Want Super Powers? Try Super Technology - CTTEC - Carnegie Mellon University

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Want Super Powers? Try Super Technology

A man's head is enclosed by a big, pillow-shaped machine. Scientists in white coats take notes as the machine scans the subject's brain waves, seeking to penetrate his thoughts—to read his mind. "I think the word is 'eye,'" the computer says in an otherworldly voice, after performing a lengthy analysis.

Is this a comic book? Not quite—but pretty close.

Researchers from Intel Labs Pittsburgh (INTC), Carnegie Mellon University, and the University of Pittsburgh are working on a project called NeuroSys. Using a 1,000-word database, they have developed software that uses a system of algorithms that can match a person's brain activity with words they are thinking—in other words, a device that can read minds.

For centuries, people have dreamed of overcoming the natural limitations of our bodies and minds to become, in effect, superhuman. In comic books and TV series like ABC's No Ordinary Family, super powers are reserved mainly for those who have been born with mutant abilities (Wolverine), are alien to Earth (Superman), or were somehow exposed to radiation (Spider-Man). But while it is unlikely that any of us were born on Krypton, technology can help us when nature and gamma rays can't. Through technology, we have already learned to defy gravity, move at great speeds, and survey the depths of the ocean and the outer reaches of the stars. Now technology can help mere mortals breathe underwater like Aquaman, repel bullets like Superman, and even manipulate the weather like Storm.

For example, scientists at Raytheon (RTN) have been working on an exoskeleton to give its user super strength like that of the Hulk. Researchers at the University of Washington are working on bionic contact lenses that would give wearers Superman-like super vision. (To see an array of tech-induced super powers, click here.)

Decoding the Meaning of Thoughts

Most of these technologies are still at the research stage or are too expensive for commercial use. You'd have to be as rich as Tony Stark—the billionaire alter ego of Marvel Entertainment's Iron Man—to be able to afford most of these powers. It remains that what we once thought impossible is on the verge of becoming possible.

In comic books, characters such as the X-Men's Professor X or Emma Frost possess the power to read people's minds. For millennia this has been regarded as the ultimate power. Such a tool could be used to control armies and create fortunes. Fortune telling and mystical mumbo-jumbo aside, it has been a power about which we can only dream. Perhaps for not much longer.

At the NeuroSys Project in Pittsburgh, Dean Pomerleau, one of the researchers from Intel, spends one to two hours in a magnetoencephalography (MEG) machine, a bulky piece of equipment that looks like a giant salon hair dryer and can monitor brain activity. He is given a set of words to think and the machine identifies the locations in his brain that show increased activity. The parts that light up when thinking "dog," for instance, are different from those that respond to "airplane."

The machine's learning algorithm typically matches activity in more than 1,000 of 20,000 possible locations in the brain with a word, says Pomerleau. "It is a constellation of bright spots that can be interpreted pretty definitely as one word or another."

There also appear to be overlaps among languages. The same parts of the brain light up whether you are thinking of a word in Portuguese or English, for example. "We're not just decoding language, but the meaning of your thoughts," says Pomerleau.

Article Courtesy of Bloomberg Businessweek