New Technology Can Read Your Mind

Illustration by Kelsey Dake

Steven Spielberg’s 2002 science-fiction thriller Minority Report conjured a world where computers could read minds and predict the future. It seemed fanciful at the time, but fantasy is edging closer to fact.

On Jan. 31, a team of scientists at the UC Berkeley, led by Robert Knight programmed computers to decode brain waves and replay them as words. Five months earlier, another group of Berkeley scientists showed their colleagues movie trailers and used computers to play back in color what people saw.

These experiments are a big leap forward from 2006, when a French scientist first replayed images from a human mind, a crude black-and-white checkerboard pattern. The possibilities are immense: a paralyzed person could “speak”; doctors could access the mind of a patient in a coma; you could rewatch your dreams on an iPad. There are, of course, equally dark prospects, such as the involuntary extraction of information from the brain.

Despite these breakthroughs, Jack Gallant, the neuroscientist who led the first Berkeley team, says current technology for decoding brain activity is still “relatively primitive.” The field is held back by its clunky machinery, in particular the fMRI.

“Eventually,” says Gallant, “someone will invent a decoding machine you can wear as a hat.” Such leaps into the human mind, he says, might take 30 years.

Still, the recent advances at Berkeley offer small answers, which scientists can use to begin unlocking the secrets of memory and consciousness.

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