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Brain Scanner Can Tell What You're Looking At 158 writes "Wired News brings us an article about brain scanning systems that can accurately tell what you're looking at by analyzing your brain's electrical activity. Using a database constructed of readings taken on test subjects who were shown thousands of photographs, the system works in real time to decipher what you're seeing. Naturally, there are some ethical concerns over some potential applications for this technology. Definitely a new twist on "input devices.""
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Brain Scanner Can Tell What You're Looking At

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  • urgh (Score:5, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday March 06, 2008 @09:00AM (#22661844)
    I hope my girlfriend never know about this.
  • by sakdoctor ( 1087155 ) on Thursday March 06, 2008 @09:01AM (#22661850) Homepage
    what type of porn am I looking at now?
  • Bad enough that they do lie detection with fMRIs (how can I cheat that?!) but now, to know what I'm thinking (rather that just knowing that i'm lying...)
    *sigh* No more private thoughts, then.
    • With all the technology in the realm of brain scans, etc., what's to stop some nefarious employer requiring mandatory scans for every employee?

      With such powerful technologies, and with such rapid development there's going to be an everpressing need for privacy laws that protect our thoughts, literally.

      • what's to stop some nefarious employer requiring mandatory scans for every employee?
        Legislation, I hope.
        • by Bananatree3 ( 872975 ) on Thursday March 06, 2008 @09:12AM (#22661940)
          From what I understand Polygraph tests are legally prohibited from most work environments. I hope they extend those laws to brainscans, thought detectors, etc.
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          Legislation, I hope.
          And, if that fails: baseball bats, assault rifles, small nukes...
          • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

            by techpawn ( 969834 )

            And, if that fails: baseball bats, assault rifles, small nukes...
            Yeah, if all else fails we can nuke it from space... It's the only way to be sure...
        • by guruevi ( 827432 )
          Not just legislation, cost as well. The cost of an fMRI scan for non-medical/research purposes easily costs $125-250 for 15 minutes (about the time to set up and scan 1 subject).
          • by FST777 ( 913657 )
            Eventually, the costs will go down. I sure hope that the law will prevent these kind of things before it is economically viable to actually use them.
        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          by fuzzlost ( 871011 )

          what's to stop some nefarious employer requiring mandatory scans for every employee?
          Legislation, I hope.
          Or common decency from our employers? Oh, right, I forgot I live in the U.S...
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          Legislation, I hope.

          Yeah, because workers usually have more clout than businesses when it comes to shaping legislation.
        • I believe that, should thought-scanning laws ever be made, they will be solely to allow the government to retroactively absolve themselves of any invasion of privacy they might have enacted with it.
        • by Plugh ( 27537 )

          "legislation" never solves any social problem -- except problems government created in the first place (cases in point: segregation, slavery)

          The proper solution -- and the only one that actually works in the long run without perverse, unintended consequences [] -- is for employees to refuse to work under such conditions.

          Same reason I won't work for any employer that mandates a drug test. Period.

      • by LockeOnLogic ( 723968 ) on Thursday March 06, 2008 @10:07AM (#22662408)
        Although it true that our ability to image the brain is now allowing us to detect "thought" in the brain, it really needs to be pointed out that this is very in the lab sort of stuff. It doesn't just involve sticking you in a tube and viola a little readout comes out telling you what you were thinking. It requires finicky, multi-million dollar, difficult to interpret equipment. First have to baseline a persons normal brain function then after detailed analysis by crazy smart cognitive neuroscientists we can sort of glean very simple conclusions. Are you adding or subtracting from a number (not found out in real time btw)? Looking up or down? Which, incidentally, I can also determine by looking at your eyes. Basically the stuff here and in other imaging studies is cognitive childsplay in comparison to the "reading of someones thoughts" people seem think is around the corner. We are so far off from that state of technology that ethics really aren't an issue, yet. It is kind of interesting to me that ethical concerns are beginning to become a concern in research of cognitive neuroscience, but needless worry is premature. This is like people starting to fear the atomic bomb right after discovering uranium.
      • by pnewhook ( 788591 ) on Thursday March 06, 2008 @11:00AM (#22662934)

        Actually I'm hoping that this technology gets developped even more and is proven to be infallible.

        Can you imagine the stinkin' lawyers we'd get rid of? Stick the guy in the brain scanner and ask 'did you rob the store and murder the clerk - yes or no?'. Done. No more blowing a quarter million dollars of my tax money on some trial for a lowlife criminal (or wrongly convicting the innocent).

        • uh (Score:2, Insightful)

          by Anonymous Coward
          Like the proven infallible technology in Minority Report? Can't wait.
        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by Some_Llama ( 763766 )
          "Stick the guy in the brain scanner and ask 'did you rob the store and murder the clerk - yes or no?'. Done."

          yah sounds awesome.

          Stick a guy in the scanner and ask "do you agree with the government?" Yes or no, done.

          I think at some point our never ending quest for understanding of the way the world works will end up trapping us into a life of never ending servitude from birth, i don't want to be a part of that world.
          • Stick a guy in the scanner and ask "do you agree with the government?" Yes or no, done.

            Yes, that's right. Slippery slope and all that. And gun registry is just one step to finding all the guns and taking them away. They started with cars you know. It's now illegal to own or drive a car without registration. They're going to take the cars away first and then the guns. Get your tinfoil hats to protect against government eavesdropping too.

            I think at some point our never ending quest for understanding of th

      • Do you realize how hard it would be to wait on that line without once thinking about how to defeat the, "security" in place or the possible results? Worse yet they could give this technology to traffic cops...
  • I love it (Score:4, Interesting)

    by chuckymonkey ( 1059244 ) <(moc.liamg) (ta) (notrub.d.selrahc)> on Thursday March 06, 2008 @09:06AM (#22661876) Journal
    I'm really starting to love that augmented reality that we are headed towards. Surveillance won't be too much of a problem I fear, there will always be paranoid nerds like myself that will work damned hard to keep the "authorities" from watching while still enjoying all the benefits of the technology.
  • brains (Score:2, Insightful)

    by losethisurl ( 980326 )
    It's amazing how far we've come to understand how our zombie food really works. Think about it, we can chemically alter it with a degree of precision, we can take minutely detailed images of it to determine any number of things, we can influence and stimulate it to any number of ends. Now we're on the verge of seeing each others dreams. I wonder what Tom Cruise has to say about this...
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      Now we're on the verge of seeing each others dreams.
      Hmmmm...well, your brain literally doesn't know the difference between what it 'sees' and what it 'remembers'. Dreams are generally a kind of "mix-tape" of various memories -- they're constructed from memories. So when you dream, your visual cortex is stimulated in the same way as when you 'remember' and when you 'see'. IOW, the same tech should, in theory, be able to read your dreams.
      • by lawpoop ( 604919 )

        Dreams are generally a kind of "mix-tape" of various memories -- they're constructed from memories.

        Is this your personal theory or did you read this somewhere? AFAIK, there is no generally accepted theory as to what dreams are, how they are generated, etc. In fact, I think the only objective measurement of 'dreaming' is rapid eye movement during sleep. And even that doesn't necessarily indicate 'dreaming' -- we only know that because when we wake people who are showing REM say that they were dreaming when you woke them.

        There was a professor of Religious Studies, Jonathan Smith, who claimed that that d

        • I thought is that dreams are the same thing as your imagination. They can be made of past experience or just something completely made up. However, even "made up" stuff generally comes from an amalgamation of previous experience.

          It's nothing more or less. That's just what dreams are, your brain imagining things because it's bored. I don't know why people try to turn it into something else (eg. something magical).

          This isn't to say dreams mean nothing. Imagination is a huge part of how we get about in th
    • Now we're on the verge of seeing each others dreams.
      I wouldn't get too excited about that... []
  • by Evil_Ether ( 1200695 ) on Thursday March 06, 2008 @09:09AM (#22661892)
    ... and it normally ends in pain for me and my wandering eye.
    • Hold onto her! It's very rare to find someone open-minded enough to date someone with just one eye, even if it is wandering.
  • by notnAP ( 846325 ) on Thursday March 06, 2008 @09:13AM (#22661946)
    Doctor: You're looking at the inside of the Brain Scan 3000(TM) scanner.


  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday March 06, 2008 @09:33AM (#22662080)
    -So, Mr. Interrogator, what am I thinking of *now*?

  • What my brain looks like when I'm reading Slashdot?

    My guess would be the Starship Enterprise flying by, followed by a bunch of sharks with lazers?
  • by petes_PoV ( 912422 ) on Thursday March 06, 2008 @09:42AM (#22662154)
    you're strapped into a machine the size of a room - we're not talking about someone suppreptitiously pointing a camera-sized device at you and reading your thoughts. Yes. that'll be an interesting idea, if and when it becomes a practical proposition.

    From the article Those technologies remain decades away, but researchers say it's not too soon to think about them, especially if research progresses at the pace set by this study.

    Well, I beg to differ. By the time the "decades" have passed, we'll actually have some information to consider, not just a load of pie-in-the-sky whimsy from people who have no facts to base it on.

    Let's worry about today's ethical issues and leave things like this for when they look like becoming a practical reality.

    • by Rob T Firefly ( 844560 ) on Thursday March 06, 2008 @10:03AM (#22662354) Homepage Journal

      you're strapped into a machine the size of a room - we're not talking about someone suppreptitiously pointing a camera-sized device at you and reading your thoughts. Yes. that'll be an interesting idea, if and when it becomes a practical proposition.
      It's all just a matter of time. Your mobile phone is more powerful than computers which filled several rooms a few decades ago. If we've learned anyhthing about new tech, it's that big bulky impractical stuff will be mobile and practical before we know it, so now we have precious time to consider the fact of such a device's existence and applications before we're presented with it as part of everyday life.
    • I doubt if it will ever be a remote imaging like a camera, but can you imagine a helmet version, combined with another version, allowing pilots to target another airplane just by focusing on that plane.

      Stargate Atlantis's Puddle jumper neural interface just might become reality, well with a helmet. Focus your thoughts and the aircraft follows.
  • by curmudgeon99 ( 1040054 ) on Thursday March 06, 2008 @09:45AM (#22662180)
    This is interesting because it is a form of pattern matching. Anyone who has studied the actual way the brain processes information from the senses knows that the brain receives a pattern--regardless of which sense it comes from--and interprets that pattern in such a way that it can make the interpretation. A great example of this is a device that has been built for the blind. The device consists of a grid of pressure-causing pins that are laid on the tongue of a blind person. If an image of some object is represented in the grid, the wearer's tongue can transmit this image to the brain and, with practice, a blind person's brain can learn to interpret that image and act on the basis of the information. I cannot stress the magnitude of this type of thing: the brain does nothing but pattern interpretation. It matters not where the pattern comes from, only the interpretation that is applied matter.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by jadin ( 65295 )
      My question is does this work for everyone? For example if Joe sits down and has his pattern scanned for looking at a dog, and then I sit down and have my pattern scanned while looking at a dog, will they match up? Will the computer be able to tell that I am looking at a dog from Joe's scan without first scanning my own?

      I'm guessing it doesn't*, so it would be pretty impressive (to me) if it could.

      *based on my absolutely uneducated belief that a picture of a dog will activate neuron connections based on my
      • I seriously doubt the patterns would match. What I find most interesting is that--no matter the sense involved (touch, sight, hearing) every one of them comes into the brain as a pattern of signals. And the brain knows--because this came in on the touch channel--that this pattern represents something that was touched. This is great news for those of us trying to replicate the functions of the brain in an AI environment. The brain is so flexible because all it is doing is decoding patterns. They did an ex
        • by tgv ( 254536 )
          That's bollocks. You can't move brain tissue around. I'm a cognitive neuroscientist, not a neurosurgeon, so I can't think of all obstacles, but attaching blood vessels and synapses is not feasible. If you move the speech area (which one is that exactly? where did they move it to? was there a hole or something?) you're cutting billions of neurons with hundreds of billions of connections, all in dire need of oxygen. You'll need to reattach everything in five minutes or so to (already open?) blood vessels, oth
      • by tgv ( 254536 )
        1. The method needs training per person, so you can't set up a pattern that will fit everyone, but you can get quite a few patterns after training.
        2. The method is only observing the neuronal activity in your (first) visual processing areas (V1, V2 and V3 to be precise), so any association with a dog that bit you is not seen.
        3. The activity in V1 is supposed to be a decent copy of the image projected onto the retina, although it is split up in different components. So retrieving the image from V1 is possibl
  • ethical concerns (Score:3, Insightful)

    by sm62704 ( 957197 ) on Thursday March 06, 2008 @09:50AM (#22662222) Journal
    Naturally, there are some ethical concerns over some potential applications for this technology

    Whose code of ethics are they following here? The legal profession's? The medical profession's? The psychiatric profession's? The military's? All these organizations have different codes of ethics. Who's concerned that this may be against their code of ethics?

    There are certainly moral concerns.
    • Here's a newsflash for you: ethics are not just used by professional organizations. Some people actually have personal codes of ethic; other people go so far as to believe that there are universal codes of ethic that apply to everyone whether or not they recognize them. Morality is more how one feels about certain actions, ethics dictates the obligations one has to do or not do something.
      • by sm62704 ( 957197 )
        That's true, people do have personal codes of ethics. But you are no more bound by my code of ethics than I'm bound by medical ethics.
    • Whose morals? I'm pretty sure an Evangelical Christian's idea of what it means to be a moral person differ a bit from my own.
      • by sm62704 ( 957197 )
        I'm pretty sure an Evangelical Christian's idea of what it means to be a moral person differ a bit from my own.

        And mine. Pat Robertson has converted more Christians to athiesm than all the athiests on slashdot combined.
  • Games, etc. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by n3tcat ( 664243 ) on Thursday March 06, 2008 @09:54AM (#22662262)
    I'd be very interested in seeing the quality improvements in games that can use this technology to improve only certain points in a display based on where you are actually looking.

    Now what would be terribly interesting is coupling this sort of thing with a car and a transparent LCD windshield. It would be able to enhance various aspects of your car's display and perhaps make some things more apparent from your peripheral vision.

    Or for combat pilots, using this sort of technology to target a craft based on where your eyes are focused.

    I could think about this all day...
  • Finally. A way to get content driven advertising all the time, everywhere I go. I don't have to sit around online to get pelted with banner ads, anymore.
  • Dystopia (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Phoenix666 ( 184391 ) on Thursday March 06, 2008 @10:15AM (#22662466)
    The government will certainly misuse this technology too, no matter the legal protections. We have something called the Constitution that supposedly protects us against the government spying on us, but we're all seeing how much good that does.

    So it's not out of luddism that I hope they belay this advance; rather, I want to wait until we've rebalanced our government and society to ensure our freedom and rights will not be abused.

    In the meantime, why not cure cancer? That's an unambiguous good. Go work on that!
    • by hoggoth ( 414195 )
      > want to wait until we've rebalanced our government and society to ensure our freedom and rights will not be abused

      They are currently "rebalancing" our government. Only not in the direction you hoped.

  • by RationalRoot ( 746945 ) on Thursday March 06, 2008 @10:15AM (#22662468) Homepage
    George Orwell - The Thought Police.

    How far is it from detecting what you are looking at to detecting general ideas like "Violent Thoughts", "Adult thoughts", "Rebelious Thoughts" - if they use different parts of the brain....

    Seriously. If I got a $50 fine every time I thought about killing someone, It'd get damn'd expensive.

    It could get recursive, what if I wanted to kill the guy for fining me $50.....

    Let's not ever consider being fined for "Adult thoughts"
  • "In the courtroom, mental readouts could have the same problems as eyewitness testimony"

    Would that prevent their use in courtrooms? I don't think so.

    I know of someone who was charged with a child pornography offence, who was targeted for being prominent in the paedophile activist community.

    I strongly suspect that he was set up, however this will be irrelevant in the courtroom, as people know that he's attracted to children. In other words, he "must be guilty", simply because of what he is known to think.

    • I dunno about that. Right now, the reason we have to rely on sketch ideas like "He's attracted to children, so he must be guilty of child porn" (we shouldn't be, but that's another story) is simply because there's no better way to do it.

      If, with technology like that, we could ask "Did you download and possess child pornography" and know we were getting a truthful answer, wouldn't that help innocent people more than the current reliance on character testimony does?
  • by MacBorg ( 740087 ) on Thursday March 06, 2008 @10:20AM (#22662510)
    Gah. Can we file this under really bad summary - this is basically an expansion of work that has been underway for a few years now (just read a paper on a similar concept from 05). What we're really seeing is a pattern-matching algorithm - train it using fMRI data from visual cortices and, with a limited subset, it's pretty accurate. Honestly, as a vision researcher, the more interesting bit isn't the so-called "mind reading" bit, although it is a good trick - it's the fact that it works across subjects with a respectable amount of accuracy (which indicates that activation in V1/V2/V3 is not overly dissimiliar between subjects). Cool work though...
    • I don't know about you but being able to detect what I am seeing directly from a brain scan seems like some degree of mind reading to me. Granted, it can't detect my concious thoughts, but it is definatly pulling information out of my mind.

      My question is, can we take this beyond the visual cortex? Why not try the same experiment but have the subjects simply think about different objects. Or alternativly, send in a whiff of apple pie sent and see if the signals for apple pie light up.
  • So is the blue screen of death on my end, or on the scanner's end?
  • by Kozz ( 7764 ) on Thursday March 06, 2008 @10:24AM (#22662548)

    A study was done recently that was using eye position recognition, and participants were shown photos of all kinds of people. The computer was able to note where (on the image) the person's eyes were fixed, and for how long.

    They found (among other things) that women tend to fix upon the face and eyes of the person in the image. And they found that guys frequently stared at the crotch area, such as that of a baseball player (hey, dudes, it's a CUP, don't get so insecure). There were other findings, but these are the more memorable ones.

    Article here [].
  • In the future will we get billed by the RIAA for singing a song in your head without the proper 'internal cranium broadcast license' ?
    • If most geeks "think-sing" as well as they "real-sing" then there weren't be a problem.
      The device just won't be able to tell what song they were trying to sing that has only one three notes, all of them sung in the key of "off"
  • If only the system, or another, could stimulate areas of the brain to induce the perception of an image. Feed in the mathematical model of a dog, and the person sees, or thinks they see, a dog. In essence, allow the blind to see. Combined with a camera and image recognition algorithms, and that blind person could see their surroundings in real time. And the model doesn't have to be accurate, so long as it is consistent. I'll bet the brain would do plenty of interpreting - if the impulses for a dog were there, and the subject was told "this is a dog", they would associate that imagery with "dog".

    Of course, technology like that opens up the way for abuse -- if the subject is induced to see a face or talking head which they believe is their deity, while being simultaneously subjected to sound-inducing microwaves [] (or this ootoob video []), that person thinks they see and hear God, as it were. And the voice says "I want you to build me, an ark" or "I want you to kill so-and-so" or "Your boyfriend needs a lot more sex"....
    • Probably won't work for the congentially blind though since the visual centers would not have developed when they get to adulthood. The impulses would probably have to be turned into audio or tactile senses instead.
  • I'm glad it's Bezerkly doing this and not the Pentagon....oh wait...
  • And yet.... (Score:2, Interesting)

    "However the team have warned about potential privacy issues in the future when scanning techniques improve. 'It is possible that decoding brain activity could have serious ethical and privacy implications downstream in, say, the 30 to 50-year time frame,' said Prof Gallant. '[We] believe strongly that no one should be subjected to any form of brain-reading process involuntarily, covertly, or without complete informed consent.'"

    And yet they invented it anyway. I guess you could use it to study how the brai

    • Re:And yet.... (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Akardam ( 186995 ) on Thursday March 06, 2008 @02:10PM (#22665474)
      And yet they invented it anyway. I guess you could use it to study how the brain processes images, but for the life of me I can't think of a truly beneficial, non-evil application.

      Uh, how about research into artificial sight for the blind, or restoring visual comprehension to persons with brain damage? A tool is a tool, an object that is neither good or evil. It's how people use it that's the problem.
  • I believe it was David Brin's book "Sundiver" that made use of this type of technology to separate the human race into safe/unsafe categories. The purpose was keep the unsafe (deemed potentially unstable) people from having interaction with members of alien races. The test worked something like this. You're very quickly shown a series of graphic images containing depictions of violence and peacful scenes at the same time. People who look at violent images more often are considered potential liabilities
  • If it can be built into female androids, this would enable them to replicate the female ability to know when men are staring at their junk.
  • This isn't new (Score:4, Interesting)

    by vonPoonBurGer ( 680105 ) on Thursday March 06, 2008 @12:57PM (#22664412)
    The only thing new about this technology is that it's noninvasive. Neuropsychologists have known for years that the occipital lobe contains a 2D map of what you're looking at. This was studied many years ago by injecting radioactive tracers into animals and taking xrays while they were looking at image patterns. The patterns could be seen mapped out on the surface of the occipital lobe at the back of the brain. The only difference now is that they're able to do it without injecting tracers or exposing you to xrays.

    As for the "ethical concerns", give me a break. The only thing this technology can do is tell what you're looking at in realtime. Your employers and the government can do this a lot more easily by simply looking at your face and figuring out where your eyes are pointing. They can't use this technology to tell what you've looked at in the past, it probably can't even tell them what elements of your visual field you're actually paying attention to, and they certainly can't use it to read your memory or current thoughts. It's not technology that's ever likely to be at all useful outside a lab, it's simply being used to help us better understand how the brain works. Maybe one day there'll be a machine that can pull private information out of your brain, but this isn't it. Put the tinfoil hats away, people.
  • by cluke ( 30394 )
    Impressive though this is, could someone not, well, just look in the same direction as you to see what you were looking at?
    Get back to me when it can tell what you are thinking about!
  • Does it work only on English speaking United Statesians? Or all humans?

Our business in life is not to succeed but to continue to fail in high spirits. -- Robert Louis Stevenson