It would be amazing to record your thoughts with a computer, would it not? The continuing efforts of researchers at UC Berkeley are making that possibility more feasible every year. Their latest experiment involves reconstructing videos based on fMRI readings. First a subject is shown various movie trailers while their brain is scanned. A computer correlates patterns in the fMRI data with visual patterns in the trailers. For part two of the experiment, the subject watches movie trailers while being scanned again. This time, however, the computer analyzes millions of seconds of YouTube videos to find clips that closely match the brain scan data. The matching clips are overlapped into a single video that very roughly resembles what the subject was viewing.

So far the clarity of the reconstructed videos is extremely limited. But the scientists' work is still quite astonishing. They can create videos of what people see just by scanning their brains! In the future this should result in the ability to create videos just by imagining them and clicking record on a computer. That would create quite a stir on YouTube. Recording dreams would fulfill a longtime wish for many. Perhaps within the next few decades there will be a slim headset that one puts on before going to bed. In the morning, a nearby computer has wirelessly received the brain activity information and generated an easily watched video file. After watching your own dream with the benefit of wakefulness, you might upload it to YouTube, email it to your psychiatrist, or just file it away for later viewing.

There are still a few obstacles to get through before we can do all that. First of all, MRI machines take up most of a room, and being scanned by one is like laying in a coffin. Researchers at the University of Toronto are working on using ultrasound headsets to scan brain activity, but sonic waves are not yet as capable as magnetic ones. Another limitation is that fMRI and ultrasound collect data on blood flow in the brain, not the electric and chemical signals between neurons. This is an indirect way of scanning thoughts, and it will always mean a delay between when a thought occurs and when the equipment actually detects it. An ideal setup would be a headset that can scan for the signals between neurons instead of measuring blood flow. 

UPDATE (09-29-11): Swiss and Japanese researchers are working on cars that can read a driver's thoughts, such as knowing that a right turn is coming up.


As quickly as technology improves our security, it also endangers our privacy. Over the course of human history, one persistent dream has been that of flight. People enjoy watching birds soar through the air, and many marvel at Superman's aerobatic abilities. The Wright brothers used technology to achieve this dream, but technology might soon turn the open air into a source of fear instead of aspiration.

Take the ingenious Nano Hummingbird (from AeroVironment), for instance. With a built-in camera it could effectively aid humans in discovering hidden terrorists and trapped disaster victims. But in the wrong hands it could be used to spy on unsuspecting civilians. It can hover in front of windows to observe from a distance, or, if the window is open just enough, it could enter a room and land in a dark corner for longer periods of surveillance.

Another looming threat is a small quadrocopter with the ability to hack wireless networks. The toy-sized robot, named SkyNET (yes, that is its real name) by its creators, was demonstrated at WOOT '11 last month. The SkyNET drone can fly around a neighborhood via remote control. Once its target is found, it can land on the roof of a house or building near the wireless network. Then the drone uses on-board software to hack the network. Worst of all, the drone can use the compromised computers to form a botnet, adding to the resources of the person in control of SkyNET. If that was not enough, the drone can also track cellphones. All this, and the SkyNET drone costs just a few hundred dollars to build.

The SmartBird (by Festo) is a wondrous feat of engineering. Like the Nano Hummingbird it could be used for surveillance, especially scouting uneven terrain. If it were solar-powered, it might even be used to take close-up footage of migrating birds. Disguised among a flock of geese, it could also scan neighborhoods and stalk unwitting travelers.

Lastly, the figurative “fly on the wall” may soon become literal reality. Researchers at Harvard are designing robots that fly like insects and are of similar size. In recent years DARPA has been funding the development of mind-controlled insects. So far scientists have implanted computer chips in large beetles that enable remote control of their flight direction. With ever-shrinking electronics, it would not be too surprising to see remote-controlled flies in the next decade or so. What if they did this with stinging insects? As one commenter pointed out on Popular Science, an augmented wasp or bee might make the perfect assassination weapon. Scientists have also developed a tiny generator that harvests energy from an insect's beating wings to power the mind-control chip. In fact, the generator provides a surplus of energy. With a little electricity to spare, what else might DARPA want to add to these cyborg bugs? A camera, microphone, or tracking device? In the future, when espionage agents talk about bugs, they will mean real live bugs. 

 UPDATE (09-28-11): It seems the statement about a flock of geese was prophetic. The Laboratory of Intelligent Systems, in Switzerland, is developing UAVs that are programmed to fly in flocks, just like geese. 

UPDATE (09-29-11): UC Berkeley has a couple of robots that fly like giant insects. 

Featured Image - Global Hawk