The most talked about topic in the world of science and technology; Artificial Intelligence, poses yet another question to humanity.
If someone could hear what you were thinking in your head right now, what would you do?
What’s going on?
There is a lot to ‘the mind’. A lot of layers and a lot of functions. So reading minds when we’re talking about technology and not a wizard can seem a little confusing, almost like a baseless brag.
Let’s break this up.
We’re talking about two kinds of mind reading here:
The use of electrodes to read brain waves and reproduce the expected movement of the vocal tract and jaw from those signals through a machine to produce sound; sound similar to the one the vocal tract would have produced, in other words ‘speech’.
Reading brain waves to receive and decode messages or orders to control other devices. So here brain activity can control other devices and make things happen. From Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg to individual researchers and small companies, many are entering this field which is expected to reach $1.72 Billion by 2022.
Both of these aspects of ‘mind reading’ at the moment are connected to helping people with disabilities.
A research published in Nature on 24th April, 2019 talked about the former technology being worked on by neuro engineers and research labs (such as the one in University of California), and the likes of neuralink (a partner company of Elon Musk) and others are working on the latter.
How long will it take for these to get here?
These technologies are coming along pretty fast. The system Stephen Hawking was using could generate about 10 words in a minute. Although this was a great achievement and a step up it was quite slow compared to the way we speak naturally in which the human vocal tract can produce about 150 words per minute.
By mimicking the way the larynx and the jaw operate after receiving brain signals, scientists are trying to really improve the efficiency of the system.
In the research report linked above there is an audio clip of what this will sound like.
It is important to note, however, that this technology at the moment might not be able to help people who were born with speech impairment or who have never spoken.
As for the second form of this mind experiment, a lot has already been achieved.
Neuralink is testing their electrodes on rats, trying to get their brains to form a network with AI devices, and even with each other.
There are researchers working with Brane to create devices that can be used as external devices (the size of a hearing aid that can fit around the ear or in a hat) to help human brains connect with machines.
It will not be surprising if these devices have made their official appearance for the masses in the next decade or so.
What does the future look like? The good and the bad
In a nutshell the main pros and cons of these advancements look something like this:
- It will change the living standards of people with disabilities Those with speech impairment or paralysis will be helped a lot.
- Those with prosthetic limbs will be helped a lot if they are able to move those prosthetics with their mind.
- If Musk’s vision is realized, they can increase human efficiency by allowing the human mind to communicate with intelligent machinery allowing humans to access a lot more information directly. That will be something of a super human brain.
- Outside parties will get access to a person’s thoughts.
- If this technology allows us to manipulate machines, can it also allow the opposite? Where machines are able to tamper with the natural thought process?
- If thoughts can be read or converted into speech, can you imagine what the legal world would look like? This is taking the lie detector test to a whole other level.
It is a very tricky position as the risk and reward balance is pretty tight.
There have been experiments done with AI in which humans were shown an image and through electrodes and brain wave signals these machines could show on a screen what the person was seeing, in real time. So, as the person was thinking it the machine was displaying it.
AI has also been known to be able to describe what a human was thinking. So it really is a little frightening as it makes one think, where does it stop?
With the small Brane using external devices that don’t need to be connected to the brain (like an electrode does) in action, it becomes possible for external detached devices to catch brain waves and translate them without consent.
And if these external devices can be accessed by third parties, are we looking at brain hackers next?
Can we do something about it?
It goes without saying that if these devices ever become efficient enough and cost effective enough, they will improve the lives of many people around the world and truly change and even save lives.
However, it seems like there should be some kind of a consensus on the ethics behind their workings first. If there is a way to ensure that private companies don’t start mass producing such sensitive devices without any government regulation, maybe there’s a chance that they could improve the life of the average able-bodied human too.
It comes down to how much faith we can place in our law makers and law enforcing authorities. Still, it is a risk and as it is right now (with zero mind hacking going on) it seems like the making of a dystopic horror film.
With the increasing speed of development in this field, it has become imperative that the masses study and learn more about these developments.
The last thing we want is to have our brains sold off to the best buyer without realizing what we’re doing. Perhaps a helpful symbiosis is possible, but for that we need to keep our eyes and minds wide open.