Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Brain reading in a patch.

Thanks to Juha Lindfors for pointing out, via comments on the previous blogpost, the bit of news about teletransportation. It seems the "vienna" school of thought of quantum physics, is busy demonstrating "spooky action a distance" from Tenerife to La Palma (100km). Scaling up the effect discussed in the previous blog. Slashdot had news threads about it. This morning I decided to catch up on my slashdot feed.

There I saw this bit of Slashdot coverage on brain implants that make your brain the computer. It is a CNN rehash of an old Business 2.0 article of old Nature news. It made the cover of Nature in early 2006, and it was great to read a highly speculative piece about the technology possible futures.

The brain emits electricity and therefore electromagnetism as it "thinks". We have the tech to read some electrical signatures. From MRI, to portable bands (in Nature: a pill sized implant). Some signatures are unique and therefore can be mapped back to the thought. Of course people apply it in UI design (in Nature, computer manipulation).

There are a lot of things you can think and the machines can detect today: every letter of the alphabet is one. Seeing the letter is enough to give a unique signature that let us know you are thinking "X".

It turns out there are about 300 companies in the field trying to bring this "portable brain reader" reality a little closer to our bedrooms. If you can actually figure out the reverse which is to emit electrical beams that recreate the electrical pattern in your brain so that you brain starts "getting" the thoughts. SONY, has recently filed for a patent that covers a device that can enhance gaming by beaming into your brain senses of "smell, image and odor". It seems we are just at the begginning of an exciting if slightly scary technology.

So people can "think" what they type. Apparently state of the art today is 15 words per minute, which isn't bad as a starting base number. Similarly if you could reproduce the electrical input of "sound" from your physical ears, then you could hijack an ear and seriously start "hearing voices". Of course since we already walk around with trumps and cellphones around our ears, the "in-brain" technology will need to be percieved as non-intrusive and secure and damn easy to use for it to have a prayer of being accepted by the mass. Personally, I would settle for style.

Then you can start dialing people by just thinking up their name, saying it out loud or just thinking about their face or whatever attribute you have assigned to this persona.

I was reading an article the other day, that covered the experience of a guy walking through a city, for real, for a couple of month with a sensory belt that indicated north, by vibrating on his stomach as he walked. What was observed was a remapping of his brain to accomodate this new sensory input. It was exciting news from a "brain plasticity" point of view. The brain rewires physically to accomodate new input.

What the guy reported was a transformed sensation of "where he was at every time". He had "bird view". For that matter imagine a real HUD over your field of vision, but not with the help of some heavy military helmet, but through electrical stimulations of your optical nerve. Kinda like the SONY patented idea, but applied to HUD and with a portable device.

All I have to say is bring it on. Juha, I don't know about you but I could get used to this retired life thing.

15 comments:

Roy Russo said...

Does SONY just thumb through decades-old sci-fi novels for ideas to patent, or is there an actual prototype that does *something*?

Andrew C. Oliver said...

Com'on Marc, get off your ass. This time, don't do it for the money, or for yourself...do it for ME or for revenge... The industry needs an even bigger kick in the ass than JBoss could deliver. A tanned, rested and ready Marc Fleury starting with resources is just the man to deliver it. Only this time...don't listen to anyone who uses too much hair spray or mousse. :-P

Juha Lindfors said...


What the guy reported was a transformed sensation of "where he was at every time". He had "bird view". For that matter imagine a real HUD over your field of vision, but not with the help of some heavy military helmet, but through electrical stimulations of your optical nerve.


It might not be necessary to hit the optical nerve directly, or zap it with electricity.

Depends whose theory of how neocortex works you believe, of course. Nobody knows for sure and no one has the empirical evidence to claim the theory of cortex algorithm, yet.

I read the same article about the "compass belt" I think -- it was fascinating in how well it helped his navigation ability to always have a sense of magnetic north. Also that this new sensory input transferred to his dreams.

There have been other similar experiments. One of them involves creating "vision" through sense of touch. Roughly, the experiment works with a small device on your tongue which transfers pressure patterns made by a video camera hooked up to it.

The fantastic part is that people learn to "see" through these sensory patterns when they're blind-folded or they've lost the vision more or less permanently.

One of the theories why this happens is that your neocortex is fairly generic -- any part of it can learn to process visual input patterns for example. The fact that we all develop vision processing roughly at the same location in the cortex has more to do with genetics and where the optical nerves ends up attaching itself. Some studies with mice where they cut the optical nerves and reattached them to a different place on the cortex showed that these mice developed sense of vision just fine. The cortex doesn't care.

The theory goes that what cortex does is store sequences of patterns. In that sense your brain is more like a large memory than an efficient CPU. It stores input patterns with spatial and temporal relationships. We tend to think vision more in the context of spatial patterns (store images) but it may turn out that the temporal element is just as important (saccade). On top of the sequential and hierarchical memory mechanism there is an association layer in the cortex that basically just wires different processing centers together.

So in the end when a specific input pattern comes in, even the pattern appears through a different sensory input (touch), the association layers eventually find the part in the cortex that has trained itself to recognize that same spatial-temporal pattern, in this case transforming into a sense of vision.

There's a lot more to the story of course but I think this comment is long enough already ;-)

Mikko said...

Well, interesting twist to this thing has been lately, that some claim that nerves transmit sound not electricity. No wonder that it is so great to go to disco :)

marcf said...

Mikko,

thanks for the link.

marcf said...

Juha,

You seem to have as much time on your hands as I do :) really cool reading, I got to catch up on all the brain stuff.

marcf said...

Andy,

I don't need "revenge", I am pretty happy about it all frankly. Would I do it "for you"? maybe! :)

In any case, it took me a while but I am finally OK with not doing ANYTHING. I was nervous for a good 3 month, thinking "and now what?". I have finally unwound and realized "and now nothing". I am going through "loss of ambition". In my case, I was a bit of a slave to ambition. Took care of that :)

A good year off is the minimum.
Everyone keeps predicting that I won't last in retirement. That ambition is a character trait. I don't know. I like the swimming pool, I like the PS3.

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