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TRENDING SCIENCE: What are you thinking? New computer interface reads minds

Computer monitors brain signals to generate images of thoughts.

Fundamental Research icon Fundamental Research

How often have we found ourselves wishing we knew what others were thinking? Other people’s thoughts are their own, of course – or are they? Researchers from the University of Helsinki have developed a computer-based technique that can monitor brain activity and create images based on these signals. The results were published in the journal ‘Scientific Reports’.

What’s on your mind? Let me draw you a picture

“The technique combines natural human responses with the computer’s ability to create new information. In the experiment, the participants were only asked to look at the computer-generated images. The computer, in turn, modeled the images displayed and the human reaction toward the images by using human brain responses. From this, the computer can create an entirely new image that matches the user’s intention,” co-author Tuukka Ruotsalo, Academy of Finland research fellow at the University of Helsinki and associate professor at the University of Copenhagen, commented in a University of Helsinki press release. The research team showed 31 volunteers hundreds of AI-generated images of different people in rapid succession. They were asked to concentrate on certain features like faces that looked old or were smiling. During this entire time, their brain activity was recorded by an electroencephalogram and fed into a neural network. This network discovered connections between electrical signals in the brain and what the subjects were looking at. Then, the network evaluated what types of faces the volunteers were thinking of. The researchers asked the participants to assess images produced by the computer on how well they corresponded to the features they were thinking of. The computer matched their thoughts 83 % of the time.

AI to make us more creative, better understand how we perceive things

Can the computer potentially enhance human creativity? “If you want to draw or illustrate something but are unable to do so, the computer may help you to achieve your goal. It could just observe the focus of attention and predict what you would like to create,” Prof. Ruotsalo added. The method can also be used to understand perception and other fundamental mental processes. “The technique does not recognise thoughts but rather responds to the associations we have with mental categories,” explained co-author and postdoctoral researcher Michiel Spapé. “Thus, while we are not able to find out the identity of a specific ‘old person’ a participant was thinking of, we may gain an understanding of what they associate with old age. We, therefore, believe it may provide a new way of gaining insight into social, cognitive and emotional processes.” Spapé believes this is fascinating from a psychological point of view, too. “One person’s idea of an elderly person may be very different from another’s. We are currently uncovering whether our technique might expose unconscious associations, for example by looking if the computer always renders old people as, say, smiling men.” This major development doesn’t mean that computers will be reading our minds anytime soon. You don’t think, do you? A penny for your thoughts.


computer, mind, brain, brain signal, image, brain activity