Two men sit with laptops connected with string

Internet users are increasingly finding that the ads that they see online are of products which they are interested in. 

It appears that the internet companies are reading the minds of the internet users to show them relevant products. 

Many people are confused about how internet giants like Google, Facebookand Amazon are getting this information, and some are also worried. 

These internet users as well as others should be aware that as the cost of surveillance technologies has reduced, mind reading tech is becoming more affordable. As a result, it is being widely used by corporations and other companies to understand customer behavior better and increase sales.

Most people believe that what they think remains private. However, with advances in brain computer interface (BCI), the thoughts of an individual may not remain private. 

It is already possible to predict the behavior of internet users based on search terms, likes, social media, as well as the content that is posted online. When a person thinks, neural signals are being generated. 

Technology will soon be able to record these neural signals, and decode them to understand what the person is thinking. This information could then be converted into text or speech depending on the requirement.

A research team at the University of California, San Francisco, published results of a successful attempt at translating neural activity into speech via a deep-learning powered BCI.

The team placed small electronic arrays directly on the brains of five people and recorded their brain activity. It also monitored  the movement of their jaws, mouths and tongues as they read out loud from children’s books. This data was then used to train two algorithms: one learned how brain signals instructed the facial muscles to move; the other learned how these facial movements became audible speech.

Once the algorithms were trained, the participants were again asked to read out from the children’s books, this time merely miming the words. 

Mature patient waiting for electrodes to be fixed

Using only data collected from neural activity, the algorithmic systems could decipher what was being said, and produce intelligible synthetic versions of the mimed sentences.

Gopala Anumanchipalli,  a speech scientist who led the study, said in an interview with the Guardian: “At this stage we are using participants who can speak so this is only proof of concept.

“But this could be transformative for people who have these neurological disabilities. It may be possible to restore their communication again.”

Since the neural signals from the brain are noisy, a lot of effort is required to decode these signals. However in the last few decades, a large amount of money has been invested in research by companies like Facebook and other organizations in developing the technology. 

Companies are planning to use the technology to have machines directly read the mind of humans, without any speech being required. In addition to decoding the brain signals, the focus is also on deep learning, using the experience of the person embedded in the brain, to find out what the person will say. 

Research has so far been conducted on volunteers, placing electronic arrays on their brains. It also monitors the movement of their muscles and records what they speak, to decode the neural signals.

One of the main hurdles regarding development of the technology are privacy and ethical concerns. Many people may not be interested in losing their privacy, only for a better online experience or better services. 

Marcello Ienca, a research fellow at ETH Zurich who evaluates the ethics of neuro-technology expressed concerns over the implications of the study. He explained in an article published by the Guardian: “We have already reached a point where analysts at social media companies can use online data to make reliable guesses about pregnancy or suicidal ideation.

Once consumer BCIs become widespread and we have enough brain recordings in the digital eco-system, this incursion into parts of ourselves that we thought were unknowable is going to be even more pronounced.”

By Janine Griffiths

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