IBM 5 in 5: Mind Reading is no longer science fiction

Brown wearing the EPOC headset.
Editor's note:  This post about IBM's 5 in 5 prediction of mind reading technology is by Kevin Brown of IBM Software Group's Emerging Technologies.

One of the many great things about working with the Emerging Technology Services team is that I am always focused on “what’s next.”  For a long time speech recognition fitted into this category as the computing industry looked to make technology more pervasive to free our finger tips from typing and to help us become more productive.

We are benefitting from this today with voice recognition for our cars, smartphones and even automated phone services for banks and travel reservations.

Now that speech recognition is becoming mainstream, and many other forms of human computer interaction have come along, like touch, gesture recognition, etc., we are thinking about what’s next - or in the case of the IBM 5 in 5 - what's next by 2017. In my view there will be huge leaps made in bioinformatics - this is a large topic, so I am more specifically referring to the use of sensors to understand our thoughts.

No longer just wishful thinking

While much of the brain remains a mystery, progress has been made in understanding and reading electrical brain activity were we can use computers to see how the brain responds to facial expressions, excitement and concentration levels, and the thoughts of a person without them physically taking any actions.

So the idea is to use these electrical synapses to also do everyday activities such as placing a phone call, turning on the lights or even in the healthcare space for rehabilitation. In fact, that is what initially inspired me to look at this field more closely.

In March 2009, Shah, an IBM colleague, had a stroke which left him completely paralyzed, unable to use his muscles, and without the ability to speak. His brain however was working fine - a condition called Locked-In Syndrome, which means he can only communicate with his eyes - looking up for yes, and down for no.

Coincidentally, my wife happened to be his occupational therapist and I demonstrated to her a device that I had recently been investigating called the EPOC from Emotiv.  The device has several sensors sitting on your head, that actually read electrical brain impulses. You can train the device so that by thinking a particular thought, an action can take place on your computer.  So for example, using Emotiv's software, you can see a cube on your computer screen and think about moving it to the left, and it will. While I was initially interested in connecting it to email systems and smartphones for business users, it immediately became clear to us how this could help Shah.

Shah being a techie himself was open to testing it out.  Amazingly, after only 8 seconds of training, he could move the cube at will on the computer screen.  We then connected the device to software which could eventually allow control of the environment. The concentration needed whilst operating the headset is quite a lot, however, so more development of the technology and more training in using the headset may be needed to make it entirely effective. I'm sure this will continue developing within the next 5 years.

This isn’t the only example of progress in this area.  Scientists at UC Berkeley have designed and developed a special MRI scan that can model our visual thoughts both while we are awake, but even more intriguingly, while we are dreaming.

All in the Applications

This is a case where the technology has now become cheap enough and mobile enough to become a consumer device but it will take the development of some compelling applications and innovative, imaginative uses over the next few years to really make people eager to use it.

By 2017, like all technology, the EPOC or other similar technologies will probably get smaller.  So I can imagine it will have completely dry sensors, and I'd be wearing it all the time, perhaps embedded into a baseball cap, and with a finer range of thought patterns detected and connected directly to my mobile phone - allowing me to interact with the world just by thinking particular thoughts.  In doing this I could wonder what the traffic will be like on the way home and this information would pop up in front of me.

If you also think about smarter cities, if everyone is wearing the device and open to sharing their thoughts, city heat maps could be created to see how people are feeling to create a picture of the mental health of a city. Or musicians could create elaborate pieces based on what they are thinking about.

The applications are endless, we just have to build them.

Think this topic is the most-likely prediction, or maybe just the most innovative, among the Next 5 in 5? Vote for it by clicking "like" on IBM's smarter planet.   


  1. While I see this idea as extremely helpful in the medical field where the benefit for the paralyzed patients are huge, I think that for everyday usage it should be carefully considered how to prevent its misuse. To quite an extent it strikes me as frightening that inner thoughts should become something like public property. As long as I can freely choose what to share, it's alright but I'm a bit afraid that we might not even be aware of wearing those devices one day.

  2. That's interesting to know. Well, scientist had done many studies about it.

  3. No one can prevent the misuse of this and other technology. It's meant to be used in so many other ways THINK on the military. They don’t need to tell us what they are doing, are they… Don’t be gullible be resourceful in searching on the net and you’ll know. This is the sad dark future for the slaves.

  4. emperor and his new clothes. another attempt at fooling the world

  5. Don't Believe the _AI_ Hype!

    In *1958*, "within ten years most theories in psychology will take the form of computer programs." - Herbert Simon.
    In *2011*, Mind reading is less than 5 years away - IBM.

  6. You've come so far since Boswells, Kevin. Nice to see your face looking out at me from Engadget. ;)

  7. I was discussing the idea to visually record dreams which have great potential for the best movies out there

  8. One of the best books I read this year was "Moonwalking with Einstein", the story of how an ordinary journalist trained for, and won, the US memory championships. In it, the author made the point about how the invention of books killed the well established art of mnemonics. Books are a kind of remote memory store which allow you to keep a record offline rather than store it in your brain. I was thinking about this idea in relation to Google, and how much I wished I had a Google implant that would allow me to look up anything I want by just thinking it. My predication is that this will indeed happen.

  9. My name is Steve and via implants I have a long range wireless full duplex video and audio neuro interface.its connected to a natural language AI system as well. If ibm or anyone else wants to invest or bypass this telemetry feel free to contact me. Its like a blue tooth implant as well. The audio computer interface would be good for development of a computer for the blind. The video feedback is limited by cognitive states and best for stationary virtual reality applications in theta delta states. I'm already wired.invest and progress. SamadhiW666@gmail.com

  10. we the scientists just need to be very very careful while trying to make such gadgets as we know lot of earlier inventions have been misused not only by individuals but by countries as well. One of the example is atomic power, which is miss used in making atom bombs.

  11. Computers are one of the most important foundation stone of today’s modernized world. Computers are almost used in all purposes ranging from household purposes to high scale industries. The extent of use of computers determines the advancement of the country. A computer is an electronic device, which executes software programs. It consists of 2 parts-hardware and software. The speed of computers also has a very large range. Computers have become indispensable in today’s world. Millions of people use computers all over the world.

  12. To all the fearful, we must not forget that in the battle between good and evil, science is neutral. To stand in the way of the evolution of human knowledge will do nothing to thwart the bad intentions of others, like it or not. This fascinating new step that we are about to take will bring the whole human race forward, good and evil alike. Focus your thoughts and dreams not on what evil might come out of such powerful new technology, but rather on what immense good might soon be possible.

  13. Padam Niroula from Kathmandu, Nepal.I am glad to see the News on Washington Post that we are in next innovation of technology. but still need to wait more ten years in Nepal because we are far from new innovation,if we are member of IBM in Nepal it would help us in time

  14. I have just acquired one of this interface (EPOC). We have a daughter that has a neurological desease thas makes impossible to make any body movement and this technology is a hope. I was some afraid to test it just becouse it looks like a dream... This article made me very happy... Thanks!

  15. We are the Borg....

  16. I think this is technology that can help us all become more connected and mindful because ironically it will get our heads out of technology and back into our lives.

  17. i think the technology that they will be coming up with will totally help us in the future. good job guys. keep up the good work!