The 13th Floor

New Device Brings Computers a Step Closer to Mind-Reading

While we’re not quite to the point where machines can read our thoughts (despite what the conspiracy theorists claim), this new development suggests the technology is getting closer to reality.

Currently under development at University of California San Francisco, a device known as a “neuroprosthesis” can actually recognize electrical impulses generated by the brain when the wearer hears certain combinations of words and phrases. The device doesn’t exactly enable a computer to read your thoughts… but it’s probably the first definitive step in that direction.

David A. Moses, co-author of a paper on the project, published the team’s findings in the Journal of Neural Engineering… and in a recent interview with Seeker, he explained how the device works.

“Each of the participants in this study listened to ten pre-recorded sentences multiple times,” he said. “Our software collected and processed each patient’s brain activity while the patient was listening to these sentences.” The program was then able to map the patterns of brain activity corresponding to these specific sentences, and “reliably predict which sentence the patient hears in real-time using only his or her brain activity.”

Moses noted how this technology could eventually be used to aid people with speech disorders — once it reaches the point where it can decode the words a subject is thinking about, it could help patients with these conditions to literally “think out loud,” possibly communicating with the world for the first time.

Image Credit: iStock/tinydevil

He did point out a slightly creepy downside to the experiment: the test subjects had electrodes surgically attached directly to their brains (as part of an unrelated treatment for epilepsy). The prosthesis was then attached to these electrodes, hard-wiring the subjects into the system.

But that’s just for the time being… researchers hope to develop a headset-style device that performs the same function without surgery.

Still, the big question is still on the table: will machines eventually be reading our thoughts, word-for-word?

“It’s unclear if a system like the one we designed will ever be very useful for reading thoughts,” Moses told Seeker, “if that is ever even possible.”