Could mind-reading become a reality?

This article is published in collaboration with GE LookAhead.

Ray Kurzweil has never been one to shy away from predictions. The famed futurist recently claimed that in the 2030s we’ll “send nano-robots into the brain (via capillaries) that will provide full-immersion virtual reality from within the nervous system and will connect our neocortex to the cloud”.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg expressed similar hopes, envisioning the ability “to send full rich thoughts to each other directly using technology”. As he prognosticated in a Facebook Q&A in June, “You’ll just be able to think of something and your friends will immediately be able to experience it, too, if you’d like.”

Some scientists working in the field believe such expectations are premature. “We shouldn’t expect a brain-to-brain communication device in the near future,” cautions John-Dylan Haynes, one such neuroscientist who performs experiments at the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience in Berlin. Reading and translating thoughts is a long way off, he notes, in part because “thoughts are encoded in highly specific, complex and widespread brain activity patterns. Currently, there is no technology available that would allow us to write such a complex activity pattern into a person’s brain.”

His research, highlighted by the new Breakthrough episode “Decoding The Brain” premiering on National Geographic today, suggests that our decisions could be made up to ten seconds before we have conscious awareness of making them. Before we can transmit thoughts, he says, we must decode consciousness.

Still, the idea of sophisticated brain-machine communication may not be so far-fetched. Pilot projects using Braingate, a brain-machine interface that reads data from electrodes directly inserted into the motor cortex, have already enabled paralysed patients to control robotic arms and tablets using their thoughts.

Other experiments are focused on the brain’s visual cortex. Using functional MRI, for instance, a 2014 experiment led by Yale researchers managed to reconstruct images of human faces viewed by participants. Researchers at the University of Washington have also relied on the visual cortex — this time using machines similar to electroencephalograms — to make individuals play a yes/no game with the goal of guessing an object. According to the results, published last September in the journal PLOS, the inquirers correctly guessed the objects in 72% of the trials and in 18% of the control games.

None of the above experiments hit 100% accuracy nor did they attempt to decode or influence complex thoughts. Experts say it’s highly unlikely that we’ll be able to “see” what someone else is thinking anytime soon, if ever, because every brain encodes its thoughts in its own, idiosyncratic way.

This, says Jamie Tyler, CSO of the start-up Thync, makes “a ‘top-down’, uniform technology difficult to adapt across the board”. His company recently released a wearable that uses brain stimulation to induce shifts in the wearer’s cortical levels. The device is attached to the forehead and sends electrical pulses into the right trigeminal nerve to induce a fight-or-flight response, resulting in an “energy” vibe. Alternatively, a strip at the base of the neck can close a circuit in cervical spine nerves — the same place where neck massages can induce relaxation — resulting in “calm” vibes. According to Mr Tyler, the device works for most people who’ve tried it.

It’s not the same as brain-machine communication, but it is a step in the direction of influencing the mind or at least the nervous system. And using such technology to increase sleep quality and decrease stress levels, says Mr Tyler, could do a lot for public health. According to a joint working paper recently issued by researchers at Harvard and Stanford University, for example, the healthcare costs of stress at work could be as high as $190bn in the US alone.

In the same way, should the kind of technologies currently being explored by BrainGate become mainstream — and affordable — those with paralysis or locked-in syndrome may find whole new worlds of communication and mobility opening up for them.

As for communicating complex thoughts through seamless brain-to-brain communication, it may be on Mr Zuckerberg’s and Mr Kurzweil’s minds, but for now, says Dr Haynes, “clearly, this is science fiction.”

Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Holly Hickman writes for GE LookAhead.

Image: Researcher wearing a brain signal-reading equipment concentrates his mind before controlling a car with his brain wave. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon.

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