A team of world-leading neuroscientists has developed a powerful technique that allows them to look deep inside a person's brain and read their intentions before they act….
The research builds on a series of recent studies in which brain imaging has been used to identify tell-tale activity linked to lying, violent behaviour and racial prejudice.
The latest work reveals the dramatic pace at which neuroscience is progressing, prompting the researchers to call for an urgent debate into the ethical issues surrounding future uses for the technology. If brain-reading can be refined, it could quickly be adopted to assist interrogations of criminals and terrorists, and even usher in a "Minority Report" era (as portrayed in the Steven Spielberg science fiction film of that name), where judgments are handed down before the law is broken on the strength of an incriminating brain scan….
"These techniques are emerging and we need an ethical debate about the implications, so that one day we're not surprised and overwhelmed and caught on the wrong foot by what they can do. These things are going to come to us in the next few years and we should really be prepared," Professor Haynes told the Guardian.
Barbara Sahakian, a professor of neuro-psychology at Cambridge University, said the rapid advances in neuroscience had forced scientists in the field to set up their own neuroethics society late last year to consider the ramifications of their research, “…we're moving ahead so rapidly, it's not going to be that long before we will be able to tell whether someone's making up a story, or whether someone intended to do a crime with a certain degree of certainty."
Professor Colin Blakemore, a neuroscientist and director of the Medical Research Council, said: "…what you can be absolutely sure of is that these (techniques) will continue to roll out and we will have more and more ability to probe people's intentions, minds, background thoughts, hopes and emotions…but we need to be thinking the ethical issues through.”
…The technology could also drive advances in brain-controlled computers and machinery to boost the quality of life for disabled people. Being able to read thoughts as they arise in a person's mind could lead to computers that allow people to operate email and the internet using thought alone, and write with word processors that can predict which word or sentence you want to type. The technology is also expected to lead to improvements in thought-controlled wheelchairs and artificial limbs that respond when a person imagines moving.
"You can imagine how tedious it is if you want to write a letter by using a cursor to pick out letters on a screen," said Prof Haynes. "It would be much better if you thought, 'I want to reply to this email', or, 'I'm thinking this word', and the computer can read that and understand what you want to do."
· FAQ: Mind reading
What have the scientists developed?
They have devised a system that analyses brain activity to work out a person's intentions before they have acted on them. More advanced versions may be able to read complex thoughts and even pick them up before the person is conscious of them.
How does it work?
The computer learns unique patterns of brain activity or signatures that correspond to different thoughts. It then scans the brain to look for these signatures and predicts what the person is thinking.
How could it be used?
It is expected to drive advances in brain-controlled computers, leading to artificial limbs and machinery that respond to thoughts. More advanced versions could be used to help interrogate criminals and assess prisoners before they are released. Controversially, they may be able to spot people who plan to commit crimes before they break the law.
What is next?
The researchers are honing the technique to distinguish between passing thoughts and genuine intentions.