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Ditch Neo’s Keyboard – With MRIs, You Can Blog With Your Mind

Wouldn’t it be nice if, instead of typing this column, I could just plug myself into the computer and download my memories and thoughts? And instead of reading the column you could just see what was on my mind? That’s exactly what Luz Martinez (Leonor Varela) does in the cyberpunk indie film Sleep Dealer, now in theaters: Forget the ancient designs of The Matrix — Neo still needed an “operator” hacking away at a keyboard to jack him in — Luza blogs straight from her brain. The movie is set in the near future (“Like tomorrow,” according to the movie’s website) and director Alex Rivera says it’s “science fiction with many anchors in today’s reality.” Can computers read our minds and recreate our thoughts and memories? Not exactly. But scientists in Japan are working on it.

Yukiyasi Jamitani and his team from the Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International are pioneering the ability to visualize the images people see directly from their brain activity. They’re not yet reading minds, but they are are opening the way for people to communicate that way. “By analyzing the brain signals when someone is seeing an image,” Kamitani tells the New Scientist, “we can reconstruct that image.”

The team performed their cyberpunk miracle using a functional MRI to map changes in blood flow in the cerebral visual cortex of two subjects as each looked at a set of 400 simple black-and-white pictures. A computer compiled and processed the data to associate different blood flows with individual image designs, and to capture each person’s brain patterns. Then, researchers showed the participants the letters N, E, U, R, O and N and the computer system was able to reproduce the letters they saw based solely on the data they measured.

“These results are a breakthrough in terms of understanding brain activity,” said Dr. Kang Cheng of the RIKEN Brain Science Institute. “In as little as 10 years, advances in this field of research may make it possible to read a person’s thoughts with some degree of accuracy.” As fMRI technology improves, Kamitani says they’ll likely be able to produce higher quality images — even color images. And one day they might even be able to help people share their dreams. “In this experiment, we reconstructed images of what people actually saw, but the brain’s visual cortex is said to be active even when just imagining something,” Kamitani said. The team’s next step is all too clear.

The applications are endless — though helping future “journalists” like Sleep Dealer’s Luz to sell her memories probably isn’t what the team has in mind. They say the goal of the research is to help people with speech disabilities to communicate, or to help doctors studying mental disorders. In the movie, which shows the future from the perspective of a tiny village in Southern Mexico, Luz shares some information about another character’s dream of America without his knowledge. “If the image quality improves, it could have a very serious impact on our privacy and other issues,” says Kamitani. “We will have to discuss with many people, not just scientists, how to apply this technology.”

See the Sundance Award-winning movie today, and maybe “tomorrow” you’ll be talking about it without even opening your mouth. Like Luz, you’ll share the experience simply by “plugging in” via implanted nodes in your body. Just make sure you don’t have any secrets you’d like to keep, well, secret.

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