Did Scientists Just Invent A Mind Reading Implant? | Unveiled
Did Scientists Just Invent A Mind Reading Implant? | Unveiled

Did Scientists Just Invent A Mind Reading Implant? | Unveiled

VOICE OVER: Callum Janes WRITTEN BY: Dylan Musselman
True mind reading is finally HERE! Join us, and find out more!

In this video, Unveiled takes a closer look at a major breakthrough in the quest toward true MIND READING! After years of work, scientists have produced a Brain Computer Interface (BCI) that really DOES enable communication without physical speech... and it's a total game changer in the field!

Did Scientists Just Invent A Mind Reading Brain Implant?

It was once science fiction, but it’s now becoming a reality. We’ve seen it before with everything from submarines to credit cards, that sci-fi technologies can enter into the real world… but many thought that reading minds would always be impossible. Turns out, we were wrong.

This is Unveiled, and today we’re answering the extraordinary question; did scientists just invent a mind reading brain implant?

Today’s topic is really the product of many years’ worth of work, across multiple disciplines. Research around the reading of minds has been rapidly advancing thanks to parallel advancements in the fields of neuroscience and artificial intelligence. Breakthroughs across both have led to progress in understanding and interpreting brain activity, in general. The key to mind reading, though, is to translate specific brain waves or firing neurons into something that can be read; into words and language.

Excitingly, the turning of thoughts into words has seemed more and more possible in recent times. In 2021, researchers published an article in the journal “Nature” detailing how they had managed to recreate text in real time based on imagined hand motions. By simply having participants picture the act of writing out words or letters, a computer was able to decipher the neural activity of those participants with extremely high accuracy, up to 94%, and so uncover what it was that they were picturing. The technology uses something called a Brain-computer interface, or BCI, which is a small chip or electrode that’s placed on or implanted into the head to pick up brain waves and neural connections.

There are already other methods to measure brain activity, as well, though. Research in 2019, again published in “Nature”, used a Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging machine (or fMRI). In the experiment, scientists managed to make an AI recreate pictures of human faces previously seen by participating human beings. After showing participants a generated image of a person’s face, a variational auto-encoder was able to work out what that face looked like by simply scanning those participants’ brains, and turning recorded brain activity back into another image. It was able to do this 95% successfully.

Now, the details of yet another ground-breaking experiment have been released. A team of researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, have managed to push mind-reading technology even further than before. Back in 2019, and operating in the lab of neurosurgeon Edward Chang, the team began studying a man who had become fully paralyzed following a car accident many years earlier. After agreeing to the operation, surgeons cut open his skull and attached a small BCI onto the surface of his brain to again read his neural activity. With the chip in place, researchers then set out to study possible ways for the man to talk - an impossibility for him before the study.

What soon became clear was that he was now able to type words onto a computer screen by simply thinking about them. The research was deemed another breakthrough success, although it was also very limited. The man could only articulate his words from a list of about 50 total and the constructed sentences were incorrect more than 25% of the time. Since then, however, the authors have published another research paper, again involving the same man. In 2022, the team furthered their research by switching up their methodology. Instead of having their participant picture words from a preloaded bank, they had him picture letters by using the NATO phonetic alphabet. If he wanted to say “A,” he would focus on saying Alpha. Bravo for B, Charlie for C, and so on. By utilizing this new technique, he was able to construct entire sentences and with a vastly improved vocabulary. Over the course of the study, more than 1,000 different words were decoded, a much greater amount than he could initially communicate with.

Again, though, there are some problems. By spelling out individual letters, his vocabulary may have increased but the rate of word formation suffered. He went from being able to speak 50 words to over 1,000, with computer simulations showing that up to 9,000 unique words would be possible. However, at the same time he was only able to form about 29 characters per minute - around seven to ten words - on average. That's a very slow rate as compared to regular human speech, which runs at a speed of about 120 to 160 words per minute. Clearly, there’s work still to be done. The good news, though, is that speed appears now to be the only thing stopping scientists from having true, real-time conversations with anyone else’s mind. We now have the base technology in place, and just need to refine it to be better and more efficient.

In fact, to some degree, we’re already doing that. A separate study run in 2022 by the Caltech neuroscientist Sarah Wandelt successfully demonstrated an ability to interpret words - rather than letters - by reading a person’s mind. This time, the experiment was run by targeting an electrode specifically on someone’s posterior parietal cortex - a particular region of their brain. And, interestingly, as the participant here was bilingual, the linked computer could reportedly identify both spanish and english terms. The main limitation was that this was again an early study, involving the computer successfully predicting words out of only a small group of possibilities.

Indeed, there are a number of complications that arise from research like this, and some reasons as to why it may have seemed slow up until now. There’s a reported lack of test participants, and experiments often require invasive surgery on those who do come forward - cutting into the skull and impacting the surface of the brain. There are also issues with maintaining brain implants, which potentially means that they’d need to be regularly replaced… which would require yet more surgery and possible risk. There are non-invasive surface devices in development too, but so far they’re unable to read the brain’s thoughts as clearly. Nevertheless, many argue that the safer direction to take is to create better non-invasive implants. Theoretically, there should then be much less risk involved.

Finally, there are perhaps some wider social implications to consider, too. In all of the experiments so far, mind reading implants are clearly a hugely positive thing, with the power to restore speech to people who have completely lost the ability to communicate. This type of science and technology was once just a dream, but now we’re on the verge of making it happen. However, some have raised concerns about the alternative directions it could take in the future. Might those with an implant installed also be much more vulnerable, for example? With their inner thoughts accessible, could a mind-reading chip be used for more nefarious purposes? Could it be hacked or encrypted by an outside source? For now, thankfully, these are more questions for a sci-fi dystopia… but there are sure to be many unforeseen issues that scientists and developers will have to workaround. With mind reading made possible, the natural instinct to think before you speak could disappear… and that could lead to a wholly different world.

However this story pans out, there is still a way to go. Implants still need a great deal of technical refinement before they’re truly free flowing. We know that when a brain does decide to talk, it sends many more signals than just those for the words it wishes to say. Signals to move the tongue, the mouth, the jaw, and more, are all tangled together with the signal for the word itself. For mind reading to become more efficient, we need to learn how to cut through that background noise and isolate the important signs, only.

It’s also important to note that all implants so far require some kind of clear midway point between one brain and another - the computer systems used to translate brain activity. No experiment to date has shown instant telepathy… with the mechanics of that sci-fi superpower still mostly unknown. There is an effort toward making brain implants fully wireless, to allow for more practicality, which could be the next step forward.

As with all developing technology, it’s very much a case of watch this space. Look back just a few decades ago, and the implants that we have now would’ve been very difficult to imagine… but they are here, and the world is watching closely as to what happens next. Because that’s how scientists really are inventing a mind-reading brain implant.