Mind-reading Machines

Scientists in Germany are using an MRI machine to read people’s intentions and predict future behavior with a success rate of 71%.  Finally, a development that could put Sylvia Browne out of business.

The experimenters are working with volunteers that are unaware of the subject of the experiment.  They are slid into an MRI machine and asked to decide whether to add or subtract two numbers.  The scientists have isolated the part of the brain reponsible for intent and have learned to read “thought signatures” that indicate which of the two decisions subjects will make.

 The technology is both ground-breaking and frightening to some, as much technology is today (e.g. stem cell research).  The primary concerns are:

1.  Will authorities eventually be able to monitor citizens’ thoughts surreptitiously?

2.  Could authorities take action against citizens based on their “intent”, before a crime is actually committed?

The technology has more practical applications, which the scientists claim was their intent.  For example, a mind-reading machine could allow the paralyzed to perform day-to-day activities like changing TV channels, among other things.  Regardless of all benefits and concerns, mass-marketing of this technology is years in the future.

I think the experimenters should take Randi’s challenge.  It would great to see that money go toward scientific research that could help the paralyzed.


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  1. I recall hearing about this elsewhere (Skeptic's Guide podcast?). Don't the machines need to calibrate themselves first by having people think about, in this case, adding and subtracting, before it can then detect it?

    If so, then thought crime is a long way away… "If you could think about committing crime… thank you, you may now leave."

    Given that brain patterns change over time, could it be that the part of the brain that is used to select adding or subtracting will change and thus mean the machines will often need recalibration? (Good news for the brain-reading machine union! :) )

  2. Fascinating stuff. It sounds as if mass-market applications are a ways off, for good or ill. The original intent of this research is definitely worthwhile.

  3. Also bear in mind it's done with an MRI scanner. I work in a group thats trying to make small, portable (think ultrasound machine not tri-corder) versions for simple stuff like knees and heads (not enough detail for brain function tests), but the level of detail used here takes a machine that completely fills it's specially sheilded room, requires constant liquid nitrogen/helium and costs a million+. If the G-men come calling You'll have time to escape while they try and back the articulated lorry into your driveway!

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