Science Feature: Mind Reading

Posted Monday, November 21st, 2011 09:00 am GMT -4 by 0

Science Feature: Mind ReadingMichael vectors the hidden camera to a wealthy-looking patron on his first course. A click on the joystick and the second screen lights up: this is the one that reads the client’s mind.

Mr. Rich-Guy seems happy enough according to the emotion-bar at the bottom of the display. It’s showing a lush, reassuring yellow with shades of soft green and pink. The main part of the monitor is interpreting the subject’s visual cortex: on the screen his mind’s eye view of the meal wobbles and occasionally morphs into something similar – the machine isn’t quite perfect. The prawn cocktail segues into a view of a tropical bay, a very long way from this rain-swept New York evening. The swirling yellows and greens show that this too is a pleasant association – the meal is still going well.

Michael wonders endlessly where his boss got all this stuff. As the lowest of the low in the restaurant hierarchy, he would never dream of asking though. From idle chat in the kitchen he’s discovered that the owner used to be in Military Intelligence. Somehow, some top-secret interrogation equipment managed to end up in his new venture. Behind the walls and above the false ceiling there are sensitive field detectors which can amplify the faintest swirls of an active brain.

Michael feels his own head exploding with the possibilities – eavesdropping on secrets from the up-market clients the boss has managed to attract. Except, Michael thinks, his boss is far too clever for that – he knows he’d soon be found out. Instead, he’s settled for the occasional peek into his customers’ minds to find out what they really think of his food (people are rarely that frank when you ask them). This is his route to success – people return and the critics write in praise: ‘Food and service are like magic,’ they enthuse in their review columns. Still, the boss doesn’t seem to make mind-surveillance a high priority in the restaurant.

Michael looked up the technology on the Internet once. Apparently the military get people to look at stuff and experience different emotions, and scan their brains while they’re doing it. Once they’ve got a huge set of correlations they run the process in reverse. They read the brains of the people they’re questioning and then retrieve what that person is really thinking and feeling from a giant database.

It’s astonishingly successful: they manage to get synthesized imagery and emotional reconstruction in real-time. No more lying to the interrogators and no more need for waterboarding. Michael isn’t sure whether he should be relieved or scared out of his mind.

His time is running out here, soon he’ll be called to another menial but urgent chore. He knows the dishes are piling up just a scant few feet away, but he can’t resist one last temptation. He pans his camera around to the attractive girl sitting opposite her partner at a secluded corner table. They’re just finishing their meal and he zooms onto the girl, a female vision with her bare arms and tight black dress.

‘Just checking she enjoyed her meal,’ he says to himself, establishing an alibi for his malleable conscience.

Her emotions shimmer in green with spikes of blue, the colors of expectancy and nervousness, while her visual imagery is all of her companion. In her mind he’s dark and handsome, but wayward and impulsive, a real James Bond figure. Michael continues to be amazed at how multi-dimensional this machine really is, how it really gets into the soul of a person.

On a whim he flicks to the escorting male. The screen suddenly changes: black, purple and red now illuminate the status bar – unrestrained anticipation and excitement. The images flick by rapidly: a woman with terrified eyes and screaming mouth; a knife ripping through a black dress; a soft body exposed on a bed, tied with ropes and bleeding. The screen-border pulses with bloated excitement.

Michael puts his hand to his mouth, aghast. But what can he really do? Nothing has happened – yet; there’s no law against thought-crime. He can’t warn the lady … what could he possibly say? The surveillance imagery shows them both standing, the male urbanely circling round to help the girl with her coat.

Suddenly there’s a shout from the kitchen:

‘Michael, get yourself down here right now, there’s a mountain of washing up and I need you to stack the washer … I said Now!’

Michael powers down the machine, walks down the corridor and gets about his business.

Afterword

This technology is really coming along. The picture below shows what the subject was looking at on the left, and on the right what the computer reconstructed just from looking at his brain-waves.

For more, take a look at Mind-goggling, The Economist, Oct 2011.