How some companies are spending millions to read your mind

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Technology can now track our every move but will digging into the most complex human organ, the brain, unravel a treasure trove of insights or is it an ethical minefield?

From helmets to implants inside the brain, companies like Elon Musk’s ‘Neuralink’ are spending millions of dollars to get inside your head.

It could soon bring new meaning to the phrase ‘I know what you’re thinking.’

The advances in technology will help doctors and scientists understand illnesses like stroke, neurological conditions and even aging. 

But will unlocking the most complex human organ unravel a treasure trove of insights or is it a threat to our innermost thoughts?

The Feed/ Pat Forrest
Still image of multiple satellite dishes below text ‘brain-computer interface systems.
The Feed/ Pat Forrest

Brain-computer interface technology has made quantum leaps in recent years, according to Angela Renton from Queensland’s Brain Institute.

“I think definitely within the decade, versions of this technology are going to be on the market. I think the question is just in terms of the level of sophistication that we're going to be able to achieve.“

She says in the future we may even see technology that can live-stream someone’s thoughts onto a screen.

“Current techniques tend to be kind of a compromise between getting really fine resolution on a very, very tiny part of your brain or getting blurry, noisy data about what's happening across your whole brain. “

“One day if we can get really great advances in the way that we actually measure brain activity. That might become a possibility, but we're a long way off it right now.”

Animation of BCI technology reading brain and translating onto computer screen
Animation of BCI technology reading brain and translating onto computer screen.
The Feed/ Pat Forrest

Paralysed man communicates using brain tech

Massive medical feats have already been achieved using brain-computer interface technology. 

It's advanced to the point that a man paralysed more than a decade ago is now able to communicate after he had two computer chips the size of a baby aspirin inserted in his brain.

He visualised holding a pen and his imagined handwriting appeared as words on a screen.

The brain-computer interface technology works by ‘listening’ to brain activity and decoding the complex web of signals in real-time.

Angela Renton from Queensland’s Brain Institute says the technology has the ability to completely change someone's life.

“These devices are potentially life-changing for people who might have some sort of condition where your brain is still working but you can no longer have any sort of motor output. 

“For these people, they all of a sudden get back the ability to communicate with the outside world,” Ms Renton says.

Not up for brain surgery? How about a helmet?

Among those to enter the brain-tech race is American-based company Kernel which has developed a helmet retailing at $50,000 USD.  The company’s CEO Bryan Johnson says in a decade the device could deliver personalised mental health data and end up costing about the same as a smartphone.

“We believe we can get it in almost every household in the early 2030s,” 

“If you think about what we do with our brain and our minds today, we are in that primitive world where we go see somebody and they ask us how we're doing, how we feel.”

“We don't have any numbers, there's no way to measure it. The way we deal with our mental wellbeing is a bit crazy today. And so what the technology that we've done will be about measuring our brain and our minds” Johnson says.

Chile has introduced human rights bills protecting mental privacy
Chile has introduced human rights bills protecting mental privacy.
The Feed/ Pat Forrest

Why are tech companies getting involved?

The medical reasons for examining the brain are understandable but why are tech companies so eager to get their hands on technology that can read people’s brains? And what happens to all that data? 

Facebook has spent years trying to unlock the mysteries of the brain and has only recently shelved its plans.

 

Professor Jeannie Paterson from The University of Melbourne’s Centre for AI and Digital Ethics says now is the time to start thinking about what protections we want around brain data.

“I don't want a social media company, which has a really bad history of unethical behaviour funding research that can change the way in which humans interact in the world.”

Countries like Chile are already looking at a human rights bill to protect things like brain data and mental privacy from tech companies.  

What is the future of brain-computer interface technology?

When it comes to technology everything was once unthinkable.

But before you start fashioning a tinfoil hat to stop social media from reading your brain, technology still has a long way to go.

Brains are like fingerprints, no two are the same.

Neuroscientists have only just begun to scratch the surface of how the brain works.

Reading a brain is one thing, decoding the human mind is another altogether.

The human mind may be too sophisticated and unique to be read by a computer…for now.