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Friday, October 21, 2011

Mind Reading Technology is No Longer Fictional

The concept of mind-reading, telepathy, or the transference of thoughts from person to person without any direct communication between them, has been in existence for only a little over a century. The word ‘telepathy’ was coined by Frederick W. H. Myers in 1882 and has remained a concept with no scientific proof it could ever occur. During experiments, the subjects, who could supposedly communicate telepathically, would give subtle, nonverbal cues, such as tapping out Morse code with coins. Though Myers was wrong about mind-reading being possible through so-called psychic abilities, reading minds, nevertheless, is possible through the use of modern technology. Mind-reading is no longer fiction: it is a fact.

As a fanciful notion, mind-reading technology has been around a long time. In the year 1919, a whimsical article appeared in The Syracuse Herald entitled “This Machine Records All Your Thoughts”. The imaginary device would record one’s thoughts as fluctuating waves on a long roll of paper, similar to how a seismograph records earth tremors. What is more absurd about such a device is that a secretary had to interpret the waves scrawled on the roll and type out the corresponding words. It would seem more logical to simply dictate to the secretary the sentences one wanted to write.

Another early reference to mind-reading technology appeared in Isaac Asimov’s book “I, Robot”, which was published in 1950. A robot capable of reading people’s minds decides to only tell people what he knows they want to hear instead of answering truthfully. The scenario of the robot lying was used to demonstrate some of the possible ways Asimov’s three laws of robotics could be altered. These laws were his idea for general principles robots should be programmed to have.

Though Asimov’s mind-reading robot is fictional, mind-reading technology is not. In 2007, a team of neuroscientists performed an experiment using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner. Volunteers were asked to decide whether to add or subtract two numbers which were to later appear on a screen. Before the numbers appeared, each volunteer had a brain scan. Using the data obtained from the scans, the scientists could be used a special computer program to predict what choice each volunteer would make. The predictions were correct 70 percent of the time.

Another brain-scanning technology allows scientists to reconstruct images a person has seen. A team of researchers, at the University of California, Berkeley, headed by Jack Gallant, a neuroscientist, has conducted an experiment where they had participants view brief video clips from YouTube. Using advanced computer software, images seen in the brains of the participants could be reconstructed. A computer matched reconstructed images taken from the participants’ brains with images from the YouTube videos. Though the reconstructed images looked blurry and more like modern art, they did resemble the images from the YouTube videos.

Reconstructing images from the brain is just the beginning of the technological mind-reading trend. Mind-reading applications are being sold at the Apple App Store. One application (or app) called “W.I.L.D.” allows players to do activities such as extinguishing fires, walking through landscapes, and bending spoons. By using a special set of headphones that acts like an electroencephalograph (EEG) machine, brain activity is recorded and sent to a portable device, such as an iphone. The program can detect a change in brain activity, such as concentration or relaxation and used both states to control the games in the application.

Such technology, or similar technology, has potential for many other uses. One, in particular, is a wheelchair for disabled people who do not have the use of their arms. Toyota, a car manufacturer, and RIKEN, a research lab, have partnered to design and build an electric wheelchair that responds to thought commands. The user of the wheelchair wears a cap filled with sensors monitoring his or her brainwaves. By thinking a clear and straightforward command such as “turn left” or “turn right” the user can navigate the wheelchair without touching a single control. This mind-reading technology is now being applied to the auto industry.  (Continued on the next page)

Researchers at EFPL in Switzerland are incorporating the technology of a mind-controlled wheelchair they created into a new project to build a computer system that can anticipate an automobile driver’s intentions. If, for example, a driver wants to slow down for a turn, the car will begin to decelerate before the driver puts his or her foot on the break petal. According to José del R. Millán, a leader of the research project, the reason for the project is to harmonize the driver/vehicle relationship for better efficiency.

Where technology progresses from here remains to be seen, but there are many possible outcomes for the future. One possible outcome might be a mind-reading computer interface for personal computers, phones, cars, and household appliances. Imagine waking up from sleep one morning and thinking, “Turn on the light”. Instantly, the bedroom light glows to life. Once you have finished breakfast, you hop into your car and drive all the way to work without using the steering wheel, gas pedal, or breaks. As you step inside your office, you think, “Computer, turn on.” Your desktop computer boots up and once it is ready, you mentally log on.

Another possibility is that the internet itself becomes a virtual reality network connecting billions of minds and machines together. By simply wearing a special cap over your head, and closing your eyes, you may be able to see a three-dimensional construct in your brain. You could access a search engine, send messages, watch three-dimensional movies, and explore virtual worlds in your mind. The cap would monitor your brain activity while simultaneously stimulating certain areas of your brain, such as the visual cortex, to create the virtual construct in your brain. The cap would be connected to a wireless network of computers and other users. Thoughts and ideas could be shared instantly and with little or no difficulty. To leave the virtual world, you simply remove the cap and open your eyes.

The downside of such technology would be the likelihood that people would become addicted to it and would cease to function normally in the real world. Scientists are still learning about the brain and how it functions. Extended periods of stimulation by an electrical device and extensive amounts of time spent in a virtual reality simulation may have unforeseen, adverse effects on health. The implications of mind-reading technology may include a loss of mental privacy since your thoughts might be recorded and seen by many other individuals without your knowledge or consent. Whether this happens or not, mind-reading technology is being slowly introduced into society. It is no longer just the figment of a creative mind; mind-reading technology is a reality.

In summary, the concept of mind-reading technology has existed for a long time, but before the 2000s, mind-reading technology had been entirely fictional. Today, with modern computer software and brain scanners, scientists have developed mind-reading devices, or devices which read and interpret the activity of the brain. Such technology has much potential to enhance living standards, but also possesses the potential for causing harm. How scientists use their resources to effectively manage their creations will affect the future, positively or negatively. We can hope that they make wise decisions.

 Works Cited

"This Machine Records All Your Thoughts (1919)." Paleo-Future. 18 May 2007. 19 Oct. 2011 <>.

“Telepathy.” Robert T. Carroll. 12 Sep. 2010. Robert T. Carroll. 20 Oct. 2011 <>.

Clarke, Roger. "Asimov's Laws of Robotics: Implications for Information Technology." 27 Jan. 1994. Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd. 20 Oct. 2011 <>. 

"Bibliography: I, Robot." No Date. Al von Ruff. 20 Oct. 2011 <>.

Sample, Ian. "The brain scan that can read people's intentions." 8 Feb. 2007. Guardian News and Media Ltd. 19 Oct. 2011 <>. 

Ritter, Malcolm. “Mind-reading technology reconstructs videos from brain.” 23 Sep. 2011. Fairfax Media. 19 Oct. 2011 <>.

"Mind controlled apps hit the market." 14 April 2011. Los Angeles Times. 19 Oct. 2011 <>.

Hornyak, Tim. "Brain-Controlled Wheelchair Is '95 Percent Accurate.'" 2 July 2009. National Geographic Society. 20 Oct. 2011 <>. 

Boyle, Rebecca. "Nissan Developing Mind-Reading Cars That Anticipate Drivers' Next Moves and Act Accordingly." 28 Sep. 2011. Bonnier Corporation. 19 Oct. 2011 <>.


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