Testing and mind reading
Back in the early 90's, I remember sitting in a computer science class looking at the sidebar in my textbook. It discussed an interesting computer program that could "read" the human mind. After some initial training of human and programming of machine, the technology enabled the disabled person to "type" a simple letter merely by concentrating on each individual letter. The computer with its electrodes did the rest. I found this both intriguing and a little disconcerting. Years passed, and I heard nothing more of this experimental technology, and I always wondered if it remained experimental, not progressing beyond what existed at the time I read of it, or if it had been taken over by some government agency and advanced to some unimaginable degree.

No breaking news, here, but I've been reading about terrorism this evening and that sparked the memory, so I did some web searches. Interesting stuff out there.

This "mind-reading" system, developed by NASA is most interesting. I had actually wondered about this before, because when I think, I "talk." Given the amount that my tongue and vocal chords twitch when I'm thinking or reading, I've always assumed that it wouldn't be all that difficult to monitor and interpret my thoughts if there were a way to monitor those subtle movements. Apparently there is.
"Biological signals arise when reading or speaking to oneself with or without actual lip or facial movement," says Chuck Jorgensen, a neuroengineer at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffet Field, California, in charge of the research. Just the slightest movements in the voice box and tongue is all it needs to work, he says.
(And it is nice to know that I'm not completely weird.) Out of curiosity, what is it like for the deaf? Do their hands twitch?

Earlier this year, the ACLU raised concern about two private companies who were planning on offering Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging as "lie detection" services to government agencies. This technology provides a "real-time" look into the brain while the subject answers questions. Correlations have been observed between certain brain patterns and highly controlled behaviors produced in laboratory settings. Is this enough to warrant suspicion (and possibly eventually conviction) in a crime?

And since we occasionally delve into issues of education, testing and tracking, a look at what this kind of technology could look like in the future as we navigate a world that could have access to our brain wave patterns as we pass through those little security gates at schools and airports. The examples are all obviously fictitious, but certainly not outside the realm of what might be possible given the rate at which already existing technology can improve. And what is the basic motivation behind early childhhood screening? TeenScreen? And aptitude tests in general? We want to know what the future holds for ourselves or our children. We want to remove the doubt and peer into the human mind to see what problems may lurk there and what talents may lie hidden beneath the surface. Passing our brains through a scanner seems a little disturbing to most, but it is not qualitatively different than filling out all those little bubbles on the plethora of non-academic tests pushed daily before our students against which there is little outcry.

Photo: From University of Wisconsin-Madison. Caption reads: "Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) lets scientists "see" local blood flow changes in the brain. This figure illustrates activation detected in the brain area called the amygdala in subjects who were shown pictures evoking strong emotions."

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