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Strange Days Are Here – Psychic Computers Now Record Your Memories

Strange Days Are Here – Psychic Computers Now Record Your Memories” width=”560″/>

What would happen if we really could record what a person sees? Would dealers sell mind’s eye memories like Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) does in Strange Days, or would editors make them into movie memorials like in The Final Cut? Thanks to a breakthrough by neurologists at the University of California, Berkeley, we’re about to find out.

At last month’s Society for Neuroscience meeting in Chicago, researcher Jack Gallant presented the results of an experiment in which a person’s brain activity was used to recreate what the person was watching when the activity occurred. Researchers already use brain scans to reconstruct still images, but Gallant’s ability to play back moving images takes us much closer to some freaky scifi scenarios.

You know how it works in the movies (SQUID recordings, Zoe Implants, “the Hat“). Here’s how it works in reality: First, Gallant and his colleague Shinkji Nishimoto captured the brain activity of two test subjects as they watched videos using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Then, a computer program linked patterns of activity in the visual cortex with movement and colors in the footage. The program also “watched” over 200 days’ worth of YouTube videos and, based on the mapping data it collected earlier, predicted what kind of brain activity these videos would produce. Finally, the computer monitored the brains of the same two subjects as they were watching a new movie clip. For every second of brain activity on the new scan, the computer merged the 100 YouTube clips most likely to produce similar activity. By doing so it created a crude copy — a bootleg, if you will — of what the volunteers were watching.

“Some scenes decode better than others,” said Gallant. “We can decode talking heads really well. But a camera panning quickly across a scene confuses the algorithm.”

As of now, the technology wouldn’t have Lenny claiming to be “the magic man.” The recordings aren’t even good enough to pass off as bootleg dvds — hardly what Lenny would call “real life, pure and uncut, straight from the cerebral cortex.” But, according to Gallant, “It’s going to get a lot better.”

Like those developing scanning technology in Brainstorm, today’s “neural decoders” are concerned about how their work will be used when it does get better. In the movie, once the scientists opened the door to the mind, the military took over. Of course, today’s scientists hope it will help patients with a neurodegenerative disease to communicate, or solve crimes by helping eyewitnesses report exactly what they saw — which sounds good unless you’ve seen Minority Report, in which Tom Cruise is framed for murder using just such technology.

Even if it doesn’t reach a quality level where people might want to buy the footage, corporations might. McDonald’s and Unilver are already using fMRI scanning to better “understand” their customers, and Lockheed Martin reportedly studied the possibility of scanning brains at a distance. The take-home message? Keeping your thoughts to yourself might not be so easy in the future. In the interest of privacy, studios might need to start copyrighting movies in their minds.

The proliferation of Twitter and Facebook suggests that people won’t mind sharing when the time comes — assuming they’re aware of what’s going on. What do you see happening once scientists have the ability to playback what’s on your mind? Think about it now. Later, you can play back the memory and find out if you were right.

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