Brain decoding: the state of the art

We all know that the brain is made up of neurons interacting with tiny electrical impulses, and that zillions of these little things firing in concert generate our very own high-level thoughts. In principle the idea that someone could look at the impulses and understand our thoughts seems plausible, but as a practical matter its far too complex to be within the near future… right?

Not according to Carneggie Mellon researchers that are using fMRI to decode brain signals and understand which object a person is thinking about. By taking a 3D image of the brain, the researchers are able to correlate brain activity patterns with patterns previously observed during training. Unlike other systems, theirs does not require each individual to undergo training, but rather can generalise from one person’s brain activity patterns to the next.

Any technologist will tell you that there’s an enormous gap between demonstrating some exciting technology to generate some hype on a television show — particularly for a technology as suggestive as brain decoding — and actually bringing the product to market. That’s why it’s all the more exciting that the early versions of these technologies have actually reached the consumer market.

Electroencephalography (EEG) machines have long been used for medical purposes, particularly to diagnose epilepsy, but now several companies have developed computer games based on these devices. NeuroSky of San Jose have developed an EEG device that lets you navigate a character in a computer game just by thinking about it.

Emotiv Systems, an Australian-based company, have taken this a step further with their upcoming EEG-based Emotiv Epoc game.

Brain-computer interfaces promise developments far more profound than mind-controlled computer games. If these devices can increase the “bandwidth” between our brains and our computers then they may allow us to increase the speed with which we access and interact with information, or with each other. The size and cost of fMRI machines make them completely unsuited to commercial applications, so it would seem that consumer products will be limited to EEG technology, at least in the short term. But perhaps new technologies will be developed that will be able to capture brain activity at a similarly detailed level to fMRI at lower cost.

Whatever the future of these technologies are, those interested in transhumanism should pay attention closely as the future may be closer than we think.

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~ by alexflint on November 14, 2009.

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