Working out the twists and turns of our grey matter has pretty much always been a bit of a challenge. Ok, that's an understatement. Trying to figure out just what makes the human brain as awesome as it is becomes (paradoxically) notoriously difficult to do with a human brain. Lucky for us, we've got help from lots of brains coming together and making other machines to analyse neurological impulses and whatnot; we now find ourselves in an exciting position where 'brain-reading' what a mind sees can be used for visual encoding and decoding. It sounds complicated because it is, but it also means that soon we'll be able to control cars and prosthetic limbs with just our brains. And that's pretty cool.
The first odd video showing Gallant Lab's brain imagery. Click to YouTube to read the caption
This all started from two weird and silent videos you may have seen circulating the net at the start of autumn. Researchers at UC Berkeley's Gallant Lab shared some of their work on YouTube, illustrating how the brain can see just like a fuzzy eye. They showed their experiment subjects lots of film trailers and logged their brain activity with an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scan. The results are these digital reconstructions (some of the experiments clearer successes) that pretty much show how our brains process imagery after its been sent from the eye as a cluster of chemical signals.
We're working on the scale of hundreds of milliseconds here, just in case you wanted to get your timers out, and it's still a pretty hard process to monitor. The Gallant Lab experts themselves humbly admit that the MRI scan imagery is relatively primitive but proves that the brain could potentially be read more easily than a lot of people have thought.
That leads us on to the wild possibilities of decoding the brain's activity for other purposes. One that's in the pipeline already is the mind control car from Nissan. Working in collaboration with the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), the car company is trying to get a prototype going for a car that can use your brain activity to predict what you want it to do and where you'd want it to go. Sounds pretty dangerous from where I'm sitting, but the scientists at EPFL have already tried it out with electric wheelchairs and they seem to be doing alright. The car will, if all goes to plan, be able to use a combination of eye movement and brain activity patterns to be able to essentially make turns and change speed itself, just by having the driver think that's what they want to do next.
There's no real need to go into the details on why this one may take a while: a whole lot of people could get really hurt, really easily. When we start to put our minds in more control of machinery than our bodies, it could get ugly. In fact, there's an entire bed of thorns where morality is concerned with this kind of brain reading research. Since we can essentially map out what people are not only seeing but what their 'mind's eye' sees, critics of the research are starting to freak out about disturbing mind control techniques cropping up in the future. To date all experiments of this kind have to be totally consensual and non-invasive, but there's always the niggling fear that the technology could be later used For Evil.
The Pentagon's mind-controlled prosthetic arm prototype
So far though, scientists are making prosthetic limbs respond to thoughts of the desired motion in human beings and have been trying to get monkeys to power other machines with their thoughts for a good few years. Once we crack the ability to get outside machinery to respond to our commands without relying on metal implants to help send the messages across, the sky will well and truly be the limit.