If you remember the BBC’s Tomorrow’s World, you’ll feel a moment of nostalgia at reading about this exciting scientific breakthrough. The tomorrow of Tomorrow’s World, like all tomorrows, never came. The marvellous invention or brand new piece of research that was going to change our lives for ever (tomorrow, obviously) never quite got to the point where it arrived in your kitchen or at a hospital near you. The marvellous machine today is the fMRI scanner. Today’s promise for tomorrow’s fMRI magic is that we can, finally, know what is going on in people’s minds. Other people’s minds. This is the great mystery and annoyance we all have to put up with, though if it ever comes to pass, I would be most eager to borrow it and find out what’s going on in my own mind first.
By a series of not yet even slightly perfected transformations of sound, magnetic resonance images, colour, waves, computer modelling of electrical signals, and the rate at which parts of the brain fired, neuroscientists felt they were able to reconstruct some of the words spoken to and then thought by their subjects: ‘Turning the brain waves they saw back into sound on the basis of what the computer model suggested those waves meant.’ Plus the number you first thought of. Listening to the incomprehensible sound of thoughts broadcast on Today this morning (I mean the ones in the piece about thought imaging, not necessarily the rest of the programme), I think even Raymond Baxter would have resisted the temptation to include it in Tomorrow’s World.
The justification for the research is that comatose patients and those with locked-in syndrome would be able to communicate with the outside world, and this would clearly be beneficial if it ever worked. But I don’t think this is really why the media have picked up so excitedly on the story. It’s more that we might all have to get naked and be known by anyone passing who is holding a portable thought-sound transformer – or an iPhone with an app for it. Everyone would know which books you hadn’t really read, what you thought of everyone, that you hadn’t actually got the flu, and that you were crazy in love with your mother, father, best friend’s partner or all three.
Trying for a bit more gravitas and to make it more Tomorrow’s Worldy, John Humphrys worried less about being overheard thinking his thoughts about his co-presenters, but put the Dr Strangelove case. You know, the mad scientist who takes all technological discoveries and ends the world with them (although the world still has yet to end in spite of all manner of scientific, industrial and technical revolutions – OK, we may be close). Professor Bob Knight, professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of California, was having none of it, and believes, as any scientist with a fundable new project would, that the biggest danger is in not doing this research. The Dr Strangelove scenario is, he says, above his paygrade.