Mind reading is now a fact. After years of research, a team of researchers has succeeded in generating written text based on brainwaves. Will everyone soon be able to put together a book, or will secret services abuse this technique?
Our brains produce a pattern of brain waves, very weak electromagnetic fields that can be measured with an electroencephalometer. Every thought has a unique pattern. As early as 2011, researchers have succeeded to dream to read. They shared this by showing subjects images and storing the brainwave patterns that occurred. If the same brainwave patterns occurred during the dream, the researchers knew that these images were part of the dream. Now another group has applied a similar technique.
All language consists of sounds, phonemes. These are vowels and consonants. We use the Latin alphabet to represent these phonemes. The Latin alphabet is less suitable for displaying tone languages (Chinese, Vietnamese, Igbo) and click languages (Xhosa, Khoisan languages), for example. It is important that we think in terms of sounds. When you think of the word 'panorama', you hear this word in your head, as it were. Or you see the letters. This also produces a certain brainwave pattern. This brainwave pattern can be read. Although our brains are largely the same in structure from person to person, the way we encode engrams differs from person to person. That means that if we think of a certain pattern, different brainwaves are created for every person. Mind reading must therefore be individually trained for each person. Fortunately, the number of phonemes is limited. All sounds in Dutch can be described, for example, by about forty phonemes. That is, you could train such a system by distinguishing 40 groups of brain waves. In the English, in which this research has been conducted, there are a comparable number of sounds.
Ninety percent confidence in mind reading
In the trial, the subjects read ten short sentences in their minds. Their brainwaves were recorded. In the test setup, the researchers were able to recognize ninety percent of the 'thought phonemes' in a sample of ten short English sentences, in real time. This succeeded after just seven minutes of training using a neural network and a heavy new Linux-based PC. For this they used the open source scikit-learn software package (written in the language Python), which learned to associate the stored brainwave patterns with the phonemes. Obviously, it is relatively easy to distinguish ten sentences from each other. The technique only becomes really interesting when individual phonemes can also be accurately distinguished from each other. Then I could write this article at thinking speed, which is about ten times faster than my typing speed.
Rescue for paralyzed patients
The late Stephen Hawking, as well as thousands of others, could, resp. can only communicate by moving their eyes. If there was a device to convert their brainwaves into spoken and written text, it would break their isolation. They could then speak and type. In improved versions, even the intonation of the voice can be controlled by brainwaves. They could operate their exoskeleton with their brain.
Mind reading dangers
Unfortunately there are also dangers with this technique. Die Gedanken sind frei is a well-known German proverb. That is now going to change completely within ten years. If secret services succeed in improving this technique so that they can read the minds of prisoners, it will provide dictatorial regimes - in practice almost all governments - with chilling power. From a futurological perspective, our computers are currently hopelessly primitive. Around 2029 you can buy as much computing capacity for a thousand euros as the 'raw power' of the human brain. Computers will then be about a thousand times faster than now, if Moore's Law continues.
Brainwaves of sufficiently accurate quality can now only be received by sensitive electrodes placed under the skull by surgery, as in the two epilepsy patients who participated as volunteers in this trial. Of course, a somewhat nasty regime does not turn its hand for such an intervention. By using (not yet existing) room temperature SQUIDs or such extremely sensitive measuring equipment, brainwaves could also be read at a greater distance. Hide an EEG meter in a budget VR helmet and play test sentences during the intro of a free VR game supplied and voilà. Mind reading then becomes a breeze. Are wearers of alu hats not as crazy as we think? Interesting times ...
David Al. Moses et al., Real-time classification of auditory sentences using evoked cortical activity in humans, DOI: 10.1088 / 1741-2552 / aaab6f, Journal of Neural Engineering, 2018