In contrast to many of the reviews thus far, I chose to focus, not on an event or media resource, but on a science project in progress. Jack Gallant’s team at Berkeley is one of a few around the world making rapid, surreal advances in the field of neuroscience. Behind the closed doors of the Berkeley laboratories, Gallant and his team are actively decoding the human mind.
The article at the link above, entitled “Brain Decoding: Reading Minds” demonstrates that by playing video for an individual, and monitoring that individual’s mental activity in response to the images via FMRI, scientists at Berkeley have been able to train computer programs to recognize certain patterns. These programs are “trained,” à la Turing, to “Decipher what people are seeing, hearing and feeling, as well as what they remember or even dream about.” Through the use of “pattern classifier” algorithms, computers can predict what the image is that any individual is looking at on screen at any given moment.
This article, and the research being done at Berkeley, speaks to Ray Kurzweil’s “Theory of Accelerating Returns,” and to his concept of Technological Singularity. In Frankenstein, the doctor was able to easily reconstruct a human-like body. Where he stumbled was in his notions of the human mind and the human soul. The mind, though made of physical matter like the body, is far beyond the inventor’s comprehension. The doctor is stepping into the territory of the divine without being ready to assume the responsibility of that act, and now Jack Gallant is proceeding in his footsteps, hopefully to productive results.
On the positive side, “Brain Decoding” suggests that the new FMRI technology may help scientists to achieve two of Kurzweil’s major objectives. Kurzweil desired to map the entire human brain, neuron to neuron, to understand its organization on a fundamental level. He spoke of doing so with nanobot technology around the year 2030, so the Berkelians have departed from Kurzweil, but only in the means, not the end goal. The linked essay also addresses the notion of reverse engineering the brain, which Kurzweil said would be possible within my lifetime and the lifetime of everyone in this class.
The article also addresses certain limitations of our current technology to which Kurzweil also spoke. Yes, in some ways, men are starting to be able to teach computers like they would teach small children. Nonetheless, the training the programs now have is extremely rudimentary. The “voxels,” or pixels of the research image are not extremely fine, so the scientists cannot get an entirely clear image of what is going on inside the participant’s brain. In one example, the author of the article speaks of the fact that, when a participant was watching an underwater animal documentary, the program could perceive that the individual was watching this sort of film, but did not yet know how to conceptualize a “manatee.” It did not yet have an image associated to that particular animal, within its bank of images. This technology is clearly a work in progress that needs to be standardized and smoothed out. Nonetheless, if we are to believe in Kurzweil’s theories, this technology will likely be working at a much deeper level of sophistication by the end of the century. Kurzweil’s theories dictate that technology is getting rapidly smaller and more efficient, and the need for finer, smaller voxels should not be a problem.
The most interesting and mindboggling aspect to these technological wonders is the ethical dimension. According to the article, companies are already beginning to try to harness this technology for the purposes of reading the minds of consumers, in order to manipulate them. Like eugenics and other projects before it, this decoding of the mind has begun clearly with the best of intentions—with scientific curiosity—and turned quickly into something of much darker implications. What will it mean for society when a person’s deepest, darkest fantasies, thoughts and dreams can be projected onto a screen like any regular movie? How will privacy be violated? What does it mean that dreams—which are so fleeting and hard to pin down—are now viewable by scientists in a lab? We seem to be on the verge of a paradigm shift—a moment that will change our entire society in myriad ways. These implications seem to relate very well to issues that we are discussing from “Do Androids Dream?” and “Neuromancer,” in terms of consciousness, dreams and projected worlds, but also to earlier preoccupations with the disenchantment of knowledge. When dreams are so ordinary that they can be re-watched by the dreamer over breakfast, it is perhaps time that we rethink concepts of poetry, and of the imagination, in general.
I’m curious as to what this article brings to mind for you all, within the context of our course. It seems like it would allow us to go back and rethink other texts, in their depictions of futurity. In this strange time of ours, projections of science fiction regarding the future of society are quickly becoming the reality. If Kurzweil’s theory of technological singularity is accurate, the decoded mind may soon a basic fact of our lives. It may become a practical, technological reality, rather than pure theory, sooner than anyone could have ever imagined.