Great Scott! They're reading your mind!
The Guardian (UK) reported today about some research in the area of brain scans.
A team of world-leading neuroscientists has developed a powerful technique that allows them to look deep inside a person's brain and read their intentions before they act.
The team used high-resolution brain scans to identify patterns of activity before translating them into meaningful thoughts, revealing what a person planned to do in the near future. It is the first time scientists have succeeded in reading intentions in this way.
During the study, the researchers asked volunteers to decide whether to add or subtract two numbers they were later shown on a screen.
Before the numbers flashed up, they were given a brain scan using a technique called functional magnetic imaging resonance. The researchers then used a software that had been designed to spot subtle differences in brain activity to predict the person's intentions with 70% accuracy.
The study revealed signatures of activity in a marble-sized part of the brain called the medial prefrontal cortex that changed when a person intended to add the numbers or subtract them.
I have to admit this is pretty cool. But it's not quite as cool as they're making it sound. The researchers are looking to the future, when they hope to be able to recognize lots of different thought patterns.
The benevolent use of the mind-reading imaging is for helping disabled people use their thoughts to use computers or steer wheelchairs or do other things that help them overcome their disabilities. If the researchers can pull that off, then I'm all for it.
But right now they're wrong 30% of the time, so they need to refine their work just a bit. And they've only looked at either/or decisions (should I subtract or add?). And they're relying on honesty in their research subjects. What if the 30% were renegades who decided to multiply? What if some of the subtracters told the researchers they had decided to add?
The research builds on a series of recent studies in which brain imaging has been used to identify tell-tale activity linked to lying, violent behaviour and racial prejudice.
How skewed are the results going to be when the research--especially in areas of "negative" emotions--depends on honest answers from the subjects?
To be fair, the researchers are already looking at the possible ethical questions associated with the future of this line of study.
The latest work reveals the dramatic pace at which neuroscience is progressing, prompting the researchers to call for an urgent debate into the ethical issues surrounding future uses for the technology. If brain-reading can be refined, it could quickly be adopted to assist interrogations of criminals and terrorists, and even usher in a "Minority Report" era (as portrayed in the Steven Spielberg science fiction film of that name), where judgments are handed down before the law is broken on the strength of an incriminating brain scan.
"These techniques are emerging and we need an ethical debate about the implications, so that one day we're not surprised and overwhelmed and caught on the wrong foot by what they can do. These things are going to come to us in the next few years and we should really be prepared," Professor [John-Dylan] Haynes told the Guardian.