Feb 5th 2009

Coming soon: a gadget that reads your mind

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”

 here.

When I got stopped by the police in downtown Bordeaux for running a red light last week, I was thinking "Don't you cops have anything better to do ?" But the words that came out of my mouth were a lot more conciliatory, something like "Sorry, I thought it was green."

The policewoman glared at me. Was she reading my mind? No, I guess not, because she just gave me a scolding. But in a few years she might actually carry a device that can read minds. Research is rapidly advancing on ways to allow brain decoding through scanning technology, and it scares me to death. I don't really want anyone else in my head, and certainly not the police.

How often are your thoughts and deeds truly in sync? Unless you are a sociopath, probably not very often. Society's conventions, your upbringing, good manners and plain animal caution prevent us from blurting out what's really on our minds.

But now scientists are at work cataloguing brain patterns to match up with actual words, sentences and intentions. One researcher explains, "You can train a computer to recognize the pattern associated with a particular thought."

Dozens of volunteers, including a few journalists, have been invited by Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to test the technology being developed there. A "60 Minutes" television producer underwent a scan before airing a segment on the American network CBS on the technology last month. Mark Roth, a writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette newspaper, did the same and wrote that the computer performed "nimbly". He said he was impressed.

Admittedly these early results only begin to show the way. The computer recognized that Roth was thinking of "corn" and not "chimney", "hammer" and not "house". But it's a start.

Now the team developing the technology is at work building up a data base of brain patterns that we all share privately inside our heads. Every thought that runs through our minds produces a pattern in the brain that can be viewed through functional magnetic resonance imaging.

At this stage, scanning requires the subject to lie motionless inside an MRI machine and answer questions while the brain is "virtually" dissected into slices. Brain specialists have already identified area in the brain where certain concepts are stored.

Scientists are thinking in terms of remote monitoring of brain patterns using mobile infra-red detectors and a headband.

The applications are as limitless as they are ethically worrisome. What does this do to human rights and especially the right to privacy? This cornerstone of civil liberty would have to be somehow protected or rethought.

Specifically, would international airports add these units to their panoply of fingerprint and headshot gadgetry already imposed on foreign visitors? Probably. Will police throw out their old lie detectors and go straight into the brain? Certainly.

Catholics believe that impure thoughts are as sinful as impure deeds. Will the priest zap your head in the confessional to find out just how perverse you are? Would the priest be subjected to the same treatment?

The computer software has been developed at Carnegie Mellon in a joint project between the psychology and computer science departments.

Dr. Marcel Just, head of the program, says it may take years, but the objective is to identify thoughts with the same precision that speech patterns can be identified today. A scientific paper on his team's findings was published last month in the journal PLoS One, claiming 78 percent accuracy.

The psychological novel has been playing around inside characters' heads for a couple of centuries. One of my favorite descriptions of the disconnect between thought and action is in Somerset Maugham's "Of Human Bondage". The hero, Philip Carey, a medical student, is upset over his unrequited love for a waitress named Mildred. Sitting opposite her, he imagines stabbing her in the throat with a butter knife, confident that he could find the carotid artery and put an end to his agony. What comes out of his mouth is: "I love you."

Maugham would have to rethink his dramatic little scene if Mildred got suspicious and strapped a headband on Philip.


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