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At Yale University, researchers recently used a brain scanner to identify which face someone was looking at — just from their brain activity. At the University of California-Berkeley, scientists are moving beyond "reading" simple thoughts to predicting what someone will think next.
And at Carnegie Mellon, in Pittsburgh, cognitive neuroscientist Marcel Just has a vision that will make Google Glass seem very last century. Instead of using your eye to direct a cursor — finding a phone number for a car repair shop, for instance — he fantasizes about a device that will dial the shop by interpreting your thoughts about the car (minus the expletives).
"In principle, our thoughts could someday be readable," said Just, who directs the school's Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging. "I don't think we have to worry about this in the next 5-10 years, but it's interesting to think about. What if all of our thoughts were public?"
He can imagine a terrifying version of that future, where officials read minds in order to gain control over them. But he prefers to envision a more positive one, with mind reading devices offering opportunities to people with disabilities — and the rest of us.
In his experiment, an undergraduate working in his lab developed a mathematical model to allow a computer to recognize different parts of faces. Then, by scanning the brains of volunteers as they looked at different faces, the researchers trained the computer to interpret how each volunteer's brain responded to different faces. Lastly, the volunteers were asked to look at new faces while in a brain scanner — and the computer could distinguish which of two faces they were observing. It was correct about 60-70% of the time.
"This will allow us to study things we haven't studied before about people's internal representation of faces and memories and imagination and dreams — all of which are represented in some of the same areas we use to reconstruct faces," said Alan Cowen, who led the research as a Yale undergraduate and is now a graduate student researcher at Berkeley.
“There’s a wide variation in how people’s brains work under a scanner – some people have better brains for fMRI – and so if you were to pick a participant at random it might be that their reconstructions are really good, or it might be that their reconstructions are really poor, which is why we averaged across all the participants,” Cowen said.