Some Small Steps for Mind Reading by Machines

Brain and Coke logoI’m not sure exactly why, but 2009 is shaping up to be a breakthrough year for mind reading by machines. A recent CBS News 60 Minutes item, broadcast on January 4th, 2009, looks at current research on using brain scanning (neuroscanning) technologies such as magnetoencephalography  (MEG), functional MRI (fMRI) and powerful computational approaches to determine what a subject is thinking about, whether they have previously been in a particular location, how they really feel about a product, or what their true intentions are.

Shari FinkelsteinCBS Interviewer Shari Finkelstein talked to several researchers in this field about how they are beginning to make sense of brain-scan images by relating them to stimulus images that subjects were asked to think about while being scanned. Carnegie Mellon researcher and psychologist Marcel Just demonstrates the use of fMRI scans and a specific algorithm he developed with co-researcher  Tom Mitchell, head of Carnegie Mellon’s School of Computer Science’s Machine Learning Department, to correctly identify ten items that a subject was asked to think about in random order.  Here’s a video of a “thought reading demonstration” done by Just and Mitchell, and an extended abstract by Tom Mitchell titled “Computational Models of Neural Representations in the Human Brain”, published in Springer’s Lecture Notes in Artificial Intelligence, 2008.

John-Dylan HaynesMs Finkelstein also interviewed John-Dylan Haynes, a researcher at Humboldt University’s  Bernstein Centre for Computational Neuroscience in Berlin about the use of fMRI to scan subjects’ brains as they moved through a virtual reality (VR) setting.  By monitoring the subject’s scans while specific rooms of the VR are replayed, researchers can reliably determine if the subject had visited that room – i.e. they can detect visual recognition of a previously-viewed scene.

Here’s a video lecture titled “Decoding Mental States from Human Brain Activity” given by Professor Haynes at a recent conference in Jerusalem (5th European Conference on Complex Systems – ECSS’08).  He uses Blood Oxygenation Level Dependent (BOLD-fMRI) imaging which can achieve a claimed 85% accuracy in determining what item a person is thinking about.  Interestingly, he mentions that there are only two “specialized”cortical modules in the brain for thinking about visual items – one for faces and one for houses.  All other thoughts are held as “distributed patterns of activity”, that can be decoded and read out, given the correct classification and decoding techniques.

Paul Wolpe Psychiatrist Paul Wolpe, Director of Emory University’s Center for Ethics in Atlanta, Georgia, discusses ethical and legal issues arising from mind-reading research with 60 Minutes in this video extract  The research has spawned a whole new field of legal study, known as “neurolaw”, which looks at subjects such as the admissibility of fMRI scans as lie-detection evidence in court.  Professor Wolpe is concerned that, for the first time in  history, science is able to access data directly from the brain, as opposed to obtaining data from the peripheral nervous system.

Gemma CalvertA new approach to selling, known as “neuromarketing”, makes use of neuroscans to determine subjects’ responses to visual or aural stimuli and the effect that has on their desire to purchase goods. Professor Gemma Calvert, Managing Director of Neurosense Limited, a market research consultancy,  specialises in the use of MEG and fMRI neuroscanning  techniques for marketing purposes, such as predicting consumer behaviour.

Dutch marketing researcher Tjaco Walvis concludes that the brain’s recognition and retrieval of information about brands occurs in the same way that a Google search engine retrieves links related to a search term.  Read a MarketWire article on his research here.

To me, this marketing application of what is essentially exciting science is getting a bit too close to the “dark side” for my liking.  In a previous article I mentioned the psychological and political aspects of applied neuroscience research, where brain monitoring is becoming an increasingly real possibility.  Paul Wolpe alludes to this when discussing  recent research into covert scanning devices that use light beams to scan an unsuspecting subject’s frontal lobe (see my previous post on Hitachi’s use of IR light to perform brain scans).  I suppose we should now add consumer monitoring to the list.

[images sourced from:  here (brain), here (Shari), here (Haynes), here (Wolpe) and here (Calvert)

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1 Response to “Some Small Steps for Mind Reading by Machines”



  1. 1 Depth Charge: 3D laptops and mobile phones « T3 Trackback on July 3, 2009 at 2:31 am

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