One of the greatest magicians in history, Harry Houdini, was well known for his death-defying stunts and mind-blowing escapes from sealed chambers. One of his most astounding tricks was reading a person’s mind. Houdini himself took great pains to inform audiences that all his feats were illusion. He would state plainly to the people in the audience that reading minds was impossible. Houdini was even on a committee organized by Scientific American that offered a substantial reward for anyone proving, conclusively, that they had psychic power. No one ever collected.
Mind-reading, or telepathy, has long been solely within the purview of science fiction and fantasy. Science and technology, however, seems poised to turn telepathy into scientific fact.
Work is under way at universities around the world where researchers have been able to use advanced sensors to read individual words, images, and thoughts in a subject’s brain. The technology is, by no means, perfected, but it has been postulated by some scientists at IBM that, within the next five years, we will be able to communicate with computers using our minds.
Called Brain-Machine Interface (BMI) or Brain-Computer Interface (BCI), this opens an astounding array of possibilities. It means using the power of the mind to call people on the phone, drive cars, pay bills, compose music, or even create works of art. It has been suggested that such technology could open new methods of communication for stroke or accident victims who, until now, have been unable to communicate except through blinking.
Education, communication, entertainment, and medical science would all become revolutionized. It should, therefore, be no surprise that this technology has captured intense interest from the Pentagon. Imagine pilots being able to maneuver aircraft using nothing but their thoughts. Avionics and other instrumentation could be tied directly into a pilot’s mind, potentially enhancing response time to threats in ways otherwise impossible with conventional instrumentation.
“I think that this will eventually become just another way of communicating,” said Mike D’Zmura, from the University of California, Irvine, one of the foremost scientists involved in the research into what has now been termed “synthetic telepathy.” Scientists in Japan are even conducting similar experiments with the goal of one day being able to record a person’s dreams.
The days of being able to communicate smoothly from one mind to another, however, are still a little way off. As we know, the brain is an electrical organ, the circulation of electrons that occurs in human thought creates radio waves. Scientists have had some measure of success in using an EEG (electro-encephalogram) to detect rough approximations of a person’s thoughts. Subjects were shown an image of, for example, a car, the EEG measured the activity in the subject’s brain and, using a series of selected images, a one-to-one correlation between specific brain activity and the selected images was developed. Then, when a subject was shown an image of a car, the computer was able to deduce this from the resulting electrical activity in the brain. The advantage of using EEG for this process is that it is non-invasive. The problem is that the human skull causes the electrical signals to dissipate making precise determination of the signals’ points of origin within the brain practically impossible.
Some research has been done using fMRI, or functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, to build rough approximations of the images in a person’s mind on a computer screen. Dr. Jack Gallant, of the University of California, Berkley, has used this technology to build a kind of map of neural activity that is then used to build a reproduction of the imagery in the subject’s mind. However, the accuracy is far from exact, the cost of the fMRI equipment is prohibitive, and subjects must lie inside the tube for hours on end.
The next step in research of synthetic telepathy and other brain-machine interfaces is implanting sensors and computer chips directly into the human brain. Ostensibly, such an idea fills many people with revulsion, ideas of some dystopian science fiction horror film. The idea of direct connection between the human brain and computer technology, however, is far from new. One of the most recent examples can be found in the movie “Ghost in the Shell” starring Scarlett Johannson, where people not only have computer technology incorporated directly into their brains. In fact, in “Ghost in the Shell,” a story based on manga developed by Shirow Masamune, individuals’ brains are completely cybernetic, referred to in the story as “cyberbrains.”
Even though much of the technology in films like “Ghost in the Shell” is still very much science fiction, many companies have already begun to stake out territory in what is sure to become a dynamic new industry. Microsoft, for instance, has even secured U.S. patents for “method and apparatus for transmitting power and data using the human body.”
Synthetic telepathy, of course, has attracted the interest of the military. The U.S. Army has bestowed research grants upon researchers at University of California, Irvine, Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Maryland.
Soldiers in the battlefield would be able to communicate using thought alone, making enemy interception of such communication virtually impossible. Actions could be coordinated between different groups simultaneously and plans of attack relayed even without the need to resort to the use of language.
“It will take a lot of research, and a lot of time, but there are also a lot of commercial applications, not just military applications,” said Mike D’Zmura, the lead scientist on the project at the University of California, Irvine.
Dr. Jerry Shih of the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota has had some success using sensors to teach epileptic patients to type with their minds. Writers, journalists, novelists, even musicians could one day make use of such technology to reach unparalleled levels of productivity. Communication between peoples of different nationalities could be achieved without the need for translation.
Of course, the implantation of electronic devices directly into the human brain raises a number of ethical concerns.
In a paper entitled “Ethical Assessment of Implantable Brain Chips,” Ellen M. McGee and G.Q. MacGuire, Jr. raise a number of concerns that are likely to arise as the drive to merge biology and technology progresses.
“The call not to ‘play God’ is also familiar, and suffers from the same difficulties articulated by David Hume. This critique relies on a religious sense that improving on the design of creation insults the Creator. In particular, it proposes that attempts to alter the functioning of the brain for purposes of creating a superior human being can be decried as usurping God’s power,” write McGee and MacGuire.
Ethical concerns aside, research in direct brain-computer interface is proceeding apace as scientists have gone beyond cochlear and retinal implants to develop cortical implants that can interface directly with the brain’s visual and auditory centers.
The technology to facilitate true synthetic telepathy is perhaps 10, 20 years away, according to D’Zmura, but he is quick to allay fears of a world where everyone has access to one’s private thoughts.
“When I was a kid I occasionally said things that were inappropriate, and I learned not to do that,” said D’Zmura. “I think that people would learn to think in a way the computer couldn’t interpret. Or they can just switch it off.”
Source material for this article:
“The Future of the Mind” by Michio Kaku
The Discovery Channel
“Brain Will Be the Battlefield of the Future…” by Ian Sample, The Guardian, August 13, 2008
Stephen Lawson, IDG News