Have you ever shopped online for a particular product – perhaps in this case, a gerbil – only to see sponsored posts from Petsmart advertising their gerbils when scrolling through your Instagram feed later that day? Or, are some of your favourite songs today ones that were recommended to you by Spotify, based purely on music you’ve listened to in the past?
In a world of surveillance capitalism, we’re used to corporate algorithms watching all our online activity to determine what we’ll actually buy, and how to sell it to us. When the idea that our phones may be listening to us in order to better curate advertisements came to light, most people were shocked by this intrusion – not only is what we do online watched, but so is what we say. Now, what if this was brought up to the next level – what if technology could also read our minds? For better or for worse, this idea could become a reality very soon.
Scientists have learned how to accomplish mind-blowing feats, like moving a robotic arm with your mind.
Brain-computer interface technology (BCI) links cognitive activity with a computer, making it possible for your brain to communicate with the computer directly. BCI translates brain activity into speech or text by recording a person’s neural signals and decoding them using complex artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms; this turns them into commands that a computer can understand. These neural signals are often noisy, which makes decoding very difficult to do, thereby impeding the progress of mind-reading technology. Nonetheless, scientists have learned how to translate sensory-motor signals into computer instruction, making it possible to accomplish mind-blowing feats, like moving a cursor across a screen or moving a robotic arm with your mind.
Decoding more complex cognition, such as brain activity related to speech, is still being researched. However, a study from the University of California San Francisco in April 2019 showed promising results in decoding speech cognition using deep learning- an AI tool that mimics our ability to learn from past experiences. Small electrodes were placed on five people’s brains, recording their brain activity as they read aloud. This data was used to train two algorithms – one for how brain signals commanded the movement of facial muscles, and another for how these motions lead to speech. The five people were then asked to read the text again, moving their mouths but without making any sound. The algorithms were successfully able to use their neural activity to decode and replicate what they said.
New technology now makes it possible for your brain to communicate with a computer directly.
This technology could be used for altruistic purposes; for example, it can help those who struggle with speech due to neurological conditions communicate their thoughts to others. However, as you may be thinking, and as demonstrated by numerous science fiction movies, mind-reading technology could have severe consequences on society if it continues to advance at such a rapid rate. This fear is confirmed by the fact that research into mind-reading technology is being closely followed, and is sometimes sponsored by technology corporations such as Facebook. They believe that incorporating brain-computer interfaces into our daily lives would provide an easier way to communicate with our computers and other people. While mind-reading technology has many advantages, it has the potential to interrupt our peace of mind and intrude on our privacy unlike any other invention. Before accepting this technology into our lives, we must ask ourselves – is it worth it?