Communicating is such a nuisance. Form thoughts, translate them into words, move your mouth (or your fingers) to form the words, answer stupid questions when people don’t understand the words…It’s like, work – which is the least enjoyable activity known to man outside of retiling a shower wall.
Soon, though, thanks to research being conducted by some of our finest minds, physical communication may just be a thing of the past. Full-on, neurological mind-reading is on it’s way – now that’s what I’m talking…er, thinking about!
Thinking Your Way to a Better Tomorrow
We recently let you know about the Muse meditation headband (and smartphone app), the first product from brain-wave-reading innovator and cutting-edge tech leader InteraXon. The device pairing is capable of providing accurate and ongoing measurements of brain activity (to which a paired app dynamically responds) using entirely non-invasive technology. While that has some far-reaching implications, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Just last week, a new study published by some brainiacs at the University of Washington suggests that the science is even further along than we knew when it comes to not just reading brain activity, but interpreting thoughts from that activity, putting detailed thought-based communication closer to our grasp.
Rajesh Rao and Jeff Ojemann, respectively a computational neuroscientist and a neurosurgeon, are both part of the Program in Neurobiology and Behavior at UW. They conducted an experiment with seven epilepsy patients who had been fitted with temporary brain implants to monitor their brain activity as part of their treatment. The researchers wanted to see if they could get some other info out of the patients’ brain waves. They weren’t disappointed.
First, patients were shown a series of pictures, half of which were faces and half of which were houses. Their brain activity on viewing each picture was measured and analyzed, until the researchers had what they hoped were solid and distinct baselines for “face” and “house.” The patients were then shown pictures of faces and houses at random, with the computer trying to guess what they were looking at based on their brain waves.
The computer hit 96% accuracy the first time out of the gate.
According to the author’s summary:
We developed a novel template-projection method for analyzing the electrical potentials, where, for the first time, broadband spectral changes and raw potential changes could be contrasted as well as combined. Our analyses revealed that they carry different physiological information, and, when used together, allow for unprecedented accuracy and precision in decoding human perception.
In other words, if Miss Cleo had been half this good, she might still be around.
Riding the Waves
Advances in this area of “thought identification” have actually been progressing steadily for about a decade, including other studies of brain response to visual stimuli (including the ability to show moving images – albeit crude ones – that recreate visuals seen or imagined by research subjects based on nothing other than their brain activity).
One study published in 2012 shows that we’re even making headway in decoding actual words – real, natural language – simply from the thought patterns, without any actual speech required.
Combine all of this with the “Internet of Things,” real physical devices that can be controlled by electronic signals originating from anywhere in the world, and soon you might find yourself sending emails, ordering pizza, reorganizing your kitchen, or even retiling your shower wall with nothing more than a few focused thoughts.
You might also find that playing poker, lying to your boss, or being questioned by law enforcement changes significantly as well…
The world towards which we’re headed is one where thought translates seamlessly into action, for better and for worse. New vistas of laziness and privacy encroachment lie just beyond the horizon, and research is bringing them closer at an ever-increasing pace. Soon we’ll be able to forget conversations and physical interactions entirely…and the folks in the tinfoil hats will seem that much more sane.
At least we won’t have to worry about the NSA reading our emails anymore. They’ll know what we’re writing before we even hit “Send.”
Daniel A. Guttenberg is an Atlanta-based writer who fell into the startup world by accident and has been gleefully treading water ever since. He will be survived by his beard and his legacy of procrastination.