EYE ON EUROPE
THE OPEN-MINDED FUTURE
WHAT WAS HE THINKING? WELL, LET'S CHECK
HIS BRAIN SCAN AND FIND OUT, SHALL WE?
Coming soon: A gadget
that reads your mind
By MICHAEL JOHNSON
When the police stopped me in downtown Bordeaux for running a red light last week, I was thinking, Dont you cops have anything better to do ? But the words that came out of my mouth were a lot more conciliatory, something like Sorry, I thought it was green. I was playing the dumb foreigner.
The policewoman, a tough lady smoking a cigarette, glared at me. Was she reading my mind? No, I guess not, because she just gave me a scolding. But in a few years she might actually carry a device that can read minds.
Research is rapidly advancing on ways to allow brain decoding through scanning technology, and it scares me to death. I dont really want anyone else in my head, and certainly not the police.
How often are your thoughts and deeds truly in sync? Unless you are a sociopath, probably not very often. Societys conventions, your upbringing, good manners and plain animal caution prevent us from blurting out whats really on our minds.
But now scientists are at work cataloguing brain patterns to match up with actual words, sentences and intentions. One researcher explains, You can train a computer to recognize the pattern associated with a particular thought.
Dozens of volunteers, including a few journalists, have been invited by Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Penn., to test the technology being developed there. A 60 Minutes television producer underwent a scan before airing a segment on the American network CBS about the technology last month. Mark Roth, a writer for The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette newspaper, did the same and wrote that the computer performed nimbly. He said he was impressed.
Admittedly these early results only begin to show the way. The computer recognized that Roth was thinking of corn and not chimney, hammer and not house. But its a start.
Now the team developing the technology is at work building up a data base of brain patterns that we all share privately inside our heads. Every thought that runs through our minds produces a pattern in the brain that can be viewed through something called fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging).
At this stage, scanning requires the subject to lie motionless inside a machine and answer questions while the brain is virtually dissected into slices. Brain specialists have already identified areas in the brain where certain concepts are stored.
The applications are as limitless as they are ethically worrisome. Scientists are thinking in terms of remote monitoring of brain patterns using mobile infra-red detectors and a headband. What does this do to human rights and especially the right to privacy? This cornerstone of civil liberties would have to be somehow protected or rethought.
Specifically, would international airports add these units to their panoply of fingerprint and headshot gadgetry already imposed on foreign visitors? Probably. Will police throw out their old lie detectors and go straight into the brain? Certainly.
Catholics believe that impure thoughts are as sinful as impure deeds. Will the priest zap your head in the confessional to find out just how perverse you are? Would the priest be subjected to the same treatment?
The computer software has been developed at Carnegie Mellon in a joint project between the psychology and computer science departments.
Dr. Marcel Just, head of the program, says it may take years, but the objective is clear: identify thoughts with the same precision that speech patterns can be identified today. A scientific paper on his teams findings was published last month in the journal PLoS One, claiming 78 percent accuracy in the basic experiments thus far conducted.
The psychological novel has been playing around inside characters heads for a couple of centuries. One of my favorite descriptions of the mismatch between thought and action is in Somerset Maughams Of Human Bondage. The hero, Philip Carey, a medical student, is upset over his unrequited love for a waitress named Mildred. Sitting opposite her, he imagines stabbing her in the throat with a butter knife, confident that he could find the carotid artery and put an end to his agony. What comes out of his mouth is: I love you.
Maugham would have to rethink his dramatic little scene if Mildred got suspicious and strapped a headband on Philip. Then she would bolt.
©2009 by Michael Johnson. The illustration is from IMSI's Master Clips Collection, 1895 Francisco Blvd. E., San Rafael, CA, 94901-5506, USA. This column first posted Feb. 9, 2009.
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