Thursday, February 2, 2012

One step closer to creating a mind-reading device

A device to read people's minds sounds like science fiction, but it is actually getting closer to reality. Scientists from the University of Berkely have developed a device that is able to discern words from analysing brain waves. It is the first step to getting a machine to retrieve people's thoughts. Luckily it does not work wireless, yet.

When we hear a word, signals are sent from the ear to the brain, where they are translated into specific brain waves. Because words are encoded in a specific way, decoding the brain waves could give us an approximation of what was heard. Electrodes were placed on a part of the brain involved with speech processing. They captured brain signals whereafter a computer tried to reverse them back into words. About 90 percent of the words that were heard by the participants in the study were successfully turned back into words.

Because speech and thought are hypothesized to be processed in the same way, scientists would be able to read minds using their method. If someone imagines speech, in their head, the machine ought to be able to read it. That opens up the way to a fully-fledged mind reading device, which aids people that are unable to speak or otherwise express their thoughts. However, the scientists think they need to make their technique more accurate first. A demonstration video gives an example of input of words and the sound that is made by the machine after reading the brain waves.

Using the mind-reading device is currently not all that pleasant. Surgeons need to drill a hole in the skull, to get the electrodes into the brain. That is why they used participants already undergoing brain surgery. Because it is not possible to attach electrodes on the skull and read brain waves, the device is currently not very useful in the clinic.

Because the mind-reading device requires a hole to be drilled in the skull and various electrodes attached to the brain, conspiracy theorists need not to worry about governments secretly stealing your thoughts. However, we continue to learn more about how brain signals relate to actions, or words, which means we are getting closer to a real mind-reading device. An example is a recent study in which a man was able to control a robot arm by merely using thoughts. Nevertheless, such equipment could prove to be a great benefit for people with diseases that leave them unable to speak. 

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