Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Imagine a device that could read its user’s thoughts and translate them straight to text. The words are never spoken, but instead pulled silently from the brain.
Twenty years ago, this may have seemed a nonviable notion, but with recent technological advancements, mind-reading is no longer a concept exclusive to science fiction.
Understanding of the human brain has picked up pace in the last decade due to the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a technique that maps brain activity based on patterns of blood flow. Using fMRI, researchers have been able to hone in on specific elements of brain activity, including emotions, intentions, and thoughts.
“That technique [fMRI] measures brain activity by identifying areas that are being fed oxygenated blood, which light up as colored blobs in the scans,” Scientific American explains.
“To analyze activity patterns, the brain is segmented into little boxes called voxels — the three-dimensional equivalent of pixels — and researchers typically look to see which voxels respond most strongly to a stimulus, such as seeing a face. By discarding data from the voxels that respond weakly, they conclude which areas are processing faces.”
In 2014, Yale researchers used fMRI data to produce groundbreaking results: facial reconstruction images based on pictures of faces, as viewed by another human subject.The reconstructed images are blurred and somewhat distorted, but they are undeniably images of human faces.
[contextly_sidebar id=”RK4clC8O6YD0nJcD63VQtbi28sZ7TQSo”]Despite the distorted outcomes of these facial images, scientists hope to see an increased level of accuracy as further advancements take place.
As research continues to facilitate the understanding of the human brain, scientists are not the only ones interested in mind-reading technologies. Large companies are now looking into this type of research to understand the consumer’s brain, and how to best appeal to it.
In a recent article, CNET reported that Disney has invested a few million dollars into FEM Inc., a company that tailors its videos to viewers’ interest based on brain research, and over $100,000 to Emotiv, a startup building a headset that can “control virtual objects with thoughts.”
According to the article, Disney is just one facet of a growing trend, as companies turn to brain science in order to combat the distractibility of their consumers in the era of digital multitasking. Understanding the consumer brain may help competitive retailers manipulate advertisements to keep viewers focused on their products.
Looking To the Future
While market manipulation may not be the most consumer favorable practice, other uses of mind-reading technology have the potential to make lives easier.
Brain-to-text devices could one day help people suffering from neurological disorders, giving them the ability to communicate despite being unable to move or speak. These devices, though still in the development process, have already shown the capability to use brain data to reconstruct speech.
Along with this, mind-reading devices could also help aid law enforcement in lie detection and criminal assessment, and in theory even act preventively to spot crimes before they are committed.
Though development on this front remains promising, the brain offers a high degree of variability, and standardization may be a big hurdle in creating devices for large scale use. As research continues, scientists are working to generalize mind-controlled products while taking into consideration the irregularities of the human brain.