding, with politicians overwhelmingly focused on the latter. After the global financial meltdown in 2008, many of these major cultural projects (some still in construction) – combined with government mismanagement and poor attendance – resulted in intense public scrutiny and questioned the foundation of this surging iconography in architecture. This study will focus on the characteristics and campaigns for new performance architecture in a post-Bilbao environment, with an emphasis on geographically-condensed regions in Europe that traditionally have had regionalist building attitudes.


Submissions are due in March 2015, and the group intends to raise funds for a prize. Also planned are workshops or public fora after the competition closes, to be held both in New York and Helsinki.


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