You’ve probably often wondered what it must be like to read other people’s minds. There have been countless films showing the good side of telepathy – like in X-men, and the bad side, where it can drive a person insane (interestingly, also shown in X-men…). Well, technology is advancing to the point where we may soon enough be able to read each other’s minds. Unfortunately (or fortunately?), we are still a long way from developing telekinesis – the ability to move objects with the mind, but for now, settling with telepathy is still pretty amazing.
The complexity of speech and listening
The reason it is so remarkable for the idea of actual telepathy to exist is that human speech and understanding is an incredibly complex thing to study, let alone recreate. Just to give an idea, speech alone involves several areas of the brain that need to send signals between them before it even moves to the talking muscles. It also has to synchronize with the breathing cycle and control volume, pitch, and tone. Sounds like the workings of a supercomputer right? Well, that’s exactly what the brain is. Consider how difficult all this information is to process for a computer or another brain.
Neural Acoustic Processing Lab’s “mind reader”
Using our rather limited understanding of the brain and speech, a group of scientists has invented an algorithm that is capable of translating all of the signals bouncing around in the brain into speech. The amazing invention was created this year at Columbia University by the Neural Acoustic Processing Lab. It was a very involved project involving experts in neurobiology and machine learning alike. Studying only five patients, they were able to get the algorithm to say a short, 8-second sentence, translated directly from the patients. The really amazing thing is that the algorithm was built not by programmers sitting and writing it out, but by a machine learning from cycles in the human brain, and writing up the code itself.
How does it work?
Basically, the researchers had the patients listen to short stories for 30 minutes and tracked their brain activity and how they processed that information. From these patterns, a supercomputer was able to create its own algorithm to interpret speech. Using the same concept, the team is working on tracking how humans form speech. It’s a mammoth task because it is so complex and each person initiates speech differently, based on their language and other factors. So, in order for you to have a device developed that can translate your thoughts into words that can be heard through an earphone worn by someone else, you’ll need to have electrodes placed directly onto your brain and train a machine to understand you.
Medical and other benefits
When this technology is eventually available, it can help people who have had strokes, motor neuron disease, and other such conditions, so that they can express their thoughts clearly. It might also have a role as a new form of messaging where instead of sending a text, you can simply think of what you’d like to say to the other person (though how is this any more convenient than just saying it? Maybe for some people…). The possibilities are truly endless.