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The Machines That Will Read Your Mind

Posted by hkarner - 7. April 2019

Date: 06-04-2019
Source: The Wall Street Journal By Jerry Kaplan

Ever more sophisticated brain scans are combining with artificial intelligence to produce tools that can track thoughts, test truthfulness and someday, perhaps, download our very selves

When magnetic resonance imaging came into common use in the 1980s, it made the human brain visible in ways it had never been before. For the first time, we could see the soft brain tissue of a living subject, at a level of detail that could be observed previously only in autopsies. For doctors trying to help patients whose brains were damaged or diseased, MRI provided an invaluable snapshot of their condition.

By the 1990s, researchers had begun to measure changes in brain regions by using “functional” MRI. The technique detects oxygenated blood flow, revealing brain activity, not just brain structure. For cognitive neuroscientists, who study mental processes, fMRI was a godsend: It made it possible to identify which parts of the brain react to, say, faces, words or smells. It was a window through which to see the brain making sense of the external world. Suddenly we could watch human thought rippling across the rainbow-colored regions of brain scans.
Today, fMRI has been joined by newer tools, some still in development, that would allow scientists to track our mental states with ever greater precision. Researchers are generating enormous quantities of brain scan information, and they are analyzing these sets of “big data” with the latest computational techniques, especially machine learning, a subfield of AI that specializes in finding subtle, hard-to detect patterns.

What does all of this amount to? The start of a revolution. Scientists are beginning to unravel the question of how our material brains form our intangible minds. Though primarily motivated by medical and therapeutic goals, this research may have the greatest practical impact in areas such as product marketing, computer interfaces and criminal justice. Ultimately, it may help to answer fundamental questions about consciousness and free will, or even lead the way to preserving the knowledge and memories of individuals long after their bodies have failed.

It appears that how our brains work isn’t as unique to us as individuals as we might like to think.

Some mental functions, such as experiencing fear or recognizing individual faces, appear to involve specialized sections of the brain and are therefore relatively straightforward to detect. But others are more distributed, activating many different parts of the brain simultaneously; fMRI can detect these correlated activations, and machine learning can roll up the patterns into surprisingly specific descriptions of what a subject is thinking or doing. It’s like going from identifying individual letters to reading words and sentences.

In fact, sensing what words or word categories you are thinking about is one of the more impressive results of modern cognitive neuroscience. Jack Gallant and his collaborators at the University of California, Berkeley, have produced a remarkably detailed map of which sections of the brain react to different words and semantic concepts. In a 2016 paper in the journal Nature, they described an experiment in which seven volunteers listened to two hours of stories from “The Moth Radio Hour,” a popular storytelling podcast, while their heads rested in the custom-formed cradle of an fMRI machine.


This interactive site shows how different parts of the brain responded to listening to “The Moth Radio Hour” podcast. http://gallantlab.org/huth2016/

The researchers recorded changes in blood flow to each of tens of thousands of “voxels”—the units in a three-dimensional grid of locations in the brain. They then grouped the words spoken in the stories into 985 categories, each representing some common semantic dimension. (For example, the words “month” and “week” fall into the same category.) By correlating the brain activity with the words used to tell the stories, they were able to produce a detailed map revealing where these words and concepts were processed in the brain.

If you had to study each individual’s brain reactions to “read their minds,” the feat would be remarkable but too idiosyncratic to have practical value. It appears, however, that people’s brains organize and process the same information in similar ways. In a 2011 paper published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Russell Poldrack (now at Stanford University) and collaborators were able to predict with high accuracy which of a set of mental tasks an individual was engaged in, based solely on studies performed on other people. These tasks included, for example, asking test subjects to play a risk-taking game, where they scored points each time they pumped more air into a virtual balloon (by pressing a button) but lost all their points if the balloon burst. In another task, each test subject had to decide whether certain words rhymed.

Looking solely at their brain scans, the researchers were able to correctly identify which of eight such different tasks new subjects were performing about 80% of the time. It appears that how our brains work isn’t as unique to us as individuals as we might like to think.

With improved imaging technology, it may become possible to “eavesdrop” on a person’s internal dialogue, to the extent that they are thinking in words. “It’s a question of when, not if,” Dr. Gallant said. Other researchers are having similar success in determining what you may be looking at, whether you remember visiting a particular place or what decision you have made.

If the kinks can be worked out, crimes of the future may be solved by a ‘reverse lineup’ to determine if a suspect recognizes the victim.

Remarkable as these results are, they are likely to pale in comparison to what may be on the horizon with new or improved tools. Emerging techniques, such as functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS), may substantially expand potential uses. Human tissue, including bone, is largely transparent to infrared light, at least to a depth of a few centimeters. By shining infrared light into your skull and measuring the amount reflected, researchers are able to quantify changes in blood flow.

This technique has several advantages over fMRI: It’s faster, cheaper and more portable, so subjects’ brains can be measured while they are engaged in common activities like exercising, interacting with other people and playing games. On the down side, current fNIRS devices provide lower resolution and signal discrimination than fMRI, and are confined to measuring only the outer layers of the brain. Several companies already offer commercial fNIRS devices, including Hitachi, Biopac Systems and NIRX, and the technology is being tested in labs at Harvard, Yale and Stanford.

Are we developing the tools for sci-fi-style mind reading? Not quite, but close enough for certain commercial purposes and soon perhaps for legal proceedings.

Newer fNIRS headgear can record brain activity while subjects are moving.

Consider lie detection. At least two companies—No Lie MRI and Cephos—have tried to commercialize brain imaging systems that purport to tell whether a person believes he or she is telling the truth, by comparing a subject’s differing reactions to innocuous versus “loaded” questions. Their claims haven’t been independently validated and have received considerable criticism from the research community; so far, courts have declined to accept their results as evidence.

Another approach to assessing a suspect’s guilt or innocence is to determine whether he or she is acquainted with some unique aspect of a crime, such as its location, a particular weapon or the victim’s face. Several studies have shown that the brain’s reaction to familiar stimuli differs in measurable ways from unfamiliar ones. Anthony Wagner and his collaborators at the Stanford Memory Lab found that they could detect whether subjects believed they were familiar with a particular person’s face with 80% or better accuracy, under controlled conditions, though they noted in later research that subjects can intentionally fool the program. So—if the kinks can be worked out—crimes of the future may be solved by a “reverse lineup” to determine if a suspect recognizes the victim.

Though the current expert consensus is that these techniques are not yet reliable enough for use in law enforcement, information of this kind could revolutionize criminal proceedings. We may not be able to play back a defendant’s recollection of a crime as though it were a video, but determining whether they have memories of the crime scene or the victim may play as crucial a role in future trials as DNA evidence does today. Needless to say, the use of such technology would raise a range of ethical and constitutional issues.

It may become possible to ‘eavesdrop’ on a person’s internal dialogue.

In civil proceedings, judges and juries struggle to set damage awards to compensate a victim for pain and suffering—psychological states that defy easy measurement. Insurance companies hire investigators to ascertain whether a claimant is actually hurt or is faking it. In the future, these questions may be informed by brain imaging tests that show considerable promise for determining whether someone is subjectively feeling pain.

Consider the controversial diagnosis of fibromyalgia, a condition that causes widespread discomfort throughout the body, with no known physical origin. Is the condition real or imaginary? Brain imaging studies found that areas of the brain that anticipate pain were significantly more active in fibromyalgia patients than in a control group when the subjects were imminently expecting to be hit by a beam from a heat laser. Not surprisingly, these patients also reported higher levels of pain from the beam than healthy subjects. In other words, they indeed appear to be more sensitive to painful stimuli than other people.

The new technologies may render moot the debate over torture and its supposed efficacy. “Enhanced interrogation” would become a thing of the past if investigators could directly query a suspected terrorist’s mind to reveal co-conspirators and targets. The world will have to decide whether such methods meet human-rights standards, especially since authoritarian governments would almost certainly use them to try to identify subversive thoughts or exposure to prohibited ideas or materials.

A similar revolution may occur in end-of-life questions. Studies of patients in vegetative states suggest that, in some cases, their brains react to spoken requests much as wakeful people do, even if they are unable to respond. One such patient’s brain activity was indistinguishable from healthy volunteers when she was asked to imagine playing tennis or moving around her home. Another recent study predicted with great accuracy which unresponsive patients would improve over a six-month period and which would remain unchanged.

Brain monitoring could also become more routine in employment. Selected high-speed train drivers and other workers in China already wear brain monitoring devices while on duty to detect fatigue and distraction. The South China Morning Post reports that some employees and government workers in China are required to wear sensors concealed in safety helmets or uniforms to detect depression, anxiety or rage. One manager at a logistics company stated that “It has significantly reduced the number of mistakes made by our workers.”

Consumer applications may be equally transformative, creating new markets and industries. Someday it may be possible to learn to some level of precision whether your spouse really loves you, finds you attractive or is having an affair. Future prenuptial agreements might require a visit to a brain-scan center at the local mall to answer some very personal questions. Insurers or employers might require applicants to undergo a test to determine if they’ve lied on their applications.

Today’s brain scanning technologies provide relatively crude resolution in space and time, averaging measurements over hundreds or thousands of neurons. What gets cognitive neuroscientists excited is the possibility that improved devices will offer greater detail and accuracy, perhaps even down to the individual neuron level. This would open up all sorts of new applications and uses.

We currently control computers and electronics through physical contact and, more recently, with our voices. In the future, we may be able to operate these gadgets with our thoughts. Imagine wearing an unobtrusive device that allows you to think “turn up the heat” or “unlock the front door,” dictate text into a document without speaking or silently send a message to a friend.

The new technologies may eventually make it possible to turn your mind into the ultimate intellectual property, an heirloom to be passed on to posterity. While today’s imaging techniques require a live subject, the day may come when a detailed map of your brain, down to the neurons and synapses, is a standard part of autopsies, making your knowledge and experience available through analysis or simulation software after you are gone.

Will future CEOs be able to consult a long deceased but still revered company founder? Will a person’s descendants be able to find out where grandpa hid the money? More profoundly, if your memories and personality are somehow preserved in a computer, will this alter what it means to be dead?

The coming wave of cognitive technology raises deep questions about the nature of our minds, consciousness and free will. But the revolution will arrive slowly. Incremental progress will result in applications, products and markets that will be as hard to predict as social media was at the infancy of the internet. But one thing is certain: Our legal system, institutions, rights and customs will struggle to adapt to a world in which our most intimate thoughts may be subject to a search warrant or become a matter of public record.

Dr. Kaplan is a tech entrepreneur and a lecturer and research affiliate at Stanford University, where he teaches about the social and economic impact of artificial intelligence. Henry T. Greely, a professor at Stanford Law School and president of the International Neuroethics Society, contributed to this article.

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