Machines That Read Your Mind

In the 1980’s, the MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) made the human brain visible in ways never seen before. Doctors were able to see brain structure and the soft brain tissue of a living object. This type of detail was only seen previously during autopsies.

During the 90’s, the fMRI (functional MRI) came into its own. The fMRI detects blood flow revealing brain activity which makes it possible to identify which parts of the brain react to scent, visual recognition or even sound.

The fMRI is in transition once again. Though still in development, the fMRI will soon allow scientists to track the condition of our mind with more precision. As researchers analyze the vast amount of data generated by brain scans coupled with the latest computational techniques including Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, scientists are beginning to resolve how our physical brains form our mind.

The research may have a significant impact on marketing, police work and computer interfacing and may even allow the preservation of memories even after an individual has passed.

Some mental functions activate several parts of the brain at the same time. The fMRI can detect that activation and machine learning deciphers patterns into specific descriptions that include what a subject is thinking or doing. In an article published in the WSJ by Jerry Kapalan, Kaplan said’ “It’s like going from identifying individual letters to reading words and sentences.” That’s big!

Studies show that people’s brains organize and process the same information in similar ways. Collaborators in a 2011 study were able to correctly identify which of eight mental tasks a subject was performing 80% of the time, based solely on looking at their brain scans.

The evolution of brain reading continues with Functional Near-Infrared Spectroscopy (fNIRS). This emerging functional neuroimaging technology offers a relatively non-invasive, safe, and low-cost method of monitoring brain activity. fNIRS is the measurement of near infrared (NIR) light that takes advantage of the optical window in which skin, tissue, and bone are mostly transparent while blood flow is a stronger absorber of light allowing for a more in depth reading of brain functionality.

The ability to decipher this type of technology raises questions about the privacy of our thoughts. It may lead to a world where our mind is subject to a search warrant or become a matter of public record leaving the ever pressing question of who should have access to those thoughts, and how they should be used.

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