A man's head is enclosed by a big, pillow-shaped machine. Scientists in white coats take notes as the machine scans the subject's brain waves, seeking to penetrate his thoughts—to read his mind. "I think the word is 'eye,'" the computer says in an otherworldly voice, after performing a lengthy analysis.
Is this a comic book? Not quite—but pretty close.
Researchers from Intel Labs Pittsburgh (INTC), Carnegie Mellon University, and the University of Pittsburgh are working on a project called NeuroSys. Using a 1,000-word database, they have developed software that uses a system of algorithms that can match a person's brain activity with words they are thinking—in other words, a device that can read minds.
For centuries, people have dreamed of overcoming the natural limitations of our bodies and minds to become, in effect, superhuman. In comic books and TV series like ABC's No Ordinary Family, super powers are reserved mainly for those who have been born with mutant abilities (Wolverine), are alien to Earth (Superman), or were somehow exposed to radiation (Spider-Man). But while it is unlikely that any of us were born on Krypton, technology can help us when nature and gamma rays can't. Through technology, we have already learned to defy gravity, move at great speeds, and survey the depths of the ocean and the outer reaches of the stars. Now technology can help mere mortals breathe underwater like Aquaman, repel bullets like Superman, and even manipulate the weather like Storm.
For example, scientists at Raytheon (RTN) have been working on an exoskeleton to give its user super strength like that of the Hulk. Researchers at the University of Washington are working on bionic contact lenses that would give wearers Superman-like super vision. (To see an array of tech-induced super powers, click here.)
Decoding the Meaning of Thoughts
Most of these technologies are still at the research stage or are too expensive for commercial use. You'd have to be as rich as Tony Stark—the billionaire alter ego of Marvel Entertainment's Iron Man—to be able to afford most of these powers. It remains that what we once thought impossible is on the verge of becoming possible.
In comic books, characters such as the X-Men's Professor X or Emma Frost possess the power to read people's minds. For millennia this has been regarded as the ultimate power. Such a tool could be used to control armies and create fortunes. Fortune telling and mystical mumbo-jumbo aside, it has been a power about which we can only dream. Perhaps for not much longer.
At the NeuroSys Project in Pittsburgh, Dean Pomerleau, one of the researchers from Intel, spends one to two hours in a magnetoencephalography (MEG) machine, a bulky piece of equipment that looks like a giant salon hair dryer and can monitor brain activity. He is given a set of words to think and the machine identifies the locations in his brain that show increased activity. The parts that light up when thinking "dog," for instance, are different from those that respond to "airplane."
The machine's learning algorithm typically matches activity in more than 1,000 of 20,000 possible locations in the brain with a word, says Pomerleau. "It is a constellation of bright spots that can be interpreted pretty definitely as one word or another."
There also appear to be overlaps among languages. The same parts of the brain light up whether you are thinking of a word in Portuguese or English, for example. "We're not just decoding language, but the meaning of your thoughts," says Pomerleau.
Texting Without Hands?
Progress such as this makes envisioning a high-tech future easy and tempting. Mind-reading devices could help people who cannot speak communicate. Other technologies may have military applications and commonly receive funding from the U.S. government. Still, says Case Western Reserve University associate professor Harihara Baskaran, who was part of a team that won a contract from the U.S. Army to research an artificial gill system that would allow humans to breathe underwater, like Aquaman: "Science works in small steps,"
The NeuroSys project started six years ago and its 10-person team has grown the database from about 60 words in 2009 to 1,000 words today. "We're still a long way from making it practical," says Pomerleau, who hopes it will eventually be sufficiently consumer-friendly to let us write e-mail with our minds and text without using our thumbs and to assist nonvocal communication.
Because these researchers want to use noninvasive brain sensing from outside the skull—scientists in other experiments have placed chips inside the brain—the readings are not always accurate. "Trying to tap into neural activity outside of the skull and listen in to what is happening in the brain is like trying to hear a mosquito from the other side of a wall," says Pomerleau. The user must concentrate to register activity because sensors are not yet sophisticated enough to read subconscious thoughts. Involuntary reflexes such as those triggered by an itching sensation also may create interference during the scan.
The algorithm can currently select with 90 percent accuracy which one of two words the user is thinking. When trying to decode one in 1,000 words, the accuracy rate has been 10 percent for the best subject and lower for others. Stringing together sentences is not yet possible.
"We're probably where speech recognition was 20 to 25 years ago," says Pomerleau. Speech recognition technology, which dates back to the 1950s, today can identify and transcribe spoken words, as well as translate to other languages.
Neurosky's EEG Focus Penetrates Games
Simple brain-monitoring devices with one sensor are already in the consumer market—in fact, they are accessible to children. Neurosky, a San Jose-based company with 40 employees, has developed chips that can detect brain activity by using electroencephalography (EEG) technology, says Neurosky spokesperson Tansy Brook.
Neurosky's ThinkGear technology has been used in Mattel's (MAT) Mindflex game, which allows users wearing a headset to move a ball through an obstacle course by thinking, in simulation of telekinesis. It is also the foundation for a proof-of-concept game, Judecca, which Neurosky developed with Tokyo-based gaming company Square Enix (9684:JP), in which players must concentrate to make enemies visible.
Neurosky Chief Executive Officer Stanley Yang says more than 1 million ThinkGear units have been built and shipped worldwide in the past year.
Games are one thing; reading thoughts is far more complicated. In order for a mind-reading device to be practical for consumers to apply to tasks such as texting, it not only needs to be more accurate, but smaller. The MEG and functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) scanning machines that NeuroSys researchers are experimenting with are room-sized. EEG technology is smaller—it fits like a cap—but its results have been less accurate.
"Refrigerators and computers also started out the same way," says Alan Bodner, founder of Like-A-Fish Technologies, about the artificial gill system he is developing. Bodner says that his device will not be small enough for a diver to wear in the near future. "Hopefully, after it is shown to work reliably on these larger platforms, we will go back and look into making it compact," he says.
Although devices such as artificial gills and thought-reading machines seem far-fetched, scientists believe they are viable. "I am up for the challenge, but it would take my lifetime," says Case Western's Baskaran. Unless a friendly alien from an advanced culture helps him out.
Click here to see 20 technologies that can give you super powers.