Scientists Starting to Read Minds
03-07-2007, 10:46 AM
Scientists Starting to Read Minds
brain-mind.jpg (Size: 11.59 KB / Downloads: 4) Civil libertarians are concerned that mind-reading technology may fit into a trend of preemptive security measures in which authorities could take action against individuals before they commit a crime -- a scenario explored in the 2002 science fiction film "Minority Report."
At a laboratory in Germany, volunteers slide into a donut-shaped MRI machine and perform simple tasks, such as deciding whether to add or subtract two numbers, or choosing which of two buttons to press.
They have no inkling that scientists in the next room are trying to read their minds -- using a brain scan to figure out their intention before it is turned into action.
In the past, scientists had been able to detect decisions about making physical movements before those movements appeared. Now researchers at Berlin's Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience claim they have, for the first time, identified people's decisions about how they would later do a high-level mental activity -- in this case, adding versus subtracting.
While still in its initial stages, the techniques may eventually have wide-ranging implications for everything from criminal interrogations to airline security checks. That alarms some ethicists who fear the technology could one day be abused by authorities, marketers or employers.
Tanja Steinbach, a 21-year-old student in Leipzig, Germany, who participated in the experiment, found it a bit spooky but wasn't overly concerned about the civil liberties implications.
"It's really weird," she said. "But since I know they're only able to do this if they have certain machines, I'm not worried that everybody else on the street can read my mind."
Researchers have long used MRI machines to identify different types of brain activity, and scientists in the United States have recently developed brain scans designed for lie detection.
Outside experts say the work led by Dr. John-Dylan Haynes at the Bernstein Center is groundbreaking.
"The fact that we can determine what intention a person is holding in their mind pushes the level of our understanding of subjective thought to a whole new level," said Dr. Paul Wolpe, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, who was not connected to the study.
The research, which began in July 2005, has been of limited scope: only 21 people have been tested so far. The 71 percent accuracy rate is only about 20 percent more successful than random selection.
Still, the research conducted at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, about 150 kilometers (90 miles) southwest of Berlin, has been generating strong interest in the scientific community.
Breaking Down Barriers
"Haynes' experiment strikes at the heart of how good we will get at predicting behaviors," said Dr. Todd Braver, an associate professor in the department of psychology at Washington University, who was not connected with the research.
"The barriers that we assumed existed in reading our minds keep getting breached."
In one study, participants were told to decide whether to add or subtract two numbers a few seconds before the numbers were flashed on a screen. In the interim, a computer captured images of their brain waves to predict the subject's decision -- with one pattern suggesting addition, and another subtraction.
Haynes' team began its research by trying to identify which part of the mind was storing intentions. They discovered it was found in the prefrontal cortex region by scanning the brain to look for bursts of activity when subjects were given choices.
Then they went about studying which type of patterns were associated with different intentions.
"If you knew which thought signatures to look for, you could theoretically predict in more detail what people were going to do in the future," said Haynes.
For the moment, reading minds is a cumbersome process and there is no chance scientists could spy on decision-making surreptitiously. Haynes' studies focus on people who choose between just two alternatives, not the infinite number present in everyday life.
However, scientists are making enough progress to make ethicists nervous, since the research has already progressed from identifying the regions of the brain where certain thoughts occur to identifying the very content of those thoughts.
"These technologies, for the first time, give us a real possibility of going straight to the source to see what somebody is thinking or feeling, without them having any ability to stop us," said Dr. Hank Greely, director of Stanford University's Center for Law and the Biosciences.
"The concept of keeping your thoughts private could be profoundly altered in the future," he said.
Straight Out of Hollywood
Civil libertarians are concerned that mind-reading technology may fit into a trend of preemptive security measures in which authorities could take action against individuals before they commit a crime -- a scenario explored in the 2002 science fiction film "Minority Report."
Already, Britain is creating a national DNA database that would allow authorities to track people with violent predispositions. In addition, the government has also floated the idea of locking up people with personality disorders that could lead to criminal behavior.
"We need to start thinking about how far we are going to allow these technologies to be used," said Wolpe.
Despite the fears, Haynes believes his research has more benign practical applications.
For example, he says it will contribute to the development of machines already in existence that respond to brain signals and allow the paralyzed to change TV channels, surf the Internet and operate small robotic devices.
For now, the practical applications of Haynes' research are years if not decades away.
"We are making the first steps in reading out what the specific contents of people's thoughts are by trying to understand the language of the brain," Haynes said. "But it's not like we are going to have a machine tomorrow
03-10-2007, 02:35 PM
Beer-Launching Fridge: Coming Soon to a Couch Near You?
invention-beer.jpg (Size: 12.53 KB / Downloads: 3) A recent Duke University graduate has invented a device that will allow couch potatoes around the world to stay on their couches a little longer -- the beer-launching fridge. The mini-fridge is controlled by a keyless entry system and holds 10 beer cans at a time, with 14 more in reserve
For some, it may seem like a dream come true. For others, it may feel like an April Fools' Day joke come early, but make no mistake about it: The beer-launching fridge has arrived.
John Cornwell, who graduated last year from Duke University with a degree in electrical and computer engineering, is the mastermind behind the innovation that's sure to bring joy to couch potatoes around the world.
"Have you ever gotten up off the couch to get a beer for the umpteenth time and thought, 'What if instead of me going to get the beer, the beer came to me?'" Cornwell explained on his Web site. "Well, that was how I first conceived of the beer-launching fridge. About 3 months and several hundred dollars later, I have a fully automated, remote-controlled, catapulting, man-pit approved, beer-launching mini-fridge."
A Case at a Time
Cornwell's device is a modified dorm-style fridge with the launching mechanics added on. An elevator brings cans up from inside the fridge to the catapult device on top. The magazine holds 10 beer cans at a time, with 14 more in reserve.
The beer-launcher is controlled by a keyless entry system . Pressing "unlock" makes the catapult device rotate; when it is aimed in the right direction -- for most users, this would be the couch -- pressing "unlock" again stops the rotation. Then, to launch the beer in the selected direction, the user simply presses the "lock" button.
Cornwell, who now works as an engineer in Atlanta, even made a video of the beer launcher in action, and it has taken the Internet by storm. Since it was posted on Metacafe.com two weeks ago, the video has earned Cornwell more than US$4,000 through the site's Producer Rewards program. Close to 900,000 people have viewed it.
Couch Potato Heaven?
Cornwell said this week that he's considering marketing the device on a limited basis. If that happens, he'll have the parts professionally machined "for a much cleaner look," as well as making some improvements and increasing the capacity. Pricing would be $1,500 per unit, he said.
"There just might be a market for this," Julia Day, director of sales and marketing for Leisure Trends Group, told TechNewsWorld. College students, gamers, TV fans, Web surfers and other types of entertainment buffs could all be likely consumers, she said, adding, "anyone who's a spectator and doesn't want to get up or be interrupted."
A full 27 percent of Americans now say that watching TV is their favorite way to spend their leisure time, Day noted -- compared with only 19 percent in 1990 -- so the "couch potato" trend may be in Cornwell's favor.
A Video With a Future
Sales opportunities aside, the wild popularity of Cornwell's video has also attracted attention in its own right.
"One of the really interesting points about this, in addition to being super-cool, is that it has made money," Kurt Scherf, vice president and principal analyst for Parks Associates , told TechNewsWorld. "It would not surprise me to see one of the beer manufacturers step up, pay the licensing fee and run this as a commercial because of the way it combines user-generated content with the wacky mode of many beer commercials."
Television producers and broadcasters are increasingly turning to Internet distribution of their content, and there are more and more opportunities for fans to create content, Scherf noted. "I really do think it could be indicative of what we're going to see with all kinds of video content," he added. "This guy happened to hit a sweet spot."
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