“I Know What You’re Thinking, Dave”

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Pardon me, but does anyone else find this a tad bit creepy? Scientists at Washington University in the US have created a computer program that can translate your thoughts into written language. Yes, computers are on the verge of being able to read our minds.

The researchers took a brain implant currently used by neurologists to determine which areas of the brain are responsible for seizures in people with epilepsy, and reprogrammed it to pick up the brainwaves produced when we think of certain sounds. For this study, just four vowel sounds were used. When test subjects thought of the sound, the appropriate letter would appear on the computer screen, no typing necessary.

Eric C. Leuthardt, one of the authors of the study, told Science Daily that:

“We can distinguish both spoken sounds and the patient imagining saying a sound, so that means we are truly starting to read the language of thought. This is one of the earliest examples, to a very, very small extent, of what is called ‘reading minds’ — detecting what people are saying to themselves in their internal dialogue.”

Luethardt’s vision goes even further: his ultimate goal is to bypass words completely:

“We want to see if we can not just detect when you’re saying dog, tree, tool or some other word, but also learn what the pure idea of that looks like in your mind. It’s exciting and a little scary to think of reading minds, but it has incredible potential for people who can’t communicate or are suffering from other disabilities.”

To be fair, this technology has the potential to make the lives of people who have the lost ability to speak immensely better.  Currently, even simple communication requires a good deal of effort for these individuals, and the ability to think and have the words spoken for you would be a tremendous improvement. Though hopefully scientists will also find a way to detect which thoughts you actually want verbalized – I know a good portion of my “internal dialogue” stays internal for a reason!

In the future, if we all become cyborgs, it also seems like this technology could revolutionize translation for travelers.  If scientists can program a computer to translate the “idea” of a dog into the English word “dog,” it seems like it wouldn’t be that much harder to get it to translate the idea of a dog into the Spanish word “perro.”

But it also sounds like the beginning of a dystopian science fiction novel.