Science or Fiction in 50: Mind Reading
Will we experience mind reading within our lifetime?
In the fifties, our intrepid science fiction writers focused more on the consequences of reading minds than exploring the science behind mind reading. Consider the classic trope: a society attempting to cope with a select few who possess the ability to read minds. The author rarely explains how it works. We know that distance between brains impacts mind reading, but even that hint at science exists for purposes of focused storytelling, not for keeping true to the science of our fictional world.
The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester (1952)
Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov (1953)
Jump to the sixties and seventies and we see more themes exposing us to the possible sources of mind reading capability. The most common cause centers around genetic engineering or genetic mutation. We still don’t know how thoughts are transmitted by people of special abilities, but we start to see how our DNA may at least enable this ability.
X-Men by Stan Lee (1963)
A Boy And His Dog by Harlan Ellison (1977)
It is no surprise that in the eighties and nineties we took a hard right turn. Powered by our exposure to personal computers, authors incorporated more science into our mind reading fiction. Our books and movie scripts begin their mind reading “origin story” in earnest.Most importantly, we shift from people who can read other minds to computers that connect to one person’s brain and enable one or two way hyper-efficient communication.
Firefox starring Clint Eastwood (1982)
William Gibson’s Johnny Mnemonic (1981) and Neuromancer (1984)
We are now presented with three technology frameworks to consider for our real life mind reading future:
- “Organic Wireless Transmission” – The passing of signals from our mind over the air to other minds. Mostly this relies on our pre-80s concepts of some form of genetic engineering or mutation to power signals with enough strength to cross any distance greater than a few centimeters. The ability sharpens or changes through generations of children.
- “Helmet” – An electronic device pressed close against our skull to pick up the signals emitting from our brain. This one differs from our “Organic Wireless Transmission” concept by more than just distance between sender and receiver. It requires technology to bridge our thoughts to anyone or anything else. Remember, if you ever steal a thought controlled MIG, you better be able to think in Russian.
- “Implants” – Wires/sensors are implanted directly into the brain to read (and write) thoughts. The idea of embedding something into the brain scares many people. And yet, thousands have brain implants today and our brain is remarkably devoid of pain sensors.
So which of these ideas stands the best chance of working within our lifetime. The answer will most likely be implants and the reason boils down to getting enough signal vs. noise.
First, we dispense of the idea of Organic Wireless Transmission. The argument that we will genetically engineer our brains to send/receive signals lacks enough real world progress to make the required “in our lifetime” cutoff. Yes, we may see some breakthrough that changes the pace of genetic engineering, and if that happens I’ll print an apology. For now, let us focus on the second two options: the helmet and the implant.
We started understanding how different parts of the brain processed different jobs during the US Civil War. How, without the discovery of electricity, could we already know this with certainty? The guns we used during the US Civil War could propel bullets faster than ever before. We had ample, tragic research subjects whose brains were pierced in very specific ways during that war. Doctors observed that bullets damaging the rear lower section of the brain left patients with limited or no vision.
Jump to the 1990s, where scientists, engineers and doctors developed the Utah Array. This device looks a bit like a small metal hairbrush, with each probe capable of reading signals produced by the brain. By placing sensors like these in the optical processing portion of the brain, researches could begin to replicate the images those same animals were looking at. The pictures had a Star Trek Next Generation Jordi look to them, but the images were unmistakably coming from the patient’s own eyes. The Utah Array remains the standard in the field. Unfortunately, today’s unit is not much more sensitive or miniaturized from our 90s predecessor.
Our helmet concept takes a major leap forward thanks to Jack Gallant and his lab at UC Berkeley. His team pushed reading brain waves from a distance the furthest yet. Using an MRI machine, they have identified the areas and signals produced by the brain to communicate certain concepts (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6FsH7RK1S2E). However, MRI machines are a bit large to carry around, and we don’t benefit from an equivalent of Moore’s law for MRIs.
We return to implants with the entrance of Neuralink. I am lucky to have friends who work at Neuralink and have seen the technology up close. The company provides enormous transparency and education via their papers and videos (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iOWFXqT5MZ4). The secret to their approach is that they are not reinventing the basic principle of reading the mind with sensors. Instead they are focusing all of their efforts on increasing the number of sensors from tens to hundreds to thousands to… who knows how much (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-gQn-evdsAo). They can more than double the reception of signals from the brain every year. And for each application of reading/writing to the brain they will reach a minimum viable communication throughput until, poof, like magic it will work. There is almost no technical risk with this approach. The main risk with these endeavors involve business risk: will there be enough demand and will there be enough funding until that demand surfaces? These are precisely the types of ideas that an impassioned (and well capitalized) backer like Elon Musk fit.
The result? Within 50 years humans will choose elective surgery to enable direct computer-human interface and their minds will be read by machines and people directly. While this is not the original concept of telepathy and mind reading imagined by our foundational science fiction writers, mind reading stories will soon be crowded by writers from all genres.
Verdict: Science in 50
Leonard Speiser started several technology companies including Clover (sold to First Data) and Bix (sold to Yahoo!) and is an active investor in technology startups. Leonard has previously worked at eBay, Intuit, and CSFB. He graduated from MIT in 1996. Follow him on Twitter: @leonardspeiser or connect to him on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/leonardspeiser/