The Cheat Sheet

Mind, (not) your own business!

JINOY JOSE P | Updated on January 08, 2018 Published on October 11, 2017
Speaking figuratively?

Well, literally, if you don’t mind.

What? Mind, a business?

Let me make it clearer. Today, we’re discussing how several companies are investing millions in an effort to read, yes, the mind. But before we get to that, let me ask if you have come across the news that scientists can now read a bird’s brain and even predict its next song?

I’m confused. Should I say ‘wow’ or ‘OMG’?

Never mind, fact is, as reported by the MIT Technology Review this week, scientist Timothy Gentner and students at the University of California, San Diego, recently developed a “brain-to-tweet” interface that figures out the song a bird — a zebra finch — is going to sing a fraction of a second before it does so. Our humble finch is not a ‘proper’ songbird like a nightingale; it ‘quacks to sing’. The scientists predicted what she would sing 30 milliseconds before the bird let out that sound.

Wow! How did they do that?

The scientists say they have managed to decode “realistic synthetic birdsong” directly from the bird’s neural activity. And the team that has done this study are no run-of-the-mill researchers. It includes a birdsong expert (Argentinian Ezequiel Arneodo). The system could be the perfect start to humanity’s long and tiring journey to develop decoder of “complex, natural communication signals from neural activity”.

So, can this pave the way for a thought-to-text software?

You never know. Given the enthusiasm shown by companies, entrepreneurs and the scientific community in this area of research, popularly called Brain Machine Interfaces, we could see such a tool in the near future. And any form of success could give millions of people, who otherwise are challenged to express their thoughts, a means to express themselves and communicate with the world outside. That’s just one of the many possibilities.

Interesting! But is there enough business interest in this?

It seems the ‘who’s who’ of modern tech are after this gamble. Last April, entrepreneur extraordinaire Elon Musk, founder of e-carmaker Tesla and rocket-maker SpaceX, talked about Neuralink, a suitably clandestine new brain-interface company that he funds. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who generally does not share Musk’s maverick ideas, also said that direct brain interfaces (non-invasive) will soon let people communicate with their minds. Facebook has some 60 engineers working on this. As media put it then, Facebook wants to help you “type with your mind and hear with your skin”.

That’d be quite something! So basically we’re wiring our brains to computers.

Hopefully , and with all good intentions, so far. Musk is very nervous about the ill effects of technology, especially of Artificial Intelligence. So he wants to build solutions where human intelligence excels or complements AI. People like him tend to think solutions like direct brain-machine interfaces give humans the much needed edge over possible threats from, say, AI.

Fine, but are the benefits of such activities limited to tech and communications?

Not at all. A series of allied industries will benefit. Take healthcare. If you are wearing a band that can track your neural activity and derive conclusions on your behalf, it would benefit you in a big way if you are going to experience, say, a stroke. The band can immediately send a message to your hospital or your doctor or any other concerned souls and make medical care available to you when needed. These instances are not part of science fiction any more.

And there are investors who believe in the potential for such solutions. The $27-million Neuralink has raised stand testimony to that. The startup plans to raise over a $100 million this year. Researchers expect the brain-to-machine sector to be valued over $1 billion in about a year or so. In sum, the mind means business.

A weekly column that helps you ask the right questions

Published on October 11, 2017

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