Telepathy machine reads language of the mind

An incredible mind reading machine has reconstructed speech from signals in the brain. It sounds like science fiction – but telepathy could one day become science fact.

The mind of the individual has always been a closed book. Hidden beneath the bony armour of the skull, the complicated and intricate workings of the brain produce thoughts, ideas and emotions that can be kept totally invisible to the world outside.

Today, all that could be about to change. In a series of extraordinary experiments, scientists have used electronic sensors to translate the hidden language of the brain into words everyone can understand.

How? After playing sound recordings of words to patients, Brian Pasley, a neuroscientist at the University of California, measured the signals the brain produced. Then, the unique frequencies and lengths of the signals were matched with the words that made them. Using this information, a computer was able to translate brain signals back into spoken words.

Measuring brain activity is nothing new. But until now, it has been like an advanced and mysterious language. Scientists could read it, but did not understand what it meant.

In this latest study, however, Pasley was able to place electrodes directly on patients’ brains, giving amazingly precise data on signals. By matching precise readings of signals with the words that created them, he is making the first steps in creating a dictionary of the mind.

And if we know what brain signals mean, reading minds could be just around the corner. On a neurological level, listening to words is thought to involve very similar processes to imagining them. If Pasley’s computer can use brain signals to identify the words people hear, it could also use them to find out their thoughts.

The consequences of this could be enormous. Researchers are already able to read simple brain signals to allow paralysed people to perform basic tasks, like controlling a wheelchair. If scientists could get better at reading more complex signals, people who cannot move or speak could communicate using the power of thought alone.

A dangerous technology?

Giving voice to the voiceless, however, isn’t the only possible use for this knowledge. Mind-reading, critics point out, could be used in all sorts of sinister ways, from spying to military interrogation. The mind is our most treasured and private possession; once we start decoding its language, we risk giving anyone access to our most private thoughts.

Such worries, researchers say, are overblown. For people with illnesses like locked-in syndrome, this mental communication could be the difference between agonising isolation and a full, happy life.

You Decide

  1. Do the potential benefits of mind-reading technology outweigh the risks?
  2. Should scientists be responsible for if other people use their research to immoral ends?

Activities

  1. Create a labelled diagram of how you think a mind-reading device might look and work.
  2. Imagine a future in which mind-reading technology is used in people’s everyday lives. Write a short story about an interesting scenario that arises from this.

Some People Say...

“Mind reading technology could be more dangerous than the atom bomb.”

What do you think?

Q & A

So could this really have an impact on my day to day life?
We’re talking pretty far in the future with this. The experiments, after all, only reproduced very rough versions of heard sounds. And they required the patients to have part of theirskulls removed, so electrodes could be attached to their brains. Such extremes are unlikely to be very useful in our daily lives.
How might it change our views about how the mind works?
As well as practical implications, it raises philosophical questions, too. The more we find out about the extent to which neurological activity defines what we think and do, the more people begin to question what it really is that makes humans human. After all, if our experience of listening can be explained by electrical signals, what about deeper experiences – like hope, love or sadness?

Word Watch

Frequencies
Frequency, measured in hertz, is used to analyse the number of repetitions in a given amount of time. In sounds, this dictates how high or low a noise is. When we hear sounds, information including frequency and rhythm is interpreted by the brain, and converted to signals which have their own unique frequency.
Neurological
From the Greek word neuro, meaning ‘nerve’, this relates to anything to do with the brain or nervous system. It is often used in relation to neurological disorders, which effect the spinal cord, brain and nervous system, and include stroke, epilepsy and cerebral palsy.
Locked-in Syndrome
This is a rare condition that leaves a patient totally paralysed. Sufferers of locked-in syndrome are unable to move any part of their body, often including the eyes, but are in possession of all their mental faculties. Some have been treated as brain-dead, or unconscious, for months or even years.
Skulls removed
Sometimes, treatment for very serious epilepsy involves removing part of a patient’s skull, and placing electrodes across the exposed brain. When the patient has a fit, the electrodes allow doctors to identify the part of the brain responsible, and it can be removed.

Subjects

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