Mind reader

“Come on, there's nothing to be afraid of. It doesn't hurt or anything”.
It was the first time ever for Anders to wear the scanner net. “All you gotta do is sit down, relax, and close your eyes.”
Laura helped him put on the net, which looked a bit like a thick bathing cap. Next, she plugged in the electrodes that both of them had had implanted in the back of their necks and upper arms six months ago.
“Are you starting to feel anything?” she asked.
Anders took a deep breath and sat back in the chair. Yes, he did feel something - a flicker, like the burn-in in your eyes if you've been looking directly into a light bulb. A minute later, he started seeing faint shapes and colors, and at about the same time, he became aware that he was having these vague, somehow separate feelings - it all reminded him of the sounds that would come out of a radio if you kept turning the dial between various channels.

“Relax! I can tell that you are tense”. He exhaled slowly again and kept his eyes tightly closed. The patterns formed by the shimmering dots grew clearer and started looking like a low-resolution display.
Gradually, he could make out a person sitting in a chair - he knew that it was him. He was looking at himself through Laura's eyes. He waved and the blurred figure inside his head also waved. Laura laughed and Anders suddenly felt a surge of happiness and joy. Not only did he receive the input from her eyes, he was also affected by her moods and Laura's reactions to the situation.
Wow! Anders felt like he was on the threshold of having a totally new way of understanding the world - and he knew that Laura felt the exact same thing.

Anders and Laura were operator trainees. Once they had completed the course, they would be able to operate most types of tele-presence robots, be it the gigantic cranes at construction sites, the exploration robots in hazardous environments, or the rearrangement of individual molecules at nano-scale level. The procedure was largely the same irrespective of the size of robot they would operate. Also, it didn't really matter where the robot was located. Often, they would not even operate a robot in the physical world. The many simulators and 3D universes employed in science as well as by companies for planning and organizing purposes were usually controlled in ways very similar to the navigation of many of the more advanced computer games.

The basic principle was to link up to the system in the most direct way possible. Usually, the actions required were extremely complex - demanding extreme precision, and in some instance the operator's ability to react within a split second was crucial. Therefore, technology had long since outgrown the concept of joystick and screen. Instead the operator's nervous system was increasingly being linked up directly to the computer.
The most recent version of the scanner net had added another important dimension. Not only would the net make a fairly detailed scan of the brain's functions, it would also transmit rough sensory impressions and reactions between several interlinked operators - which was what Anders and Laura had just experienced.
This process made it possible to cooperate at a much more precise and coordinated level and not least it made it possible to combine the controlling skills of an operator with the knowledge of an expert within the field of operation.
While, for instance, an operator would control the tiny surgical robot inside the veins of a patient, a doctor would join it on its journey and chart the course. Or a geologist would appraise the situation while the operator controlled the deep-mine excavator.

Anders' and Laura's instructor always had great fun showing the students his old pictures of the first brain scanners. Back in the 1990's, they were huge machines that would encircle the patient claustrophobically and require him to lie absolutely still. The technological principles, however, were largely the same as today, i.e. measuring blood flows in the brain. Red blood cells contain iron and using an extremely powerful magnet, shifts in activity levels in the various parts of the brain can be measured indicating the shifting flows of thoughts. Whenever one part of the brain is being used more intensively than other parts, that particular area will “light up” on the scanner because the blood will flow in to provide the extra energy required to complete the process.

Gradually, via tens of thousands of scans, the scientists mapped the ways in which individual parts of the brains react to stimuli and tasks, and even now - several decades later - that mapping is being refined into still more detailed and complete insights into the brain's functions.
As has been demonstrated numerous times, biology is a complex matter. Each individual kind of thought does not activate just one area of the brain. Many different areas work together at all times and the ways and manners in which they interlink are key to understanding the brain.
Nonetheless, the precision and reliability of present day scan technology has reached a level that offers us a very useable view of what takes place inside a person's brain.
Today, when you put a scanner net on, its precision is significantly higher than the heavy-duty apparatuses used a few decades ago. It is a good example of how dramatically the tools that we use have changed thanks to recent developments within material technologies. The scanner net is an ultra closely knit cap made from microscopic threads. The material is designed - from the basic molecular level - to be not just super conductive, but extremely durable, as well.

You Cannot Hide What You Know

Compared with so many other radical technologies, the spread of mind readers has progressed amazingly easy.
The police obviously was among the first to discover the potential. Earlier polygraphs had been inaccurate, to say the least. They measured blood pressure, breathing and sweating to determine whether a person was lying or not.
In comparison, “brain fingerprinting” was a considerable improvement. The system was very simple - a matter of determining whether or not a person had a particular memory. Any important event in a person's life will leave its mark in the brain - like a fingerprint. Furthermore, whenever a person sees an object he or she has seen before, the brain will give off an impulse - which is impossible to hide or repress. Hence, the person up for interrogation would be fitted with a headband featuring electrodes that could measure changes in the electric impulses of the nerve cells.
This technique was used in murder cases in the USA as early as in 2000. A series of objects were shown to the suspect - some of which were conclusive evidence, distinctive objects such as the murder weapon, a scarf or a picture of an important person relating to the case. If the result of the test showed that the accused recognized one or more of the conclusive pieces of evidence, it was a strong indication of involvement.

Today, we can get far more detailed insight into a person's reactions. Scans will show if the person is afraid or angry, if he thinks strategically or impulsively, if he is surprised, confused, etc. The fundamental weakness remains, however, that you cannot see what a person thinks. We can only get the sketchy outlines of the type of thought or reaction.
The uncertainty is due to the incredible complexity of human thinking. For instance, there are more than 100 different types of lies: a rehearsed lie, a defensive lie, spontaneous lying, etc. Each one of which is characterized by its own particular pattern of activity in the various parts of the brain.

Studying The Consumer's Innermost Wishes

The early years of the millennium were characterized by terrorism, and hence even very radical new methods were fairly easily adopted in the fight against terrorists. Psychologists and brain researchers alike started identifying various patterns of brain reactions that would reveal a tendency to violent behavior or psychopathic features, just as they would look for latent depressions, schizophrenia or dementia. Together with analyses of the genetic impact on the brain, these findings have given the researchers some valuable tools to understanding a person's character. To a lot of people, their doctor's insight into their brain has been a truly wonderful experience, but as is almost always the case, new technologies come at a price.

Carsten Lall Pedersen, the cognition-ethicist, points to the fact that much research is based on a rather doubtful approach: “Most researchers tend to take a completely mechanical look at things. They underestimate the extent to which the human character and our way of thinking is constantly being shaped by the lives that we live. Believing that we can evaluate and judge people on the basis of scans and DNA analyses is being naïve.”
Carsten Lall Pedersen's concerns are deeply rooted in the fact that brain scan analyses often end up being used by employers or insurance companies for evaluation purposes.

Neuromarketing is yet another disputable aspect of this technology. In connection with most major launches, whether advertising campaigns, new products, Hollywood movies or music recordings by top bands, scan tests will usually have been carried out on a number of consumers to determine their reactions.
Neuromarketing has made it possible for companies to get a far more precise understanding of the consumers' likings and conceptions of their products and brands.

Towards The Mass-Market

The combination of scans and a direct hook up between nerve cells and electronics seems to be the next major advancement.
Mehmet Ehwel, Head of New Product Developments at Cognetiqs inc., expects this technology to take off in the coming five years - from being used primarily by professionals and for specialized purposes to becoming a new everyday interface - like a technological expansion of our senses.
Having a direct neurological interface implanted will no longer be reserved for specially trained operators like Anders and Laura. In the words of Mehmet Ehwel an vast number of small and large applications in everyday life will benefit from this development: “Road safety is the obvious first choice. Neurological interfaces were originally developed for jet pilots. There were obvious benefits to them from eliminating the 2-3 tenths of a second it takes for the body to react to the impulses it receives from the brain. But in fact it's just as important to anyone driving a car. With a direct interface, the car will sense if you are tense so it can turn the radio onto soothing music and hold back any incoming calls - or if you are tired, it will play loud music to keep you from nodding off.”

The entertainment industry, including the seedier niches, has long since spotted the potential of the new technologies. Former Japanese electronics magnate, Sony, first patented a number of concepts that could transfer sound and images directly to the optic and acoustic nerves in the late 1990's. Since then, all major players in the entertainment industry have explored new media offering direct neuro-stimuli. The colaboration between the entertainment industy and the medical industry has been described in countless articles. The joint efforts have resulted in number of significant achievements; aiding blind people by connecting cameras directly to the optic nerves as well as relieving paralytics by either offering neuro-controlled artificial limbs or recreating the neural interfaces that may have been severed.

All indications are that the surgical procedure of inserting implants that can read neural impulses will become far less complicated and therefore cheaper in just a few years. Meanwhile, we will probably see a whole range of household and toy robots, which are currently being remote-controlled via the web, being fitted with neuro-interfaces instead.
“This means that many of the robots around us will “feature” a person, who may physically be located somewhere entirely different, but who controls it and sees and hears everything through the robot” says Professor Bente Krahn from the Copenhagen School of Architecture.
“The technology will obviously also make our dealings in virtual universes and computer games far more comfortable and intuitive. The difference between controlling a real, physical robot and a character in a computer universe will, increasingly, be practically non-existent.”

A far more controversial aspect of the cooperation between the entertainment and the medical industries is that of attempting to stimulate the nervous system to feel joy, ecstasy, concentration or even sexual arousal.
In principle, the method is devoid of side-effects from hazardous chemicals, but psychologists fear that this type of stimulation may turn out to be as addictive and hazardous as any medical or drug abuse.

Physical Limits Disintegrate

The human being's urge to constantly communicate with friends and families seems insatiable - as has been obvious since the early days of the mobile phones, SMS, online universes and up until present day life-stream data sharing. Scan-nets and neuro-interfaces are rapidly adding new dimensions to the ways in which we interact.
In the 2010s, numerous experiments were made to integrate everyday objects into an ambient, “peripheral” form of communication - on e example being lamps that would emit different kinds of light depending on how a friend or relative would feel at the particular time. Other fads of the day were cushions and padded clothes that would turn warm or vibrate whenever someone near and dear sent their greetings.

Some artists' communities have made a career of exploring extreme interfacing. “We have become a new species,” concludes MixMash, a Korean art-society: “We can be everywhere at once. Our brains are joined. What we see is not necessarily our own outlook, and what we feel may be somebody else's feelings. What we experience may be past or present - or even an artificial existence. Reality is bigger now”.

Back at the operator training session, Anders may have a somewhat more pragmatic approach. He is curious, though, to see the results of interfacing with Laura. Being together at this workshop was not entirely incidental - he had made sure to get into the same project group as her. Hmmm, he was definetely developing a crush on her - and he sensed that Laura was feeling much the same way.

Text: Peter Hesseldahl