Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Viewing the mind's eye: communication or interrogation?

His captors positioned the hood directly over his head and began releasing the medusa contacts one at a time, fixing them to his scalp. [...] They finished attaching the contacts to his head. The Gammu type swung the probe's console into position where all three could watch the display. [...]  Yar touched a control on the probes console. Teg heard himself grunt with pain. Nothing had prepared him for that much pain [...]
~ Description of the "T-Probe" in Heretics of Dune by Frank Herbert
One of the staples of science fiction technology is the mind probe.  The device can be used to interrogate prisoners or allow the memories of an unconscious patient to be retrieved.

Until fairly recently such devices were more fiction than fact, but recent advances in the development of brain scanning technology may change that.

Based on those recent technological developments, imaging and display expert Mary Lou Jepson makes a bold suggestion in her recent Solve for X talk. She proposes translating mental images into displayed images in order to improve communication.

As UC Berkeley neuroscientist Jack Gallant and his colleagues have recently shown, even the technology we have today can produce surprisingly accurate reconstructed images from brain scans.  In a study they published last fall, brain activity was recorded while subjects were shown short movie clips. The brain scan data was then used to reconstruct the viewed image.  The reconstructed images may not be clear enough to identify the original movie clip, but they were distinct enough to find similar images.

The process will likely work with memories too. Similar studies by cognitive neuroscientists Giorgio Ganis and Stephen Kosslyn have shown that similar regions of the brain are activated when images are remembered and when they are actively viewed.

Currently the images aren't clear enough to provide much more than a vague impression of the image someone is thinking about. However,  Jepson argues that with a combination of higher resolution imaging and holographic techniques (her own speciality), more "big data storage", and improved computational techniques, better images are within our technological grasp.

And it's not just mental images that can be reconstructed from brain scans. A recent report from Robert Knight's lab at UC Berkeley showed that spoken words could be reconstructed from neural activity recorded in the auditory cortex the listener's brain.  The participants in the study had the recording electrodes implanted in their brains, so the technology is still a long way from being a practical mind reading tool. But simply demonstrating that brain activity can be "read" to determine what someone is hearing is a major achievement.

Of course there are major ethical concerns with any technology that could be used for "mind reading". I'm hoping the focus will be developing methods of enhanced communication - perhaps even with non-human animals - rather than interrogation or mental eavesdropping.

More reading:

• Ganis G, Thompson WL, and Kosslyn SM. "Brain areas underlying visual mental imagery and visual perception: an fMRI study" Cognitive Brain Research 20:226-241 (2004) doi:10.1016/j.cogbrainres.2004.02.012

• Nishimoto S et al "Reconstructing visual experiences from brain activity evoked by natural movies." Current Biology 21(19):1641-1646 (2011) doi:10.1016/j.cub.2011.08.031 (supplemental material and FAQ)

•  Pasley BN , David SV , Mesgarani N , Flinker A , Shamma SA , et al. "Reconstructing Speech from Human Auditory Cortex". PLoS Biol 10(1):e1001251. (2012) doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001251

Related post: Language, Genetics and Alien Communication

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