Do you think a machine can read your mind?

Scientists have developed a machine that can essentially read people's thoughts, in the hopes of giving people who have lost their voice a new way to communicate

Eleanor Norton
24th February 2019
Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Scientists in the US and Japan have created breakthrough technology that can process human brain activity via brain scans and turn it into synthetic speech. The new device that can read minds by detecting brainwaves via brain scans has primarily been designed to enable people with locked-in syndrome to communicate.

The scientists now plan to develop a brain-computer interface that can recognise words that are merely thought and not spoken. This would allow people that are currently unable to speak, but have full cognitive function, to communicate with others around them. It’s hoped that the emerging technology would allow a natural interface of communication, for people with disabilities such as locked-in syndrome, with minimal limitations.

In the latest trials, an ‘electroencephalogram’ was used to monitor brain waves whilst participants spoke and their brain waves were matched to syllables and numbers. Although not 100% effective, the machine had a 90% success rate when trying to recognise numbers from zero to nine. The research group plans to develop a version of the device that can be easily operated with fewer electrodes and connected to smartphones within the next five years.

This isn’t the only possible application for this technology, however. For example, the car giant Nissan revealed that used as driver assisted technology, it could decrease driver’s reaction times by an entire second and anticipate acceleration, steering and braking by reading brainwaves and could be available in the immediate future. Used in cars, it could detect signs that the driver’s brain is about to start a movement, such as turning the wheel. This could dramatically help to reduce accidents on the road and save many lives.

Not only this, but, mind reading artificial intelligence could be used in the future to read the minds of criminals to determine whether they are guilty of knowingly committing a crime. This would be the first-time neurobiological readings alone have been used to determine guilt and it could impact how we judge criminal responsibility in the future. It could also examine whether developmental disorders and mental health conditions could impact upon decisions made by defendants in criminal cases.

Even social media giant Facebook has been developing its own mind-reading project. The platform is working on a way for users to send Facebook Messenger messages using thoughts alone. Microsoft is also developing a way to turn down the volume of music based on the mental activity of being irritated by loud noise. It could be used for any number of Microsoft-related products such as enhancing the accuracy of a mouse.

A team from the University of Oregon have been working on a similar project but with human faces. The researches selected 23 volunteers and were shown 1,000 colour photos of random faces whilst hooked up to a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine (fMRI) which detects neurological activity via measuring blood flow in the brain. The researchers assigned numbers to facial features and an artificial intelligence program took in a mathematical description of each face so that the AI could picture a face using a code. The machine managed to reconstruct each face based on activity from the angular gyrus which is involved in memories and the occipitotemporal cortex which processes visual cues.

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