Thursday, June 15, 2017

Friday Thinking 16 June 2017

Hello all – Friday Thinking is a humble curation of my foraging in the digital environment. My purpose is to pick interesting pieces, based on my own curiosity (and the curiosity of the many interesting people I follow), about developments in some key domains (work, organization, social-economy, intelligence, domestication of DNA, energy, etc.)  that suggest we are in the midst of a change in the conditions of change - a phase-transition. That tomorrow will be radically unlike yesterday.

Many thanks to those who enjoy this.
In the 21st Century curiosity will SKILL the cat.
Jobs are dying - work is just beginning.

“Be careful what you ‘insta-google-tweet-face’”
Woody Harrelson - Triple 9



the social scientists Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog characterise the rule-following mindset as thin-skinned and inflexible. Rule-followers are easily bruised, when expectations are not met, and uncomfortable with ambiguity: seeking ‘cognitive closure’ wherever possible. They tend to accept prevailing hierarchies of power and thrive within predetermined institutional structures. Interestingly, the rule-follower also shows high degrees of psychological disgust when encountering unfamiliar experiences or norms.

Yet life is intrinsically changing, moving, disappointing and positively surprising. Meeting life with unbending expectations is a recipe for disaster. Those who expect the world to conform to their preset calculations and predictions are destined to be frustrated. They are uncomfortable with spontaneity, and rail against deviations.

Failing is a major aspect of improvisation. Failure is the thing we learn from, so it’s the cornerstone of productive experience. Aristotle described improvisational decision-making as ‘practical reason’, distinct from rule-following logic.

We could all do with learning how to improvise a little better

People who are bad at dealing with uncertainty, but lucky enough to be well-shielded from it, tend to be aggressively low-margin in their decision-making. They make plans with no slack in them. On the other hand, people who are bad at dealing with uncertainty, but unlucky enough to have (or have had) a lot of it in their lives, tend to be aggressively high-margin in their decision-making. They always make plans with worst-case amounts of slack in them. Let’s call them lean planners and fat planners. Both are varieties of what I call flatland planners, because they plan in two dimensions: time and a second variable, usually money. While fat planning is somewhat better than lean planning, the best solution is not to be a flatlander at all. This involves making uncertainty an active variable in your decision-making and going three-dimensional. The key to this is not plans, but roadmaps. Over the years, I've found the topic of roadmaps coming up repeatedly in consulting projects: whether they are a good idea, how to make them, how to use them, and perhaps most importantly, how to defend them. Because roadmaps create certainty to benefit some parties over others in an uncertain world, often by moving uncertainties elsewhere in a zero-sum way. Which means if they exist, they will come under attack. Have roadmap, must defend.

A major conceptual tool for managing known unknowns is the roadmap. A roadmap is a an artistic model of how predictable uncertainty and ambiguity will evolve over time.
Plans are about what you will do. Roadmaps are about what the environment is going to do. Plans are useless most of the time. Roadmaps on the other hand, are incredibly useful.
Many other phenomena fit this description. Moore’s Law is a roadmap phenomenon. Climate change is a roadmap phenomenon. An aging population is a roadmap phenomenon.

Roadmapping For Flatlanders

Digital platforms and digital affordances – underpinned by the capitalist enclosure of participatory digital spaces over the last decade or so, with its surveillance and metrics and constant advertising of reductive versions of our identity back to us – do NOT lend themselves to good digital citizenship, in the sense that they do not foster a space I would actually want to be a citizen of, to whatever (limited) extent the citizenship model holds when conceptualized in the border-free digital realm.

They do not lend themselves to good digital citizenship because they shape and direct human behaviour in ways that privilege capital and circulation and extremes, rather than, say, collaboration or empathy. Or even just being alone with one’s thoughts.

The Crosshairs of the Split Hairs: #digciz

A book presents itself as a self-contained artifact. The form of a book (even an e-book) promises to provide a discrete chunk of knowledge. Consider the recent cult of the book – Reading Rainbow, library fetishism, John Waters’ famous admonition that if you go home with someone and they don’t have books, don’t fuck them. As books began to obsolesce as a form, they were attributed almost sacred value as epistemic tokens. I am not immune to the fantasy that a single book can contain valuable knowledge.

But books are not separable units of wisdom. Books are tiny fragments of conversation. We are used to our own conversations: what questions are interesting, what counts as an answer, common knowledge, known dramas and their parties. Books (especially old books) throw us into the middle of an alien conversation: what is the author up to? who is he subtweeting? what does he mean by that word?

It’s easy to forget how we used books before the internet. Now, books are linked, quoted, summarized, screenshotted, dragged like a corpulent raccoon through a small pet door into internet conversations. Back then, reading the book was pretty much your whole participation in the conversation. In the information-impoverished days of one-way media, reading a book could be enough to relieve boredom. The pace of the conversation was quite slow; only a few people wrote books, and they responded to each other on timescales of years and even millennia.

Now, conversations can be had at such a fast and satisfying pace that books are relegated to being sampled and discussed in internet conversations, rather than being the privileged locus of conversations themselves.

Why Books Are Fake

One of the quotes above refers to a blog post Roadmaps for Flatlanders, a brilliant MUST READ exploration of roadmaps as a form of personally-based aesthetic-related foresight. This is his MUST VIEW presentation of a possible roadmap of the current time.

Greater Ribbonfarm Cultural Region, 2016

And here is his 1 hour video elaborating on the nature of this terrain-roadmap - this is a MUST VIEW. - a brilliant creation of a landscape of the present that is a foundation for being able to ‘imagine what it can enable’.

Trace of the Weirding

Instead of a magisterial state of the world, I give you, a trace of the weirding from the peanut gallery

The world is facing challenges that are global and can only be solved with-for-by global approaches including new institutions. This is a weak but significant signal of the emerging possibilities of new institutions that can be enabled by the digital environment and also a possible shift from Capitalism to collaborative/coordinated commons.

Govern land as a global commons

Calls for international coordination of land use to ensure everyone has access to its fruits.
Since 2000, states including the United Kingdom and China have together bought a total area of farmland in Africa and elsewhere that is bigger than Germany to grow food. And countries are producing more crops for export — global cereal exports rose sixfold between 1960 and 2010, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Although food trade can lessen local shortages, it exposes around 200 million poor people in countries such as Algeria, Mexico and Senegal to price shocks when exports from major producers, such as the United States, Russia and Vietnam, collapse. Some countries such as Egypt are reliant on imported food.

Yet global land management is not on the political table. By contrast, climate-change mitigation has been negotiated internationally for 30 years. Air, ice and water are proclaimed officially as global commons — shared resources in which everyone has an equal stake. Treaties protect the atmosphere, Antarctica and the high seas.

Land has no safeguard. The reason: its diverse purposes and stakeholders. Intensive livestock rearing in Iowa, high-rise property in Singapore and timber logging in the Amazonian rainforests are each regulated differently. The European Union's Common Agricultural Policy is a rare example of international cooperation on land, but remains largely unsustainable. The United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) don't call explicitly for global coordination of land uses. This is despite access to land resources being central to the goals — notably those on hunger, cities, production and consumption, climate and life on land.

Things are beginning to change. This year, the UN Convention to Combat Desertification will publish its Global Land Outlook, addressing land management in the context of sustainable development. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will release a report on land use and climate change in 2019. But a stronger case is needed: one that will bring all parties together to coordinate land uses around the world to achieve sustainability.

The digital environment challenges us all to ‘re-imagine everything’ - including our institutions of governance. More than ever an open, complex, rapidly changing society needs robust institutions of conversation (e.g. peer-review is one such institution - enabling science to remain honest and produce sound results). This is a significant signal toward imagining one possible institution of conversation.
“It allowed different sides to gradually see that they share the same underlying concern despite superficial disagreements,” says Audrey Tang, Taiwan’s digital minister. The island’s government now routinely sends out surveys using Facebook ads, and to special-interest groups. It has also used the system to help thrash out what rules should apply to Airbnb rentals and mobile ride-hailing services such as Uber.

The Internet Doesn’t Have to Be Bad for Democracy

Accusations that the Internet and social media sow political division have flown thick and fast since recent contentious elections in the United States, the United Kingdom, and France. Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has even pledged to start working on technology that will turn the energy of online interactions into a more positive force (see “We Need More Alternatives to Facebook”).

Tiny, largely self-funded U.S. startup has been working on a similar project longer than Zuckerberg and already has some promising results. The company’s interactive, crowdsourced survey tool can be used to generate maps of public opinion that help citizens, governments, and legislators discover the nuances of agreement and disagreement on contentious issues that exist. In 2016, that information helped the government of Taiwan break a six-year deadlock over how to regulate online alcohol sales, caused by entrenched, opposing views among citizens on what rules should apply.’s open-source software is designed to serve up interactive online surveys around a particular issue. People are shown a series of short statements about aspects of a broader issue—for example, “Uber drivers should need the same licenses cab drivers do”—and asked to click to signal that they agree or disagree. People can contribute new statements of their own for others to respond to. The tangle of crisscrossing responses is used to automatically generate charts that map out different clusters of opinion, making it easy to see the points on which people tend to overlap or disagree.
Here is the link to

This is definitely a signal of the emergence of new forms of currency - anticipating new forms of value creation and recognition - as well as the inevitable shift to a cashless society.
A QR code is a two-dimensional barcode with a random pattern of tiny black squares against a white background, capable of holding 300 times more data than a traditional one-dimensional code. According to internet consulting firm iResearch, payments made via mobile devices by Chinese consumers last year reached 38 trillion yuan (US$5.5 trillion, HK$43 trillion), more than half the nation’s GDP.

The rise of the QR code and how it has forever changed China’s social habits

It’s being used to encourage tipping at restaurants, receive cash gifts at weddings...even beggars are using it to collect handouts. The little barcode is driving China’s rapid shift towards a cashless society
The seven-year-old Beijing primary school pupil pointed at a nearby convenience store, proposing that his grandfather cool off with an ice-cold Coke. But the old man had forgotten his wallet.
No matter. Jiarui then took his grandfather’s smartphone and summoned to the screen a payment app with a QR code.

“He told me those black and white dots were money,” Jiarui’s grandfather, Wang Meng, recalled later, after that revelatory day in the heat.
“So I tried it [myself] and bought a pack [of cigarettes].”

With his mother’s permission, Jiarui helped his grandparents set up an account to let them buy things on the internet with a mobile phone using QR code scanning. He then showed them the technology could also work at a store counter just by presenting a QR code on the mobile phone to the cashier and letting them scan it to effect payment.

A beggar in Jinan, Shandong province, last month wore a QR code tag around his neck. He was mentally ill, according to mainland media reports, but the code allowed passers-by to give him money through a quick scan. Many other beggars on the street followed suit, according to reports.

This is an interesting article for many reasons - one is that it provides some very thoughtful critique and another is that illuminates the possibility that programming - like every other form of human creation can contain implicit, inherent ideologies - that reside invisibly and yet shape the behavior of all who must interact with code. Another signal - of the need for new institutions appropriate to the digital environment and an open society.
urban designer Adam Greenfield calls cryptocurrency and blockchain the first technology that’s “just fundamentally difficult for otherwise intelligent and highly capable people to understand.”

Bitcoin is an expression of extreme technological libertarianism. This school of thought goes by many names: anarcho-capitalism (or ancap for short), libertarian anarchy, market anarchism. Central to the philosophy is a distrust of states in favor of individuals. Its adherents believe society best facilitates individual will in a free-market economy driven by individual property owners—not governments or corporations—engaging in free trade of that private property.

Cryptocurrency Might be a Path to Authoritarianism

Extreme libertarians built blockchain to decentralize government and corporate power. It could consolidate their control instead.
All over town, the parking meters are disappearing. Drivers now pay at a central machine, or with an app. It’s so convenient I sometimes forget to pay entirely—and then suffer the much higher price of a parking ticket. The last time that happened, I wondered: Why can’t my car pay for its own parking automatically?

It’s technically possible. Both my car and my smartphone know my location via GPS. My phone already couples to my car via Bluetooth. An app could prompt me to pay for parking upon arrival.

Or imagine this: My car, which is already mostly a computer, enters an agreement to lease time from a parking lot, which is managed by another computer. It “signs” this contract just by entering the lot and occupying a parking space. In exchange, the car transfers a small amount of Bitcoin, the currency of choice for computers, into the parking lot’s wallet.

With computers handling the entire process, I’d never even be able to forget to pay for parking. The only way to fail would be for my car to run out of Bitcoin, in which case the parking lot has easy recourse: Because my car’s ignition is managed by a computer, the parking lot could just shut my vehicle down.

Scenarios like this are possible when blockchain—the digital transaction record originally invented to validate Bitcoin transactions—gets used for purposes beyond payment. In certain circles, the technology has been hailed for its potential to usher in a new era of services that are less reliant on intermediaries like businesses and nation-states. But its boosters often overlook that the opposite is equally possible: Blockchain could further consolidate the centralized power of corporations and governments instead.

The looming change in energy geopolitics is about more than just the shift to renewable sources of energy - it’s also about a new paradigm of distribution - from centralized to distributed - to platform coordination. This is an excellent article signalling the shift to distributed coordination of energy production-consumption - prosumer energy.
In a small beta program earlier this year, Drift bought electricity from producers such as upstate New York dams, as well as large buildings in New York City that can spare extra power, and delivered it to commercial and residential customers at prices sometimes lower than the spot wholesale market.

Utility startups are making the electric grid work more like the internet

In the glory days of the electricity grid, utilities burned mainly fossil fuels at big, centrally located operations and transmitted the resulting power to businesses and consumers at highly regulated rates opaque to most users. Their main mission was reliability: keep the juice flowing, no matter what.

If one built the electrical grid today, one would reverse almost every aspect of that design. Solar and wind power generation is so affordable now that many consumers can be producers as well as consumers, one reason why investments in solar, wind, and storage comprised the majority of new money flowing into US energy infrastructure in 2016.Just as important, intelligent algorithms can now trade electricity to procure and deliver the cheapest power in real-time (such as this solar microgrid in Brooklyn).

As producers and consumers start to act like a network, the electrical system is beginning to resemble the internet. Silicon Valley is jumping at the opportunity by entering the highly-regulated energy market as lumbering incumbent utilities struggle to keep pace.

On May 31, Drift launched one of New York’s newest utility and electricity retailers. The team of self-described “software engineers and athletes,” registered as an utility and energy services company under state and federal authorities. is buying, trading and selling energy. By putting electricity management and trading under one roof, it claims it can optimize for price rather than just reliability.
“We make the [electricity] supply chain one platform,” says Drift co-founder and CEO Greg Robinson.

Here’s a good signal - as renewable power systems become cheaper - the savings to replace old infrastructure easily pay for themselves.

Bringing the birthplace of wind power into the 21st century

Modern wind turbines generate 21x the power output of their 1990 ancestors, representing a 12% compounded annual learning rate
American wind power was born in the Golden State, where the first large-scale wind farms were built in the 1980’s. Many still generate electricity today, more than 30 years later. But through a process known as repowering, companies are starting to replace vintage turbines with modern equipment.

The transition is akin to moving from a “car phone” to an iPhone.
NextEra Energy and Sonoma Clean Power just broke ground on a full repowering at the Golden Hills North wind farm, replacing 283 turbines from the 80’s with just 20 modern ones capable of generating significantly more electricity.

Other companies are repowering old California projects too. EDF Renewable Energy recently upgraded the Shiloh IV wind farm, originally built in 1989. Just 50 new turbines replaced 235 old machines while quadrupling the project’s capacity to generate electricity.

This is definitely an omen for what’s coming to many cities as we replace old mass transit infrastructure.

Elec City: Hyundai’s Zero-Emissions Electric Bus That Can Cover 180 Miles On A Single Hour Of Charging

South Korean automotive giant Hyundai has recently unveiled Elec City, a futuristic electric vehicle that can go up to 180 miles on just a single hour of charging. Its impressive performance, according to the developers, can be chalked up to its powerful 256 kWh battery pack and engine. The first of its kind to be manufactured by the company, this zero-emissions bus will likely be available commercially by early next year.

The result of eight long years of research and development, the Elec City is actually one of Hyundai’s many initiatives geared towards enhancing fuel efficiency of its popular vehicles by up to 30-percent as early as 2020. The company has yet to reveal if the electrically-powered, zero-emissions bus will be available for purchase in the United States.

Here’s a definite signal or continued progress on the phase transition of global energy geopolitics.

Cheap catalysts turn sunlight and carbon dioxide into fuel

Scientists have long dreamed of mimicking photosynthesis, by using the energy in sunlight to knit together hydrocarbon fuels from carbon dioxide (CO2) and water. Now, a cheap new chemical catalyst has carried out part of that process with record efficiency, using electricity from a solar cell to split CO2 into energy-rich carbon monoxide (CO) and oxygen. The conversion isn’t yet efficient enough to compete with fossil fuels like gasoline. But it could one day lead to methods for making essentially unlimited amounts of liquid fuels from sunlight, water, and CO2, the chief culprit in global warming.

The new work is “a very nice result,” says John Turner, a renewable fuels expert at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado.

The transformation begins when CO2 is broken down into oxygen and CO, the latter of which can be combined with hydrogen to make a variety of hydrocarbon fuels. Adding four hydrogen atoms, for example, creates methanol, a liquid fuel that can power cars. Over the last 2 decades, researchers have discovered a number of catalysts that enable that first step and split CO2 when the gas is bubbled up through water in the presence of an electric current. One of the best studied is a cheap, plentiful mix of copper and oxygen called copper oxide. The trouble is that the catalyst splits more water than it does CO2, making molecular hydrogen (H2), a less energy-rich compound, says Michael Graetzel, a chemist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, whose group has long studied these CO2-splitting catalysts.

Here’s a signal of emerging new forms of prosthetics - either for mitigation of vision degeneration or perhaps later for enhanced vision.

Italian Researchers Develop Retina Implants That Could Completely Reverse Vision Loss

As part of a new research, a team of Italian scientists has successfully developed retinal implants that are capable of reversing vision loss in rats. Engineered to turn light into electrical signals for the neurons in the retina, these artificial implants could be of huge help in conditions that cause retinal degeneration. If everything goes according to plan, the new technology will be tested in humans towards the end of this year.

Made up of several million photoreceptor cells, the retina forms the innermost coating of the human eye. In case of retinitis pigmentosa (RP), a hereditary degenerative eye disorder, genetic mutations result in the progressive disintegration of rod photoreceptors leading to vision impairment and eventual blindness. In patients suffering from this condition, the retinal neurons surrounding the affected cells remain perfectly functional.

Here’s another signal of an emerging capacity to link robotics as a prosthetic extension of ourselves.
“This stretchable electronic fabric we developed has many practical uses,” said Michael McAlpine, a University of Minnesota mechanical engineering associate professor and lead researcher on the study. “Putting this type of ‘bionic skin’ on surgical robots would give surgeons the ability to actually feel during minimally invasive surgeries, which would make surgery easier instead of just using cameras like they do now. These sensors could also make it easier for other robots to walk and interact with their environment.”

3D-printed ‘bionic skin’ could give robots the sense of touch

A one-of-a-kind 3D printer built at the University of Minnesota can print touch sensors directly on a model hand.
Engineering researchers at the University of Minnesota have developed a revolutionary process for 3D printing stretchable electronic sensory devices that could give robots the ability to feel their environment. The discovery is also a major step forward in printing electronics on real human skin.

The research will be published in the next issue of Advanced Materials and is currently online.

The fascinating assemblages that are possible with bio-nano and 3&4D printing are beyond the limits of current imagination - however, the speed of progress continues to accelerate.
“Our new material provides support for the liquid silicone as it is 3D printing, allowing us create very complex structures and even encapsulated parts out of silicone elastomer,”

New 3D printing method promises vastly superior medical implants for millions

For the millions of people every year who have or need medical devices implanted, a new advancement in 3D printing technology developed at the University of Florida promises significantly quicker implantation of devices that are stronger, less expensive, more flexible and more comfortable than anything currently available.

In a paper published today in the journal Science Advances, researchers lay out the process they developed for using 3D printing and soft silicone to manufacture items that millions of patients use: ports for draining bodily fluids, implantable bands, balloons, soft catheters, slings and meshes.

Currently, such devices are molded, which could take days or weeks to create customized parts designed to fit an individual patient. The 3D printing method cuts that time to hours, potentially saving lives. What’s more, extremely small and complex devices, such as drainage tubes containing pressure-sensitive valves, simply cannot be molded in one step.
With the UF team’s new method, however, they can be printed.

The domestication of DNA is more complex than we imagine. And the need for medical professionals to access augmented reality and connections to AI becomes more evident as the data that are involved in diagnosis and treatment is growing exponentially.

Gut bacteria can stop cancer drugs from working

Presence of particular microbes or enzymes could explain why some treatments are ineffective for certain people.
In the quest for personalized therapies, most research has focused on how an individual’s genome controls their body’s responses to drugs. However, there is increasing evidence that a person’s unique microbiome — the population of bacteria and other microbes that live in their body — can be key to determining whether or not a drug works for their condition.

Researchers now have evidence that healthy people metabolize some drugs in different ways depending on their microbial make-up. They presented their data on 4 June at the meeting of the American Society for Microbiology in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Bacteria living in the human body will eat any nutrient that comes their way, whether it’s food from the host’s diet or a drug that the person is taking. But this dietary flexibility can become problematic if the microbes metabolize a drug into useless or toxic compounds.

This is definitely a weak signal - but could be very significant in the ‘post-Moore’s Law world’ and also highlights the importance of 2D materials (material only a few atoms thick).
"Although, this does of course seem modest when compared to the industry standards based on silicon, this is still a major breakthrough within this field of research. Now that we have a proof of concept, in principle there is no reason that further developments can't be made,"

Microprocessors based on a layer of just three atoms

Microprocessors based on atomically thin materials hold the promise of the evolution of traditional processors as well as new applications in the field of flexible electronics. Now, a TU Wien research team led by Thomas Müller has made a breakthrough in this field as part of an ongoing research project.

Two-dimensional materials, or 2D materials for short, are extremely versatile, although -- or often more precisely because -- they are made up of just one or a few layers of atoms. Graphene is the best-known 2D material. Molybdenum disulphide (a layer consisting of molybdenum and sulphur atoms that is three-atoms thick) also falls in this category, although, unlike graphene, it has semiconductor properties. With his team, Dr Thomas Mueller from the Photonics Institute at TU Wien is conducting research into 2D materials, viewing them as a promising alternative for the future production of microprocessors and other integrated circuits.

Microprocessors are an indispensable and ubiquitous component in the modern world. Without their continued development, many of the things we take for granted these days, such as computers, mobile phones and the internet, would not be possible at all. However, while silicon has always been used in the production of microprocessors, it is now slowly but surely approaching its physical limits. 2D materials, including molybdenum disulphide, are showing promise as potential replacements. Although research into individual transistors -- the most basic components of every digital circuit -- made of 2D materials has been under way since graphene was first discovered back in 2004, success in creating more complex structures has been very limited. To date, it has only been possible to produce individual digital components using a few transistors. In order to achieve a microprocessor that operates independently, however, much more complex circuits are required which, in addition also need to interact flawlessly.

Thomas Mueller and his team have now managed to achieve this for the first time. The result is a 1-bit microprocessor consisting of 115 transistors over a surface area of around 0.6 mm2 that can run simple programs.

Here’s a signal of the future - some of it is here but unevenly distributed. This is a very good accessible introduction to the topics - with a number of short videos and great graphics. As we learn to program Matter - we continue the human process of domesticating our world.

The Promise and Peril of Programmable Matter

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” - -Arthur C. Clarke
Programmable matter is essentially what it sounds like: matter that can change its physical properties, such as its shape or optical characteristics, based on a user’s input. This definition ranges from something as simple as liquid crystals, which can be altered by the application of an electric field, to something as sci-fi as the shape-shifting liquid metal T-1000 from The Terminator franchise.

Let’s take a look at some of the current research into programmable matter, and where it could eventually end up. We’ll begin by discussing two different engineering approaches to realizing programmable matter—modular robotics and metamaterials—and then consider how they might ultimately converge.

Algorithmic Intelligence is also seemingly progressing along Moore’s Law trajectories - bring revolutions in the capacity for integrating the brain, mind and digital environment. Here’s an anticipation of the capacity to read minds - with all the light and shadows it implies.

You Look Familiar. Now Scientists Know Why.

Researchers at CalTech were able to predict the appearance of faces shown to macaque monkeys simply by monitoring signals in their brains.  
The brain has an amazing capacity for recognizing faces. It can identify a face in a few thousandths of a second, form a first impression of its owner and retain the memory for decades.

Central to these abilities is a longstanding puzzle: how the image of a face is encoded by the brain. Two Caltech biologists, Le Chang and Doris Y. Tsao, reported in Thursday’s issue of Cell that they have deciphered the code of how faces are recognized.

Their experiments were based on electrical recordings from face cells, the name given to neurons that respond with a burst of electric signals when an image of a face is presented to the retina.

By noting how face cells in macaque monkeys responded to manipulated photos of some 2,000 human faces, the Caltech team figured out exactly what aspects of the faces triggered the cells and how the features of the face were being encoded. The monkey face recognition system seems to be very similar to that of humans.

Just 200 face cells are required to identify a face, the biologists say. After discovering how its features are encoded, the biologists were able to reconstruct the faces a monkey was looking at just by monitoring the pattern in which its face cells were firing.

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