Mind-Reading Technology… It’s Coming for Us!
Even though it’s now 2020, mind-reading technology sounds like something out of a sci-fi film, and not something that could soon come to affect our day to day lives. It has the potential to be life changing for those suffering from neurological conditions which affect speech, but research into such technology is also being funded by big companies such as Facebook. It is argued that a shift to brain-computer interfaces (BCI) will provide a revolutionary way to for us to communicate with our devices and with one another. It will serve as a direct line between our brains and our machines.
However, is this a total invasion of our inner most private thoughts? Will this allow big companies, hackers and governments to exploit us? Or does this offer up a wide number of exciting opportunities, and bring greater convenience to our daily lives? Imagine being able to open your car door using just your mind, being able to control video game characters through just thought alone, being able to search for new slot sites to play without having to click a single button on your key pad.
A BCI, simply put, is a device that enables direct communication between the brain and a machine. This technology is able to work because of the way our brains function. Our brains are made up of neurons, individual nerve cells joined together by dendrites and axons. Each time we possess information, through thinking, feeling, or recalling a memory, our neurons are at play. The small electric signals which work to transfer mental information are generated by differences in electric potential, carried by ions on the membrane of each neuron. The paths that the signals take are encased by myelin, but some of the signals still escape, and it is these signals that scientists and researchers can detect, interpret their meaning, and use to direct a device of some kind, whether that will eventually be your car door, computer searches or video game set up.
However, decoding these signals is exceedingly difficult, as they are generally noisy. Over the past twenty years there have been some successes in decoding sensory-motor signals into arithmetic commands. This has enabled impressive accomplishments within the field, such as moving a cursor across a computer screen using just the mind.
Despite these successes, other forms of cognitions, like speech, have remained too challenging to effectively decode until much more recently. Back in April 2019, researchers at the University of California issued their results of a successful attempt at decoding neural activity into speech, using a deep-learning power BCI.
In the research carried out by the team, small electronic arrays were directly placed on the brains of five participants. Their brain activity was recorded, as was the movements of their mouths, tongues and jaws as they read aloud from children’s books. Two algorithms were trained from this recorded data, one learning how facial muscles moved in response to brain signals, the other learning how these movements of the face became audible speech. Participants of the study were then again asked to read from the same children’s books but miming the words this time instead of actually saying them aloud. The system was able to decipher what the participants were saying using only the data that had been recorded from neural activity, and the system was also able to produce comprehensible artificial versions of the gestured sentences. The researchers at university are now currently experimenting with higher-density electrode arrays and more advanced machine learning algorithms that they hope will improve the synthesized speech even further.
Whilst the medical advantages of mind-reading technology are perhaps more obviously understood as beneficial, the use of the technology by big companies such as Facebook appears to be much more worrying to many of us, especially considering the fact that there are currently no laws to protect our inner most thoughts from invasion. Many of us have had freaky experiences where we have been talking about going away to a certain place or buying a certain branded item. The next thing we know, there’s an ad on our newsfeed for that very item or place we were discussing, leaving us feeling like our phones have been listening to us. Would things get even freakier if our phones could read our thoughts too?
Facebook, however, have stated that their goal in relation to mind-reading tech only involves the vision of its users being able to type, scroll and “like” using just their thought, which we have to admit sounds pretty cool and innovative.
In reality, mind-reading tech is likely be much more exciting and beneficial than it is creepy and invasive. There are undoubtedly lots of uses for it, but we might still have to wait a little while longer before we start experiencing them.