“Brain-Reading Devices Could Kill the Keyboard”

September 7th, 2011

I’m not sure how I feel about this.

The fMRI brain scans showed certain patterns of human brain activity sparked by thinking about physical objects, such as a horse or a house. Researchers also used the brain scans to identify brain activity shared by words related to certain topics — thinking about “eye” or “foot” showed patterns similar to those of other words related to body parts.

“The basic idea is that whatever subject is on someone’s mind — not just topics or concepts, but also emotions, plans or socially oriented thoughts — is ultimately reflected in the pattern of activity across all areas of his or her brain,” said Matthew Botvinick, a psychologist at Princeton University’s Neuroscience Institute.

Brain-reading devices would likely first help paralyzed people such as physicist Stephen Hawking, but still won’t happen for years, Botvinick cautioned. There is also the problem of making brain scan technologies more portable, if ordinary people hope to get a shot at freeing up their hands from typing.

Yet Botvinick envisioned a future where such technology could translate any mental content about not just objects, but also people, actions, abstract concepts and relationships.

One existing technology allows patients suffering from complete paralysis — known as locked-in syndrome — to use their eyes to select one letter at a time to form words. Another lab prototype allows patients to make synthesized voices by using their thoughts to create certain vowel sounds, even if they can’t yet form coherent words. But truly direct thought-to-word translation remains out of reach.

To use this effectively, would I need to re-work how I think and write? I have some innate relationship between my thoughts and my fingers when I type. I can usually type just as fast as I can think. This doesn’t work with a pen (another reason why I hate hand-writing). How fast could I put words on paper (or the equivalent) just by thinking? Not sure.