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Scientists Predicting Intentions 105

Posted by ScuttleMonkey
from the science-of-mind-reading dept.
An anonymous reader writes to tell us German scientists claim to have the means of predicting decisions of high level mental activity. "In the past, experts had been able to detect decisions about making physical movements in advance. But researchers at Berlin's Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience claim they have now, for the first time, identified people's decisions about how they would later do a high-level mental activity _ in this case, adding versus subtracting."
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Scientists Predicting Intentions

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  • Suspicion (Score:5, Insightful)

    by BWJones (18351) * on Monday March 05, 2007 @05:36PM (#18242632) Homepage Journal
    My first reaction is suspicion.... suspicion of a whole lot of possibilities regardless of whether or not this work has any validity. For instance, I've talked with more than one DOD general who was interested in military applications of electroencephalograms for "mind reading" and such. Certainly there are some applications for lie detection such as the P300, but one has to be very careful about the structure of the interview so as to not attempt to extract non-meaningful information from an evoked potential. My concern is that a whole bunch of additional DARPA type money will suddenly be thrown at the problem and claims will be made that will further impinge upon individual rights and freedoms waaaaaay before even the science is understood (not that understanding science is an excuse to stomp on civil liberties).

    My more immediate concern is of the claims that are being made. The fundamental problem of course is developing a global signature for mind reading that is clean enough to derive robust statistics, keeping in mind that individuals brains are far from uniform in their anatomy, physiology or wiring. Work I performed more than a decade ago revealed similar cortical mapping patterns on subjects who performed tasks and then imagined performing those tasks. Certainly it is possible to determine volitional movements based upon our knowledge of neuroanatomy and statistical averages of wiring, but predicting "intentions" is a whole other ball game. The article is light on details and I've tried a search on more in-depth content, but if they are labeling "intentions" as complex behaviors, my eyebrows will be raised. For instance, determining which of two buttons to press invokes a whole series of kinesthetic volitional programming that should be able to be determined by mapping pre-motor cortex. However, if "intentions" are whether or not to engage in complex behaviors are what they are talking about, there is much more complex circuitry to consider including the possibility of imagery or imagining an action versus actually volitionally engaging in that activity.

    • by nomadic (141991) * <nomadicworld@gma ... minus herbivore> on Monday March 05, 2007 @05:47PM (#18242812) Homepage
      My first reaction is suspicion

      As I knew it would be!
      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by BWJones (18351) *
        OK, I almost sprayed coffee all over my keyboard and displays. Somebody mod this as funny!

      • if they are labeling "intentions" as complex behaviors, my eyebrows will be raised.

        Not really intentions, but predictions. Apparently, from the binary decision test of adding or subtracting, they could predict within 70% certainty which path they would take. However, the article mentioned far reaching Orwellian type implications of this technology - like lie detection systems, which are about 70% reliable currently, so I see no improvement on that end. Of course, there's still much research and applicati

        • Oops. I meant to click on the GP reply button. I guess the humorous parent diverted my intention.
    • by ravenfan (1070656)
      Perhaps "intention" isn't the right word to be using here. What the researchers are trying to correlation areas of the brain with certain tasks. The brain controls everything you do, from breathing to posting on slashdot. Therefore, if they can "map" tasks to brain activity they can "predict intent". In the grand scheme of things, it would be impossible for people to predict "intentions" unless they can make an MRI the size of a hand-held device.
      • by BWJones (18351) *
        Perhaps "intention" isn't the right word to be using here.

        Intention is precisely the right word that describes what they are trying to do as they are claiming to be able to *predict* an individuals course of action *before* it happens.

        The brain controls everything you do, from breathing to posting on slashdot.

        Really? Do tell... :-) Seriously though, I'd like to think that posting on Slashdot required cortical activity, but some of the posts I see appear to have been made by "lower" structures, like the b
        • by khanyisa (595216)

          Perhaps "intention" isn't the right word to be using here.

          Intention is precisely the right word that describes what they are trying to do as they are claiming to be able to *predict* an individuals course of action *before* it happens.

          I'd rather see it as they're reading a *decision* that is made in the brain. That decision could of course be changed; who knows what the device would read if someone decided in advance to change their decision when the actual numbers appeared?

    • Re:Suspicion (Score:5, Interesting)

      by yali (209015) on Monday March 05, 2007 @06:53PM (#18243680)

      Here's how this stuff works. Step 1, scientist do incremental, meaningful, but boring (to those outside their specialty) work. Step 2, media picks up on story and puts overreaching spin on story. (Alternatively, the scientists, the journal, or the university's PR office puts out a press release supplying overreaching spin to credulous journalists.) Step 3, everybody sits back in wonderment at a finding that essentially establishes what we already knew: that mental processes take place in the physical brain.

      Parent poster is right about the special demands of individual prediction. The basic science might be incrementally useful - trying to ultimately understand how future planning/intentions take place in the brain. (And given the breadth of mental operations that could be considered "intentions," there are probably hundreds of more studies that need to be done before that question can begin to be answered.) But going from a scientific explanatory mode, where you have potentially large samples and budgets and cooperative subjects, to prediction of individual behavior is a huge leap. Just look at a much older psychometric approach, the TAT, which is okay for research [psychologicalscience.org] but lousy for individual prediction [psychologicalscience.org]. Brain scanning may well turn out to be the next TAT, for precisely the same reasons.

      Part of the problem is that a lot of this work is being done by medical researchers and neuroscientists who have no basic training in psychometrics. They're just reinventing old mistakes (but wasting a hell of a lot more money this time around).

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by drfireman (101623)
        There's no question that fMRI researchers have an ugly history of reinventing old mistakes. But I don't know that a lack of training in psychometrics is the problem. More to the point, is it really true that "going from a scientific explanatory mode, where you have potentially large samples and budgets and cooperative subjects, to prediction of individual behavior is a huge leap?"

        Well, sort of. My impression is that this has little to do with a lack of training in psychometrics, but a lot to do with the
    • have you read the article & it's provenance?

      I found no links or reference to this pseudo science.

      This seems an "exciting" topic with little or no real substance, please provide the substantiation.

      or has global warming brought warm temperatures & the August silly season early?

    • Re:Suspicion (Score:5, Informative)

      by venicebeach (702856) on Monday March 05, 2007 @07:17PM (#18244002) Homepage Journal
      Also, fMRI will never be able to predict intentions in real time due to the hemodynamic lag, and is currently practically impossible to analyze online due technical limitations. What they did was use information which occured before the decision to predict which decision was later made. However, this analysis was done after the decision was made . That is to say, after the scans were over, the data from the few seconds before the decision was found to be predictive of which way the decision went. So it's not like they really knew what was going to happen before it did.
      • by BWJones (18351) *
        Excellent point. You of course, given your background would be ideally prepared to make this observation.

        Mod parent up!

    • by redmondi (1036210)
      This is another small step in proving that free will is a myth and that Determinism is the real truth! You aren't really making decisions - your brain is merely responding to environmental cues... action/reaction and so forth. ...Just my f'd up view on the way things work...
    • by Plutonite (999141)
      Indeed. Most issues will probably arise out of the fact that "intent" to perform an action is not exclusive as mental activity that excites certain cortical regions. What you said about *imagining* an activity makes perfect sense. In fact, the "intent" to add or subtract in the future probably falls in line with imagination more than volitonal activity.

      I've only studied this at the undergrad level (then independently afterwards), but I also would regard this with extreme suspicion. Some people believe that
    • If the contents of your brain are finite, and the universe is finite (mind bogglingly large, but still finite), then given a powerful enough computer with enough data, it can all be computed and predicted.

      For now they only have the power to predict motions in the short-term. Soon they will be able to predict aggressive or anti-social behavior based on past behaviors. Then they'll be able to monitor a whole person's life and be able to tell with great accuracy what a decision will be based on the person's
    • The fundamental problem of course is developing a global signature for mind reading that is clean enough to derive robust statistics, keeping in mind that individuals brains are far from uniform in their anatomy, physiology or wiring.
      Why is that "the fundamental problem"?
  • What is likely, is they can't tell whether you will buy a PS3 or an XBox 360, but rather you are going to press the "left button" vs the "right button" when shown a simple image like a green/red square.
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Toonol (1057698)
      What is likely, is they can't tell whether you will buy a PS3 or an XBox 360

      Sheesh, I can tell you that... they ain't gonna buy a PS3.

  • devil's advocate (Score:4, Insightful)

    by User 956 (568564) on Monday March 05, 2007 @05:40PM (#18242698) Homepage
    researchers at Berlin's Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience claim they have now, for the first time, identified people's decisions about how they would later do a high-level mental activity _ in this case, adding versus subtracting."

    A big portion of the work of prosecution in this country is spent proving intent. For example, the funny-looking guy that hangs out at the playground. Is he a creep, or is he just a birdwatcher? Obviously, a scanning device would figure that out pretty quick.

    (... And I guarantee you that's the same kind of argument they'll make when pushing this thing, too. Because it's all about protecting the children. even at the expense of your fourth amendment rights.)
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Ed Avis (5917)
      You can prove intent, but intent is not enough to get a conviction: you need the act to have been committed or attempted too. There is no crime of having intent to rob, but there is one of robbery (theft) or of entering a house with intent to rob (burglary). If people start being prosecuted for mere intentions, then you need to fix the law, not worry about mind-reading devices (which after all are just the messenger).
      • by inviolet (797804)

        You can prove intent, but intent is not enough to get a conviction: you need the act to have been committed or attempted too.

        Not yet, anyway.

        It seems that what is much more desperately needed than an intention-predictor, is an ironclad lie-detector. If we had a perfect truth serum, and (far more difficult to obtain) the political will to use it wholesale, the court system would be a very different place.

        From what I've read so far, it seems that the hardest problem to solve on the way to a truth serum, i

      • You can prove intent, but intent is not enough to get a conviction: you need the act to have been committed or attempted too.

        In a perfect world, sure. In the real world, intent is all you need. Ever heard of conspiracy? [wikipedia.org]. An overt "precursor" act (i.e. meeting with a hit-man, in the case of conspiracy to commit murder) is required to prove conspiracy, but that precursor act is basically just proof of intent, like this mind-reading device.

        There is no crime of having intent to rob, but there is one of
        • In a perfect world, sure. In the real world, intent is all you need. Ever heard of conspiracy?. An overt "precursor" act (i.e. meeting with a hit-man, in the case of conspiracy to commit murder) is required to prove conspiracy, but that precursor act is basically just proof of intent, like this mind-reading device.

          I'm not a lawyer either, but I think being convicted of conspiracy to commit a crime still requires some sort of action, especially one that is an obvious and immediate precursor to committing th

          • by User 956 (568564)

            In a perfect world, sure. In the real world, intent is all you need. Ever heard of conspiracy?. An overt "precursor" act (i.e. meeting with a hit-man, in the case of conspiracy to commit murder) is required to prove conspiracy, but that precursor act is basically just proof of intent, like this mind-reading device.

            I'm not a lawyer either, but I think being convicted of conspiracy to commit a crime still requires some sort of action,

            Is that not what I wrote? In the example of the "conspiracy to commi

            • You get busted because you're the one planning it. Ergo, your thoughts are illegal.
              I think that's bit of a logical leap. Your thoughts and/or purely mental intent don't constitute conspiracy. The action of soliciting a hit-man (even if it's an undercover cop pretending to be one) is what gets you convicted of conspiracy.
      • by pluther (647209)

        You can prove intent, but intent is not enough to get a conviction: you need the act to have been committed or attempted too.

        And what's Jose Padilla in prison for, again?

        Or Mike Hawash?

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by antifoidulus (807088)
      Turns out he is both, he is watching the birds trying to figure out which one to molest. Who would have guessed?
    • Good point. I'm not particularly worried about the motivations or intentions of the folks working on this research. They sound like excited people doing cool work.

      However, somewhere out there someone is thinking about the possibilities of, as User 956 notes, quantifying intent. Distilling it down to a number that statistically naive people can use to justify something.

      For example, I see this at work in hiring practices where a weight is assigned to questions, and a list of preferred responses assigned th

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      A big portion of the work of prosecution in this country is spent proving intent.

      And I've always complained about it. People make a lot of noise about freedom of speech but we don't even have freedom of thought. If you unlawfully kill someone while intending to do it you get a longer sentence than if you didn't intend it. Punish someone for killing, but to punish them additionally because of what they were thinking at the time seems like the grossest kind of human rights abuse to me.

    • Thoughts about robbing a bank detected. Does the target want to rob the bank, is he making security systems for living and this thoughts are reflexive, or does he want to write a detective fiction?


      I smell a lot of victimization here.

  • Pre-Crime (Score:3, Funny)

    by biocute (936687) on Monday March 05, 2007 @05:43PM (#18242752) Homepage
    You mean like what Tom Cruise did 5 years ago [imdb.com]?
    • by JeanBaptiste (537955) on Monday March 05, 2007 @06:06PM (#18243070)
      Yes, this technology will far and away make crime a risky business. Whether your name is Mohammed or Jerry Maguire, this should be able to separate out the real criminals without any collateral damage. Hopefully though this stays in the hands of a few good men who make all the right moves - ones who aren't swayed by the color of money - or else our society could collapse into a war of the worlds.
      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by Dan Slotman (974474)
        Huh. Insightful is it? I just see a lot of Tom Cruise movie titles strung together. Where I come from, that's a joke!
  • by Joe Random (777564) on Monday March 05, 2007 @05:45PM (#18242786)
    ...intend on welcoming our mind-reading overlords (as they well know).
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 05, 2007 @05:46PM (#18242800)
    Just because I like variety in my life, I use an external randomizer (flip a coin, roll a die) to decide lots of things...do I go down 10th Street or 9th Street?
    I'm now seeing that this was a very wise decision....
    I do a lot of sub-optimal things, but at least I'm not predicatable
    • by 01arena (890407)
      Just don't tell me you're a statistician!!!
    • by lawpoop (604919)
      I heard an internet rumor on a conspiracy website somewhere that Saddam Hussein had some fortune-telling system to decide which safe-house to stay at when he was on the run from the US military. Supposedly, his system, which involved some 'meaningful' rocks thrown on the ground, told him which one to go to, but there was speculation that it functioned randomly, like dice, so his choices were just random chance.
    • by Gospodin (547743)

      So this is how your average afternoon goes, right?...

      Heads: don tin-foil hat and take a nap.

      Tails: work on better randomizer.

    • by chord.wav (599850)
      Like variety uh? By making you read this reply, I'll change your fate forever. You are welcome.
      Gotta love the butterfly effect...
    • by aeoo (568706)
      There is a cool sci-fi book where a group of people do exactly that -- use external randomizer -- for the exact same reasons! I believe they are called "harlequins" in the book.
    • Frankly I'm (rolls dice) appalled and (rolls dice) shocked at your (rolls dice) lack of planning. And I (rolls dice) hit you for (rolls dice) 12 damage.
  • Whoa. (Score:5, Funny)

    by FlyByPC (841016) on Monday March 05, 2007 @05:54PM (#18242898) Homepage
    Adding and subtracting is "high-level" intellectual activity, now?

    Be afraid. Be very afraid.
    • rofl.. nice point.

      out of curiosity...How can they tell the difference between adding a negative and subtracting a positive?

      4 - 4 = 0 4 + -4 = 0....

      Hrm.

      TLF
      • by sholden (12227)
        They aren't they telling the difference between a person deciding they will subtract the two numbers they are yet to see, or if they will add them.

        So it's not addition or subtraction that is high level. It's deciding which one to do...
    • Adding and subtracting is "high-level" intellectual activity, now?
      hey, they'll stop what they can now and get to the rest later. today it's simple math, but tomorrow it's complex trigonometry
    • by drfireman (101623)

      Adding and subtracting is "high-level" intellectual activity, now?

      Most studies of this kind of thing use simple motor tasks, which are comparatively concrete, low-level, and have a much better understood neural substrate. It depends a little on which psychology/neuroscience subculture you're talking to, but "high-level" is often used to mean something along the lines of "stuff your dog can't do." This is different from the ordinary meaning of the phrase, meaning roughly: "comprehensible only to Susan Sont

  • anyone?
  • As it was posted last week [slashdot.org]?
    • by D4rk Fx (862399)

      As it was posted last week?

      Posted by CowboyNeal on Friday February 09, @03:08AM

      Posted by ScuttleMonkey on Monday March 05, @04:35PM
      No wonder last week seemed like a long week... It was just 4 days shy of a month long.
  • Yes, but... (Score:4, Funny)

    by Halo1 (136547) <.jonas.maebe. .at. .elis.ugent.be.> on Monday March 05, 2007 @06:00PM (#18242994) Homepage
    ... can they also predict dupes [slashdot.org]?
  • But... can they tell when I'm just going to give up and use a hand calculator or 'bc'?
  • Just because I think something doesn't mean I will do it.
  • neat but... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by symes (835608)

    Then they studied which type of patterns were associated with different intentions.

    "If you knew which thought signatures to look for, you could theoretically predict in more detail what people were going to do in the future," said Haynes.

    Which isn't a million miles from... "we observed that just before our participant scratched their nose they raised thier hand". Using this observation we were able to predict when participants were about to scratch thier nose. And did so with an accuracy rate of 70%."

    Don't get me wrong - I think this research is very interesting - but a little over egged at this moment in time.

  • Advances like these are the reason we need more privacy safeguards now, before they slowly boil our frog into stew (I know the frog jumps, but that TV gecko might not). Both tech, like universal P2P encryption of email, phone and Web, and legal, like a Privacy Amendment.

    Humans have inalienable privacy rights, which we create governments and tools to protect. We invented clothing, and then later the 4th Amendment. But back then our skulls could protect us. Now that such security through obscurity won't work
    • by et764 (837202)

      government will slow it down.

      Because if there's one thing governments are good at, it's slowing stuff down.

      • by Doc Ruby (173196)
        In fact that is one of the primary design objectives for the US government, unironically.
  • What has been measured inside the skin is not intention, but CNS events. CNS events are in a different discourse from states like "intention". Holmes exists, and Doyle exists, but not in the same sense, and discourse about the one cannot mix freely with discourse about the other.

    The CNS events in question may predict later behavior, or assist in doing so. What they will not do is deliver "intention" as the thing being measured. They are not that, and they are not even the same sort of thing as that.

    • As the evidence comes in that certain CNS events are correlated with states like intention, the walls between these categories will come tumbling down, in exactly the same way that heat is now considered to be identical to a certain kind of motion, even though once upon a time heat and motion were considered to be in entirely different categories.
      • by brre (596949)
        There's no shortage of evidence that Holmes is correlated with Doyle. That doesn't make the discourse of writers the same as the discourse of fictional characters. There are no walls between the categories: they are simply different categories. If you believe you can learn more about Doyle by interviewing Holmes you are welcome to try. Likewise if you want to investigate mystery plotting by increasing the font size of the text, be my guest. They remain category mistakes.
        • Your talk of Holmes and Doyle is completely irrelevant and shows you don't really have an argument beyond repetition of standard philosophical dogma. The fact is, attempting to interview Holmes may fail to tell you anything about Watson, but there's little doubt that investigating the CNS can tell us plenty about intentions. Care to suggest any more inappropriate analogies? Here's one: if you rub a cabbage, maybe pi will become rational.
  • is adding versus subtracting a high-level mental activity?
  • I think it's not just intentions that can be detected with this technology but also whether a person is lying. Quite possibly, the intention to tell the truth or lie in response to a question can also be detected. Scary? Yes, but this may be inevitable.
    • by roedeer (127491)
      I seriously doubt that you'd get a fool-proof lie detector, as a true fool probably would believe he was telling the truth (as in, he's been fooled to believe, kind of like politics..). The answer would, objectively, be untrue, but not a lie per se. Furthermore, you could probably learn to trick such a lie detector by concentrating on what to answer, rather than on the question, answering a question that wasn't asked is probably neither untrue nor a lie, and as such, undetectable.
  • by FleaPlus (6935) on Monday March 05, 2007 @10:43PM (#18245928) Journal
    As usual, the linked artice is sparse on actual details. Here's a link to the actual article in Current Biology:

    http://www.current-biology.com/content/article/abs tract?uid=PIIS0960982206026583&highlight=haynes [current-biology.com]

    The full text requires a subscription, but I've pasted the abstract below:

    Reading Hidden Intentions in the Human Brain

    When humans are engaged in goal-related processing, activity in prefrontal cortex is increased [1, 2]. However, it has remained unclear whether this prefrontal activity encodes a subject's current intention [3]. Instead, increased levels of activity could reflect preparation of motor responses [4, 5], holding in mind a set of potential choices [6], tracking the memory of previous responses [7], or general processes related to establishing a new task set. Here we study subjects who freely decided which of two tasks to perform and covertly held onto an intention during a variable delay. Only after this delay did they perform the chosen task and indicate which task they had prepared. We demonstrate that during the delay, it is possible to decode from activity in medial and lateral regions of prefrontal cortex which of two tasks the subjects were covertly intending to perform. This suggests that covert goals can be represented by distributed patterns of activity in the prefrontal cortex, thereby providing a potential neural substrate for prospective memory [8, 9, 10]. During task execution, most information could be decoded from a more posterior region of prefrontal cortex, suggesting that different brain regions encode goals during task preparation and task execution. Decoding of intentions was most robust from the medial prefrontal cortex, which is consistent with a specific role of this region when subjects reflect on their own mental states.


    Also, the final paragraph from the conclusion, which discusses where they'd like to go with this in the future:

    Taken together, our results extend previous studies on the processing of goals in prefrontal cortex in several important ways. They reveal for the first time that spatial response patterns in medial and lateral prefrontal cortex encode a subject's covert intentions in a highly specific fashion. They also demonstrate a functional separation in medial prefrontal cortex, where more anterior regions encode the intention prior to its execution and more posterior regions encode the intention during task execution. These findings have important implications not only for the neural models of executive control, but also for technical and clinical applications, such as the further development of brain-computer interfaces, that might now be able to decode intentions that go beyond simple movements and extend to high-level cognitive processes.
  • I made this argument a while ago to my philosophy professor against free will, he thought it was a load of bull. I wonder how he'll respond?
    • Rather than Minority Report or the Foundation series, I would recommend two works to anyone interested about the free will aspect of this all...

      The Mike Resnick trilogy consisting of Soothsayer, Oracle and Prophet. (I forget the exact sequence in which those books are in the series, but you knew that, right?) Although in this case the mutant able to predict peoples actions does so by simply projecting an immense tangle of futures possible by her choosing her own actions, the treatement of all the ramificati
    • by tgv (254536)
      He'll just repeat that. These actions were voluntarily. All the study shows is that bits in our brain have a different activation pattern when you try to hold on to your decision to add or your decision to subtract.

      Furthermore, nobody can deny that subconcious parts of our brain will have a bias to some choice before that choice has to be made. But that does not imply that we don't have a free will. All it says is that we identify our conciousness one-to-one with our mental processes instead of accepting th
  • Lynch these scientists, please!
  • by tgv (254536)
    This has been reported before on SlashDot. I work in the field, I've read the article, and I'll say again: the claims are not that strong. There are bits in the brain that are more active when someone has taken the decision to add numbers that are going to appear in a few seconds and there are bits that are more active when when that same person has taken the decision to subtract. There are also bits that show a different activation pattern for adding and subtracting while performing the actual operation. T
  • I used to have a programmable calculator that emitted enough RF for me to "play" it on a radio. The pitch changed with which functions were being performed, so I could tell what it was thinking, too. (If I were skilled, I'm sure I could have made it play music.) And this was decades ago.
  • Seriously, if this machine could perfectly predict *intentions* - using it on me would only reveal that I *intented* to take over the world - right after I quit smoking, cleaned my apartment, mastered everything about computers, became a rock star - and just quickly glanced over the internet while I drank my coffee.

    Does that mean I'm really a threat to global stability?

    Not unless I'm the first person to see the "Click HERE to Take Over The World!" ad. And even then... I never click on those ads, man.

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