Mind-reading computers: A thought-provoking concept — but can it ever become a reality?

I have always thought that the coolest thing about working in the tech industry is that every once in a while, someone introduces a new piece of hardware that is completely unexpected, and way outside of what many people would even consider to be possible. I’m talking about things like Microsoft HoloLens, or some of the first generation smartphones. But what if a tech can produce a device that could do something really audacious, like mind-reading computers?

History of mind-reading computers

The idea of building mind-reading computers isn’t entirely new. When I was a kid growing up in the 1980s, I used to spend most of my time messing around with an old Radio Shack Color Computer, or CoCo as it was known at the time. One of the magazines for CoCo enthusiasts occasionally ran an ad for an interface that would supposedly allow you to unplug your joystick and control video games with your mind instead. Later on, the same company came out with a solution for allowing mouse movements to be controlled by thought.

Although I found the idea of controlling a computer using nothing more than thought to be intriguing, I never actually purchased either of these products. It wasn’t just because I was a kid and had a minuscule budget, but also because I assumed that the advertisements must be a scam.

Years later, someone told me that the thought-controlled peripherals worked as advertised, but weren’t truly controlled by thought. You couldn’t, for example, just will the mouse pointer to move to a certain position on the screen. Instead, the tech was supposedly based on the use of a biofeedback monitor.

A biofeedback monitor is a medical device for measuring galvanic skin response. The idea is that human skin can carry an electrical current, but also has resistive properties. This resistance varies depending on tiny changes in emissions from sweat glands, which can occur almost instantly in response to stress or emotions (some polygraph machines are based on a similar principle). Hence the device worked by moving a mouse pointer in response to physiological changes measured by a biofeedback monitor. A mouse pointer might be moved for example, by thinking calm thoughts or thinking stressful thoughts.

But what if it really were possible to control a computer with your mind? If that question isn’t thought-provoking enough, what if a computer could actually understand what you are thinking, and verbalize your thoughts through a text-to-speech engine? Believe it or not, this is now possible — sort of.

Can ‘mind-reading computers’ really read your mind?

A friend at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) recently sent me an article explaining that MIT researchers had developed a wearable device that turns certain thoughts into speech.

Now before I go on, there are a couple of things that I need to clarify. First, I am using the word “thoughts” generically. I don’t want to turn this article into a lesson on neurology, but there are many different classifications of thoughts ranging from those that are very deliberate (such as when you are concentrating on a test question) to thoughts that almost go unnoticed (such as reaching for your glass of water without really thinking about it). For the purposes of this article, I am defining thoughts as a person’s internal dialog. These are words that are consciously verbalized internally, but not spoken aloud.

The other point of clarification that I need to make is that the MIT device does not actually read your mind per se (although it might as well be doing so). To the best of my knowledge, medical science has not progressed to the point of being able to create actual mind-reading computers.

How does the device work?

[tg_youtube video_id=”RuUSc53Xpeg”]

So how does the device, which has come to be known as AlterEgo, verbalize the wearer’s internal thoughts if it is not actually reading the wearer’s mind? To answer this question, consider the way that normal speech works. You think about what you want to say, and the brain produces electrical signals that stimulate muscles in various parts of the body to allow you to speak those words.

The inventor of AlterEgo realized that deliberate internal dialog creates very similar electrical signals to those that are created by speech. AlterEgo detects these signals and converts them into artificial speech. Right now the device supports a somewhat limited vocabulary, but researchers at MIT are working to build a more extensive vocabulary into the device.

Potential uses

Mind-reading computers
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The previously mentioned article describes a number of potential uses for the device including helping the disabled regain the power of speech or allowing special forces operatives to silently communicate with one another on the battlefield. The article also mentions using the device to improve communications in noisy environments such as airport tarmacs.

In addition to these very practical uses for the technology, the article discusses the possibility of using the technology as a tool for looking up information on the Internet without having to get out your phone. In one experiment, for example, someone wore the device while playing chess and used their own internal dialog to tell the computer what move their opponent had just made. Rather than simply verbalizing the thought, the device sent the move to a chess application that looked up a recommended countermove. The computer’s recommended countermove was then verbally spoken to the wearer through a pair of bone conductive headphones that no one else could hear.

I have to admit that when I first heard about the AlterEgo, my initial reaction was to assume that law enforcement would eventually turn the device into the lie detector from hell. I assumed that it would give investigators a way of hearing what a suspect is thinking during an interrogation.

After learning a bit more about the technology, I am far less concerned about the possibility of the device being abused by law enforcement officials. From what I understand, the device has to be calibrated to each individual person’s neuromuscular signals, which is not a trivial process. More importantly, however, the device only articulates deliberate internal vocalization. Hence, I seriously doubt that it could be used as a tool for recording someone’s passive thoughts.

I tend to think of the technology as more of a tool for augmenting the brain’s capabilities. Remember what I said about the chess experiment and about how the device gave information to the wearer through bone conductive headphones? Well, if a device could be used to look up recommended chess moves, it could conceivably be used to look up pretty much anything else online.

So with that in mind, imagine what it would be like if you could interact with Alexa by thought. You could simply think a phrase such as “Alexa, what’s the weather?” and have the forecast given to you in a way that only you can hear. You could conceivably even use the technology to turn on the lights, play a song, or to look up information. Imagine being out with friends and someone suggests a late-night visit to a particular pizza place. With only a thought, you could find out how late the restaurant is open.

An amazing technology — potentially

I have so many thoughts on potential uses for AlterEgo (as well as potential abuses of the technology) that I could probably write an entire book on the subject. In any case, AlterEgo uses some amazing technology and I think that we are only beginning to understand what it is truly capable of.

For right now though, that may be a moot point. AlterEgo is still an experimental technology. It’s not the sort of thing that you can go out and buy (although I’m sure you will be able to buy one eventually — and maybe even buy actual mind-reading computers).

Even if this device or other mind-reading computers were perfected and made available to the public, there is always the chance that it would be a commercial flop. The device is kind of large and unsightly, at least in its current form, and aesthetics have been widely blamed for the failure of another revolutionary technology product – Google Glass.

Featured image: Shutterstock

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