Thoughts on Thoughts

Mind reading may not be as far-fetched as some think

Senior Inventor Kevin Brown is helping IBM develop mind-reading technology using the EPOC headset. Photo courtesy of IBM research

Wouldn’t it be great if you could read minds? You’d get advance notice of birthdays and anniversaries, and what’s for dinner. You’d be able to sense when to buy flowers for your significant other—and why. You’d also know when you should sleep in another room because your spouse is thinking of smothering you with a pillow because you snore so darn much. Reading minds would be much easier—and safer—than guessing.

Although that type of organic mind reading isn’t currently possible, IBM Emerging Technology Services is working on technology that reads brain waves and facial cues and will—or already has, to some degree—let you wirelessly share your mood with others or operate various devices. Kevin Brown, senior inventor at IBM’s Hursley lab in the U.K., describes such a scenario as part of the IBM Next 5 in 5—five technological predictions that may become common-place in the next five years.Senior Inventor Kevin Brown is helping IBM develop mind-reading technology using the EPOC headset.

Q. Before we dive into the mind-reading meat here, what exactly is a senior inventor?
A.Being a senior inventor means you’ve invented a certain number of things and also mentored and helped others to innovate and invent. There’s also another stage called master inventor and that’s quite a celebrated achievement.

Q. Is that your goal?
A. Definitely—and I’m working on it.

Q. Can you give us a quick introduction to Emerging Technology Services?
A.Sure. We work with a wide range of customers from different industries, and we help them get ahead of competitors in their marketplaces by using emerging technology. These aren’t off-the-shelf products that have been around for a while, but nor is it cutting-edge research. It’s somewhere in between established research work and products that may not be very well known. So we help customers try to implement those technologies to serve their businesses.

“My wife is an occupational therapist who was looking after a stroke patient in a locked-in condition. ... Within eight seconds of training, he was able to control a cube on a computer screen using just his thoughts alone."

  —Kevin Brown, senior inventor, IBM Hursley


Q. How does mind reading play into this?
A. You may have heard of IBM’s WebSphere* MQ product and how it connects enterprise systems together. Well, there’s also the MQ Telemetry Transport (MQTT) protocol that’s essentially a very lightweight version for small devices. As an experiment, we used MQTT in a smarter-home lab environment with different sorts of typical household electrical items, including an electricity meter. When the electricity usage displayed on the meter climbed, an external light orb, which had been set up to “listen” to the data, would change to red. If usage went low, it would then change to green, so you could tell at a glance how much electricity you were using.

We decided to extend that idea. A couple of years ago, I read about a headset from Emotiv called the EPOC that has sensors you put on your head that can read electrical impulses. Technically, it does three main things: it detects facial expressions, it detects excitement and boredom, and it also allows you to train it. If you concentrate on a particular thought, you can train a computer to perform a certain action based on that thought again in the future. When you think, your neurons fire and cause an electrical signal to be created. The headset detects and records those signals, so it can recognize the same signals in the future.

We thought, “Well, this is pretty cool,” so the first thing we did when we got the headset was to link it to our middleware environment in the lab—with all of the lamps and everything. As soon as we connected the headset, it just became another sensor in that environment. Now, alongside the electricity sensor, we had a brain sensor. The orb, which was changing color based on how much electricity we were using, could now listen instead to the brain headset and change, for example, based on how excited we were. It was a very simple act to connect the headset to the middleware and allow it to start controlling all sorts of other devices.

Jim Utsler, IBM Systems Magazine senior writer, has been covering the technology field for more than a decade. Jim can be reached at

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