We know what you're thinking. We read your brain

Researchers at Columbia University say they've translated brain signals directly into speech. This could help people recovering after a stroke. Ostensibly.

It was only a matter of time until we'd have scientists claiming they can read our minds. Certainly only a matter of time coming from the US, and especially the Zuckerman Institute at New York's Columbia University, which is renowned for research into neuroscience and the mechanics of the human brain.

Scan their most recent headlines and you get the gist:

"A new party trick: A hearing aid that reads minds" (…Studying how your brain picks individual voices from a crowd […] to build a better hearing aid that reads your mind.)

Or:

"Election Day: The brain science of making decision" (…Take a moment to ask yourself: How did my brain make this decision?)

And:

"Unlocking the memories inside our minds" (A fresh approach to studying how [human] brains remember.)

So it should come as no surprise to read today:

"Columbia engineers translate brain signals directly into speech."

The facts as we know them

A group of neuro-engineers at the Zuckerman Institute have been working on a technique called "auditory stimulus reconstruction" for some time. In the jargon of their paper — "Towards reconstructing intelligent speech from the human auditory cortex" — which has just been published in Nature, "reconstructing speech from the human auditory cortex creates the possibility of a speech neuroprosthetic to establish a direct communication with the brain and has been shown to be possible in both overt and covert conditions."

Related Subjects

The technology could make communicating easier for stroke survivors, or people with a motor neuron disease like ALS, which British scientist Stephen Hawking had

So basically they have developed a technology that can translate "brain activity" — signals sent from one part of the brain to another — into clear, intelligible speech.

There's a nifty little example of it counting up to 10. The audio quality is not great. But you can recognize the numbers, and all this extracted from a person while they were thinking to themselves, as it were.  

The technology uses a speech synthesizer — rather like the one that the late astrophysicist Stephen Hawking communicated through, and an artificial intelligence. What doesn't use an AI these days — even if the acronym "AI" only gets planted in an application to make a project seem more cutting edge? But whatever, right? 

Actually, there's no direct mention of artificial intelligence in the paper, and its sibling theory, machine learning, only crops up in the references. But given that we're talking about how the brain works, which involves neural networks, and given that scientists rely on AIs to automate the analysis and processing of data, there will be an AI in there somewhere.

Ostensibly, this technology could help people who, for instance, have suffered a stroke and are having trouble communicating through speech. Or people who, like Stephen Hawking, have a motor neuron disease such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

Scientists in the 1950s studied Albert Einstein's brain activity. Who knows what he would've thought about the new technology.

The future of now

The thing that stands out, however, is how the scientists say the technology can be used "in both overt and covert conditions."

No need for fear just yet. The scientists at Columbia used a technique called electrocorticography to read the brain signals in their research — and that would be pretty hard to do without a human subject knowing about it.

Read more: Like, yesterday: Drugs and dementia discovered early

Electrocorticography requires that you expose a part of the brain and attach electrodes directly to that exposed surface to be able to record any electrical activity — or, brain signals.

However…

It's not a giant leap from there to imagine a time when this very technique will be possible without your having to exposing your brain in all its rawness.

And who knows today what the technology could or would be used for then, and by whom, under which regulation?

Consider the research that suggests high blood pressure can be used as an indicator of dementia and other cognitive impairment. Consider all the sensors will carry around with us in digital devices, like phones, tablets, watches, fitness trackers and even wireless headphones.

How long will it be before fitness trackers, smart watches or Bluetooth headphones start tracking our cognitive activity?

Finally — but far from exclusively — consider how scientists have used ultrasound to monitor the flow of blood vessels in the necks of more than 3,000 people to track cognitive decline. If they can do that for cognitive decline, they will be able to do that for cognitive ability, and, indeed, any brain activity.

Certainly, in the long-run.

It's only a matter of time before our watches and in-ear headphones are reading our pulses for signs of electrical brain activity and spitting out reams of fully-formed, "recognizable speech."

When that happens, whether it's covert or overt, don't say we didn't raise it as a potential threat / opportunity here.

There will, at least, be one upside to it all: there will be fewer people walking down the streets, immersed in elaborate and loud phone conversations — replete with all the physical and facial gestures — while their interlocutors response from an entirely different location.

No. Instead the world will fall silent.

You'll simply think your conversations, arguments, slanging-matches, party tales, and horizontally-held voice messages.

The rest of us will be able to hear ourselves think again — and who knows who else will, too.

It's only a matter of time.

Stephen Hawking in popular culture

'A Brief History of Time' (1991)

Inspired by Hawking's 1988 best-selling book, "A Brief History of Time," in which the scientist presented his theories on cosmology, the title of this documentary by director Errol Morris rather portrays the scientist's life. It also features music by minimalist composer Philip Glass.

Stephen Hawking in popular culture

'Star Trek: The Next Generation' (1993)

In the TV series which ran from 1987 to 1994, Hawking appeared as his own hologram in one episode of Season 6, playing poker with the holograms of Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. The star physicist was the only guest in "Star Trek" to have played himself.

Stephen Hawking in popular culture

'Hawking' (2004)

Benedict Cumberbatch was the first actor to portray the physicist on screen. His performance in the BBC television film about Stephen Hawking's early years as a PhD student led to his first nomination for a BAFTA TV Award for best actor. Hawking and Cumberbatch are pictured here at a reception in support of Motor Neurone Disease Association at Buckingham Palace in 2015.

Stephen Hawking in popular culture

'The Theory of Everything' (2014)

Eddie Redmayne won the Oscar for best actor for his portrayal of Hawking in the British biopic "The Theory of Everything." James Marsch's film was adapted from the memoir written by the scientist's ex-wife, Jane Hawking. In "Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen," she described them meeting and founding a family, as well as his early success in physics and his diagnosis of ALS.

Stephen Hawking in popular culture

'Stephen Hawking's Universe' (2010)

The Discovery Channel six-part documentary series explored the vision of the great scientist. Along with other experts, Hawking revealed his current views on the Big Bang, the origins of the universe or even time travel and aliens.

Stephen Hawking in popular culture

'The Simpsons'

The popular cartoon is renowned for its cameos of pop culture stars; Hawking appeared several times in the long-running series. In "They Saved Lisa's Brain," he saves Lisa using his special wheelchair, complete with Inspector Gadget-style accessories allowing him to fly. In the episode, Homer asks his daughter, "Did you have fun with your robot buddy?"

Stephen Hawking in popular culture

'Futurama'

Hawking also made various guest appearances in the animated science fiction comedy series "Futurama," lending his voice to his character. In this episode, his head (left) discusses with other jarred intellectuals' brains at a scientific convention about a tear in the universe.

Stephen Hawking in popular culture

'Superhero movie' (2008)

This spoof of the superhero film genre includes a parody of Hawking himself, played by actor Robert Joy. Appearing at a high school science fair, his character does not reveal profound thoughts, he is rather unexpectedly rude, shocking everyone in the school. He gets punched for being so vulgar, but he gives a heartfelt speech at the end.

Stephen Hawking in popular culture

'Monty Python Live (Mostly)' (2014)

Hawking made a cameo appearance in the reunion show by the cult British comedy group Monty Python. For the "Galaxy Song," a pre-recorded video featured him in his wheelchair, singing the song after running down another star physicist, Brian Cox. He then goes on traveling through space.

Stephen Hawking in popular culture

Pink Floyd's 'Division Bell' (1994)

His trademark voice was sampled by the English prog rock band for the song "Keep Talking" on the album "The Division Bell." Hawking's voice can also be heard on another Pink Floyd track from their 2014 album, "The Endless River." The song is called "Talkin' Hawking."

Stephen Hawking in popular culture

Radio version of 'Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy' (2018)

Hawking's computer-generated voice can also be heard in a variety of media, from advertisements to video games. The new BBC Radio 4 series "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," which started airing in March, uses his voice as the character of The Guide Mark II.