Japan First to Invent a Mind-Reading Machine
"Locked-in syndrome" is arguably the worst possible outcome of a stroke. In this condition, a person is left with normal brain function but complete paralysis except for their eyes. They're conscious and aware of everything going on around them. They can feel. They can see. They can hear. They can think normally. But they can't move a muscle other than those which control their eyes — not even the ones which allow them to breathe and swallow. They're trapped in their own bodies, unable to communicate except through blinks and other eye movements, hence the term "locked-in syndrome."
Now imagine this: a person with locked-in syndrome is fitted with a special cap that allows him to simply think what he wants to say and have it appear on a computer screen. He still can't move, but he's no longer trapped in his own body. He can now communicate with the outside world.
A coma patient, wearing the same device and connected to a monitor, broadcasts his thoughts to a computer, allowing scientists to see just what goes on in the comatose brain. A child who is unable to speak is fitted with a pocket-sized device which translates his thoughts then uses text-to-speech technology to communicate with his family.
All these things sound like science fiction, but they may be entirely possible. And they might be coming sooner than you think. Researchers in Japan have created a "mind reading" computer — a device that can decode and identify words simply by having you think them. By reading your brain waves, it can translate the words you're thinking, whether you speak them aloud or not.
I find this both exhilarating and frightening.
The technology isn't ready for primetime yet — it only recognizes a few words right now. It's only been tested with Japanese words. And it's not one hundred percent accurate. But the implications are staggering. And the possibilities are huge.
The question is, will this be harnessed for good? Or for…something else?
Your brain: the new frontier for both medicine and the military
This is far from the first effort at "mind reading" or even computer-assisted "telepathy." Governments all over the world are researching these types of technologies for use in military settings. From mind-controlled drones to brain scanners in the hands of the TSA, the brain is the next frontier in warfare and "security."
DARPA — the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which is the research arm of the Pentagon — has been pouring money into such projects for years. They're more interested in brain implants and telepathically-controlled equipment than helping people with locked-in syndrome. However, they're willing to fund such research in order to get the technology. Other programs in the U.S. and across the world have involved sending images telepathically and reconstructing visual memories on film.
The new Japanese experiment, however, shows more concrete real-world potential than most of the other projects. A similar project conducted in the U.S. last year also attempted to decode what words people were thinking, but it involved putting sheets of electrodes directly on the brain. The Japanese project however, used no invasive techniques. Instead, it used a combination of an EEG and a computer.
An EEG is an electroencephalograph — a machine which records brain waves. It's a standard piece of hospital equipment that's used for mundane tasks like recording the brain activity of epileptics.In this project, researchers asked volunteers to speak a list of words while they measured their brain waves with an EEG. They found that not just each word but each separate syllable produced a different brain wave. The brain wave occurred as much as two seconds before the word was spoken.
By building a database of sounds, they found that they could match brainwave patterns to words — even if the word was never spoken aloud. They could also recognize single Japanese characters as much as 88% of the time. These aren't the same as western letters and correspond to distinct syllables.
The project only involved 12 volunteers. At present, the system only recognizes seven words. However, they plan to expand its vocabulary. It stands to reason that as more words and more brain patterns are added to the database accuracy will increase.
Are we headed for a new era of medicine, or Minority Report?
The possibilities for both help and harm with this type of technology are nearly limitless. Not only could it be a God-send for locked-in patients, it could also benefit those with a variety of brain injuries and diseases. Quadriplegics may one day be able to control robotics using only their minds. Those with brain diseases, like Stephen Hawking, who have lost the ability to move and speak could be restored some of their function. Healthy minds would no longer be trapped inside broken bodies.
On the other hand, the possibilities for evil are also nearly limitless. As the technology matures, will we see wireless brain-scanners as part of travel hub "security"? Will it become a tool of law enforcement? Will our cars be equipped with mind-reading technology? Will our "connected" devices be used to spy on us, like the NSA taps our phone lines and monitors our texts and emails?
Many of these things are being discussed as potential applications. It remains to be seen if this technology will be used for good, for evil, or for a combination of both. One thing is for sure: we live in a world where science fiction is fast becoming reality and our thoughts and memories may soon no longer be private.
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