Mind Reading

I watched a TED Talk a couple weeks ago with daring but awe-inspiring implications. Long story short, the talk, given by Screen Engineer (did not know that was a thing) Mary Lou Jepsen, described advancements in technology and neuroscience that can allow digital devices to read images from our brains. It means exactly what you think it means.

There’s a segment of the TED talk that particularly stood out to me. Jepsen outlined her team’s process in identifying the success of current digital devices in reproducing mental images. Their experiment involved having a group of people watch a 100+ hour series of video clips and then creating a library of data by simultaneously scanning their brains. Then, the same group watched entirely new video clips with a computer attempting to interpret their new brain scans with this library.

The results of this experiment were shocking–so much so, in fact, that I’d say it’s worth it to stop reading this article and just watch it yourself. When placed side by side, the new video clips and the computer using those old 100 hour long videos to interpret new videos from brain scans shared many similarities. A figure of a man in a clip on the left would look very similar to a blurry humanoid character performing the same physical movements and mannerisms on the right. A stunning CGI title sequence on the left would reflect, albeit imperfectly, in a similarly amazing display of technology and special effects on the right. Generally, the difference between the actual video clip and the computer’s interpretation of someone watching that video clip was astounding.

To avoid making this a clickbait article (and the personal shame I’d feel were this to end up that way), I’ll acknowledge that much more work must be done to reach perfect digital replication of thought. Quality is one thing, but we have yet to make the leaps and bounds in science that would allow us to directly transfer images from our minds onto the wall in front of us like human projectors. Having 100+ hours of data to interpret mental images also bottlenecks what we can express. For example, if I want to show people that I’m thinking of Zooey Deschannel, then a computer might not have any brain scans of Zooey and instead display Katy Perry. And no one wants that.

On the plus side, there’s so much advancement to be had! Many people, including myself, tend to think in images, motion pictures, and other visualizations before communicating, and for us, the possibilities are insane. With the right and efficient collection of data, our life would speed up substantially. Writers and directors would have a much easier time flaunting their “artistic vision” by literally showing their cast and crew what they envision. Language would become nearly obsolete by conveying ideas through mental images rather than words. Lie detection could advance towards a breakthrough in crime reduction. Empathy may also increase incredibly, as we’d be able to show each other exactly how we feel.

Of course, I’m being entirely optimistic here. For every revolutionary jump in technology that humanity makes, exploitation will ensue. Fire became bombs and weaponry, cars became climate change, the internet became pornography and cyber warfare, and we have no idea what digital image processing will become. This isn’t to say that we only use our accomplishments wrongly, but rather, we tends to indulge ourselves as a reward for using them correctly.

But we are humans; we learn from our own consequences. We have learned not only to exploit but also to regulate, and I’m confident that, when the day comes, we will again remember how to harness our infinite potential.

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