Saturday, 10 June 2017

Read My Mind, Not My Lips

 What do chimps actually see when they look at a human face? According to recently published scientific research, the answer is they see the same thing we do. This week I read a press release in which are shown two images of the same man’s face: one is a straightforward photograph; the other is a print generated from the chimp’s brain waves. They are almost identical. The explanation of how brain waves can be tapped and extrapolated in this way was a little beyond my comprehension but assuming it’s not a hoax, the discovery could be very illuminating. Not only could it give us insight into how animals experience the world, but it could also make it possible to develop accurate mind-reading techniques – for humans as well as chimps.
Now, when you think of mind-reading you might be inclined to dwell on sinister applications, such as criminals acquiring your secret thoughts for the purpose of theft, extortion or worse. All they would have to do is kidnap you, wire your brain up to a reader and, hey presto, they have all your passwords or, more likely, the place where you wrote them down. Such a technique would be cleaner and more reliable than using violence to extract the information. The flip-side of the coin, of course, is that criminals could also be made to give up information, thereby making considerable savings within our judicial system.
Moreover, there are other, everyday useful applications to consider. Take, for example, shopping. The likes of Amazon and Google, being in the business of anticipating what we might buy, constantly collect whatever data they can in order to assemble profiles of us as consumers. They do a pretty good job of anticipating our proclivities, but their algorithms can’t quite keep up – they tend to show us ads for lawnmowers long after we have actually made the purchase. What would they give for direct access to up-to-the-minute information regarding our purchasing intentions? How long will it be before, in return for some useful freebie that soon becomes indispensible to our daily lives, they persuade us to wire ourselves up to our laptops so that they can monitor our brain waves and fulfil our unspoken desires?
Actually, I would willingly have allowed myself to be so wired in a shop the other day when, during the course of trying to choose a pair of sunglasses I became overwhelmed by the range of styles on offer. A sales assistant, sensing my distress, offered to help and, because she looked old enough to empathise and spoke with a fetching Italian accent, I felt I would be in safe hands, unlikely to walk out of the store as a victim of the latest eyewear fashion. She cut through my indecision by persuading me that a particular pair fitted well and suited me. The price-tag was hefty but there was a discount on offer and, although I noticed the little logo on the lens I planned to peel it off later. The assistant congratulated me on my choice despite the fact that, strictly speaking, it was hers, not mine. (Had my actual purchase matched what was in my mind’s eye, it would have looked different and cost less.) All of which goes to show that a skilled and experienced sales assistant, whilst not having direct access to a customer’s brain waves, may still be able to assess them intuitively. In this case, she recognised that I was fed up with the process of choosing and keen to acquire sunglasses without further ado.
Since I bought them, the weather has been cloudy and rainy. Moreover, the logo on the lens is a permanent feature and the specs remain in their box while I consider whether I have the stomach for taking them back and starting all over again. 

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