New Mind-Reading Technology


Photo Credit: Jewish Press

Ever wished you could read someone’s mind or know what he or she is truly feeling? If that seems impossible to you – something that science fiction novels are made of – you might want to think again.

A team of scientists at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh is working on developing “mind reading” technology. Sounds impressive? It certainly is. They’re discovering how to identify complex human thoughts and feelings by applying machine learning algorithms to functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).


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For the last decade, Tom Mitchell, chair of the Machine Learning Department at Carnegie Mellon, collaborated with cognitive neuroscientist Marcel Just, also from Carnegie Mellon, on this “mind reading” project. It started in 2009, when they conducted experiments to discover activation patterns in the brains of people thinking about simple items like a banana or a screwdriver. In 2013, they refined their work and were able to identify brain activation patterns for simple emotions.

How did they do this? The research team used fMRI to see what neurons fire in which section of the brain when a person thinks certain thoughts or has certain feelings. By studying these brain activation patterns and analyzing them with deep machine learning, an fMRI machine was subsequently able to decode what a person was thinking or feeling.

Of course, it is a lot more complex than this. And brain activation patterns for simple thoughts or emotions – while interesting and newsworthy – hardly provide insight into the more complex and abstract thoughts that humans regularly have.

But the research team is currently working on reading these more complex and abstract thoughts and emotions. Researchers actually hope to eventually map out the brain by dividing the brain into tiny cubes and analyzing the amount and type of activity in each one

The results of these studies may be able to help us understand and help developmentally-challenged people as well as those with suicidal tendencies. In fact, Marcel Just’s team recently partnered with Dr. David Brent, a psychiatrist at the University of Pittsburgh, and Dr. Matt Nock, a Harvard psychologist, to learn more about the brain activity of suicidal individuals so that scientists can assess who is at risk for suicide.

While “mind reading” technology is fascinating, we are once again forced to grapple with the ethical side of technological advancements. At what point is “mind reading” technology manipulative? When should it be considered an invasion of a person’s privacy? Should legislation be passed to ensure this kind of technology helps – rather than harms – individuals?

Regardless, right now it’s like watching science fiction come alive – and we have yet to see just how far it will take us.


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