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MH 370 mystery: Pilot call… who, why, what?

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The denied phone call of the co-pilot of the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 Fariq Abdul Hamid, has now drawn his brother into the fray. According to a report on the asiaone website, Afiq Abdul Hamid, 20, said the last time he spoke to his brother was a week before the incident, adding that he did not know who Fariq could have been trying to contact. The report quoted Afiq, a chemical engineering student, as saying the revelation came as a surprise to him and his family. Despite an official denial by the Malaysian authorities, it i9s learnt that investigators are poring over this discovery. Malaysia on Sunday rejected claims that phone calls were made from Flight MH370 before it vanished, but refused to rule out any possibility in a so far fruitless investigation into the jet’s disappearance. The New Straits Times, quoting an anonymous source, had reported Saturday that co-pilot Fariq Abdul Hamid made a call which ended abruptly, possibly “because the aircraft was fast moving away from the (telecommunications) tower”.

There had also been unconfirmed reports of calls by the Malaysia Airlines plane’s captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah before or during the flight. Malaysian Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told reporters Sunday that authorities had no knowledge of any calls from the jet’s cockpit.

“As far as I know, no,” he said when asked if any calls had been made.

However, he added that he did not want to speculate on “the realm of the police and other international agencies” investigating the case.

“I do not want to disrupt the investigations that are being done now not only by the Malaysian police but the FBI, MI6, Chinese intelligence and other intelligence agencies,” he said at a press conference in Kuala Lumpur.

Hishammuddin also said no passenger on the plane had been cleared in the criminal investigation into the fate of the flight, clarifying an earlier indication from Malaysia’s police chief. “The Inspector-General of Police said at that particular point in time there is nothing to find suspicion with the passenger manifesto but… unless we find more information, specifically the data in the black box, I don’t think any chief of police will be in a position to say they have been cleared.” The police chief also clarified last week that passengers had not categorically been cleared since the investigation was ongoing.

Pilots under scrutiny

Pilots Fariq and Zaharie have come under intense scrutiny since the plane vanished en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people on board on March 8, with still no clue as to the cause of the disappearance. Investigators last month indicated that the flight was deliberately diverted and its communication systems manually switched off as it was leaving Malaysian airspace, triggering a criminal investigation by police which has revealed little so far. Several theories have been put forward, including hijacking, a terrorist plot or a pilot gone rogue. But authorities are grasping at straws as to the fate of the plane without crucial data from the jet’s “black box” flight recorder, which has yet to be located, and without any wreckage.

Several sonic ‘pings’ which authorities have said are consistent with a black box have been detected by ships in the search area in the remote southern Indian Ocean, off the west coast of Australia. But Australia’s Joint Agency Coordination Centre, which is leading the search, said Sunday that another 24 hours had passed without a confirmed signal, increasing fears that batteries in the beacons attached to the plane’s two black boxes may now have run flat.

The last pings were detected on Tuesday.

As the search prepares to move underwater – in the approximate area, inch by inch of seabed, every new conspiracy angle is having to be denied by authorities. No closure on the case will continue to keep the media, private eyes and internet analysis probing. Here are the key theories and denials as we head into the ‘long search’ phase of the hunt for the missing plane.

Diego Garcia

The co-pilot of missing flight MH370 made a call from his mobile phone while the aircraft flew low over the west coast of Malaysia. So did he fly to the isolated Indian Ocean atoll of Diego Garcia? The US has denied reports the plane landed at a military base on Diego Garcia. A spokesman for the US embassy in the Malaysian capital denied the allegation. Quoted in Malaysia’s Star newspaper, the spokesman said: “There was no indication that MH370 flew anywhere near the Maldives or Diego Garcia. MH370 did not land in Diego Garcia.”

Mangosteens

One angle of the probe has been to take a fine comb to the cargo that was on board MH370. A shipment of mangosteens drew particular public interest. So much so that police, in a report on asiaone, clarified that the supplier of the cargo of mangosteens on board missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 was from one particular area, but the fruits were not actually from there.

The fruits were gathered from various orchards across the country, the report said, quoting Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Khalid Abu Bakar Khalid was asked to clarify the origins of the fruits after a report from a local daily which quoted a top agricultural official claimed that according to their records, no orchards in the state had produced the shipment that was allegedly part of the cargo on board MH370.

Jets scrambled, not

Military aircraft were not deployed to chase down Malaysian Airlines (MAS) flight MH370 when the plane went missing on the morning of March 8, Malaysian Defence Minister has had to clarify according to the website asiaone. Hishammuddin Hussein clarified to deny a CNN report which cited an unnamed senior Government official as claiming that Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) fighter jets were scrambled at around 8am on March 8 to track down MH370.

No calls made

There are no reports of phone calls made during the flight from any passengers or crew of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, the Malaysian Department of Civil Aviation (DCA) director-general Datuk Azharuddin Abdul Rahman has said. Azharuddin said there were no reports of calls made by the passengers or crew members of the flight after the plane went missing from the radar, including by co-pilot Fariq Abdul Hamid, according to a report carried on asiaone. Malaysia is focusing its criminal investigation on the cabin crew and the pilots of the plane — 53-year-old captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah and 27-year old Fariq — after clearing all 227 passengers of any involvement, police have said.

Black box over, and out?

Batteries in the black box recorder are already past their normal 30-day life, making the search to find it on the murky sea bed all the more urgent. Once they are confident they have located it, searchers then plan to deploy a small unmanned “robot” known as an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle. “Work continues in an effort to narrow the underwater search area for when the Autonomous Underwater Vehicle is deployed,” the Australian agency coordinating the search said on Saturday. “There have been no confirmed acoustic detections over the past 24 hours,” it said in a statement. The black box records data from the cockpit and conversations among flight crew and may provide answers about what happened to the plane, which flew thousands of kilometres off course after taking off.

The search area

Analysis of satellite data has led investigators to conclude the Boeing 777 crashed into the ocean somewhere west of the Australian city of Perth. So far, four “ping” signals, which could be from the plane’s black box recorders, have been detected in the search area in recent days by a US Navy “Towed Pinger Locator”. “We are now getting to the stage where the signal from what we are very confident is the black box is starting to fade and we are hoping to get as much information as we can before the signal finally expires,” Abbott said on Friday. The US supply ship USNS Cesar Chavez has joined the Australian-led task force to provide logistics support and replenish Australian navy ships, a Pentagon spokesman said. Up to nine military aircraft, one civil aircraft and 14 ships were scouring a 41,393 sq km (25,720 sq mile) patch of desolate ocean some 2,330 km (1,445 miles) northwest of Perth. The extensive search and rescue operation has so far included resources from 26 countries. Australia’s Ocean Shield, which has the towed pinger locator on board, is operating in a smaller zone, just 600 sq km (232 sq miles) about 1,670 km (1,040 miles) northwest of Perth. That is near where it picked up the acoustic signals and where dozens of sonobuoys capable of transmitting data to search aircraft via radio signals were dropped on Wednesday. Experts say the process of teasing out the signals from the cacophony of background noise in the sea is slow and exhausting. An unmanned submarine named Bluefin-21 is on board the Ocean Shield and could be deployed to look for wreckage on the sea floor some 4.5 km (2.8 miles) below the surface once a final search area has been identified

Scan a brain, read a mind?

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Top row: Images of faces. Bottom row: Reconstructed images based on brain activity

What we write online may be intercepted, filtered and publicized, but we’d like to think that the thoughts and images in our heads are totally private. For better or worse, science may change that. Over the last few years, researchers have made significant strides in decoding our thoughts based on brain activity. How this would work is still at the very early stages of development. But, given what we can already do, it’s not a huge leap to imagine that one day we could read the words of people’s internal streams of thought, said Jack Gallant, a prominent neuroscientist at the University of California, Berkeley.

“I think decoding the little person in your brain — we could do that today if we had a good enough method of measuring your brain activity,” Gallant said. Gallant predicts that in 50 years, thought-reading will be commonplace. We’ll be wearing “Google Hats,” he envisions, that are continuously decoding our thoughts. Such a wonder-cap might transmit and even translate our thoughts into foreign languages.

But Dr. Josef Parvizi, a Stanford University neurologist who also studies the relationship between brain and mind, is much more skeptical. “In order to really read thoughts with methods that are noninvasive, we have a long way to go,” he said. “I think it is unwise and simply false to give the general public the impression that we are about to be able to read minds.”

What you need to read thoughts

There are several limitations on “mind reading” directly from the brain, Gallant said. You need good mathematical models of brain function and high-speed computing. But the biggest challenge right now is measuring brain activity. Scientists can measure electrical activity with EEG (electroencephalography) and changes in blood oxygen use with fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging). But these are really crude measurements of what’s happening inside the brain. EEG is a two-dimensional, limited signal from the brain. And fMRI is like measuring the total electricity usage in your office at specific times to figure out what’s going on at everyone’s desk, Gallant said. That wouldn’t tell you what any particular person is working on; it’s just a rough overall description of changes.

“The most optimistic estimates are that you can recover one one-millionth of the information that’s available in the brain at any given point in time,” Gallant said. “It’s probably smaller than that. So, where we are today is just measuring a pale shadow of what you could potentially measure, if you had a better measurement technology.”

Meanwhile, Parvizi’s lab explores the brain with a completely different technique, making use of electrodes implanted in the brains of patients with severe epilepsy to do direct neural recordings at the brain’s surface. His group wants to know the specific functions of different brain areas so when surgeons cut out parts responsible for seizures, they know what to avoid. This method, however, has so far not extracted the actual content of thoughts and memories, and may not be generalizable to non-epileptic patients.

What we can do now

Despite these limitations of brain activity measurement, scientists have already been able to achieve remarkable results. For instance, using fMRI scans, scientists can reconstruct a face that a person is viewing, as reported in a March 2014 study in the journal Neuroimage. The study was led by Alan Cowen, then an undergraduate at Yale University, who now studies with Gallant in graduate school. Researchers analyzed how subjects responded to 300 faces while receiving fMRI scans, creating a statistical “library” of the way the brain reacts to facial images. They then used a computer algorithm to generate a mathematical description of the faces based on brain activity patterns.

Then, researchers scanned the six participants again while they viewed a new set of faces. By comparing the fMRI data from the 300 faces to the new scans, scientists were able to digitally draw the second set of faces that the participants saw based on brain activity. The computer-reconstructed faces were not exact, but people were able to identify them, and researchers could sufficiently compare the pixel information between the reconstructions and originals by computer, accurately matching them between 60% and 70% of the time. Marvin Chun, professor of psychology at Yale who co-authored the study, said it could have applications for studying disorders where perception of faces is impaired, such as prosopagnosia‎ and autism. “We’re very excited about it, because any increasing ability to read out activity from the brain and map it onto something useful like faces is going to have very broad usage scientifically,” Chun said.

Can brain scientists read your mind?

Scientists are also looking at how two brains can communicate with each other. A group at the University of Washington demonstrated last year that by sending brain signals over the Internet, one scientist could control another scientist’s hand motion. But the recipient of the signal was not actively interpreting it; true two-way brain communication has been achieved in mice not but yet humans. Neither Gallant nor Parvizi are primarily interested in decoding thoughts. Their fundamental goals involve understanding how the brain does what it does. Nonetheless, their research has generated a lot of interest, and also hype about mind reading that is concerning to Parvizi. “I don’t think it serves science well, and I don’t think it makes the general public appreciate how difficult it is to really understand the operation of the human brain,” Parvizi said.

The future

Beyond the novelty of “thinking” an e-mail, there are other important applications to this line of research. Thought-directed wheelchairs, artificial limbs and other assistance devices would be a huge benefit to people with paralysis and other disabilities. Scientists are making strides in this area in small studies. Gallant’s group is working on modeling how the brain responds to language and represents language in your mind. Chun is working on studying attention, looking at what happens when people’s minds are wandering out of “the zone” of experience. Then there’s the problem of memory, which Parvizi is working on: How your brain retrieves memories from the past. “We can accurately decode that the patient is retrieving memories but we cannot decipher the memory content,” he said. The issue of mind reading brings up important ethical and public policy questions about privacy. Who can have access to your thoughts, and can you choose to keep certain things to yourself, or will even your strangest dreams be readily accessible? How will we control the use of mind-reading devices?

The actual technology may be far off, but Gallant insisted, “We need to start thinking about this now.”

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