Use any resources available to you to complete this exercise.
1. In one page, summarize the article.
2. What parts of the story did you not understand?
Estimated time to complete the exercise: 60 minutes
One night in October, 2009, a young man lay in an fMRI scanner in LiÃ¨ge, Belgium. Five years earlier, heâ€™d suffered a head trauma in a motorcycle accident, and since then he hadnâ€™t spoken. He was said to be in a â€œvegetative state.â€ A neuroscientist named Martin Monti sat in the next room, along with a few other researchers. For years, Monti and his postdoctoral adviser, Adrian Owen, had been studying vegetative patients, and they had developed two controversial hypotheses. First, they believed that someone could lose the ability to move or even blink while still being conscious; second, they thought that they had devised a method for communicating with such â€œlocked-inâ€ people by detecting their unspoken thoughts.
In a sense, their strategy was simple. Neurons use oxygen, which is carried through the bloodstream inside molecules of hemoglobin. Hemoglobin contains iron, and, by tracking the iron, the magnets in fMRI machines can build maps of brain activity. Picking out signs of consciousness amid the swirl seemed nearly impossible. But, through trial and error, Owenâ€™s group had devised a clever protocol. Theyâ€™d discovered that if a person imagined walking around her house there was a spike of activity in her parahippocampal gyrusâ€”a finger-shaped area buried deep in the temporal lobe. Imagining playing tennis, by contrast, activated the premotor cortex, which sits on a ridge near the skull. The activity was clear enough to be seen in real-time with an fMRI machine. In a 2006 study published in the journalÂ Science, the researchers reported that they had asked a locked-in person to think about tennis, and seen, on her brain scan, that she had done so.
With the young man, known as Patient 23, Monti and Owen were taking a further step: attempting to have a conversation. They would pose a question and tell him that he could signal â€œyesâ€ by imagining playing tennis, or â€œnoâ€ by thinking about walking around his house. In the scanner control room, a monitor displayed a cross-section of Patient 23â€™s brain. As different areas consumed blood oxygen, they shimmered red, then bright orange. Monti knew where to look to spot the yes and the no signals.
He switched on the intercom and explained the system to Patient 23. Then he asked the first question: â€œIs your fatherâ€™s name Alexander?â€
The manâ€™s premotor cortex lit up. He was thinking about tennisâ€”yes.
â€œIs your fatherâ€™s name Thomas?â€
Activity in the parahippocampal gyrus. He was imagining walking around his houseâ€”no.
â€œDo you have any brothers?â€
â€œDo you have any sisters?â€
â€œBefore your injury, was your last vacation in the United States?â€
The answers were correct. Astonished, Monti called Owen, who was away at a conference. Owen thought that they should ask more questions. The group ran through some possibilities. â€œDo you like pizza?â€ was dismissed as being too imprecise. They decided to probe more deeply. Monti turned the intercom back on.
â€œDo you want to die?â€ he asked.
For the first time that night, there was no clear answer.
That winter, the results of the study were published inÂ TheÂ New England Journal of Medicine. The paper caused a sensation. The Los AngelesÂ TimesÂ wrote a story about it, with the headline â€œÂ Brains of Vegetative Patients Show Life.â€ Owen eventually estimated that twenty per cent of patients who were presumed to be vegetative were actually awake. This was a discovery of enormous practical consequence: in subsequent years, through painstaking fMRI sessions, Owenâ€™s group found many patients who could interact with loved ones and answer questions about their own care. The conversations improved their odds of recovery. Still, from a purely scientific perspective, there was something unsatisfying about the method that Monti and Owen had developed with Patient 23. Although they had used the words â€œtennisâ€ and â€œhouseâ€ in communicating with him, theyâ€™d had no way of knowing for sure that he was thinking about those specific things. They had been able to say only that, in response to those prompts, thinking was happening in the associated brain areas. â€œWhether the person was imagining playing tennis, football, hockey, swimmingâ€”we donâ€™t know,â€ Monti told me recently.
During the past few decades, the state of neuroscientific mind reading has advanced substantially. Cognitive psychologists armed with an fMRI machine can tell whether a person is having depressive thoughts; they can see which concepts a student has mastered by comparing his brain patterns with those of his teacher. By analyzing brain scans, a computer system can edit together crude reconstructions of movie clips youâ€™ve watched. One research group has used similar technology to accurately describe the dreams of sleeping subjects. In another lab, scientists have scanned the brains of people who are reading the J. D. Salinger short story â€œPretty Mouth and Green My Eyes,â€ in which it is unclear until the end whether or not a character is having an affair. From brain scans alone, the researchers can tell which interpretation readers are leaning toward, and watch as they change their minds.
I first heard about these studies from Ken Norman, the fifty-year-old chair of the psychology department at Princeton University and an expert on thought decoding. Norman works at the Princeton Neuroscience Institute, which is housed in a glass structure, constructed in 2013, that spills over a low hill on the south side of campus. P.N.I. was conceived as a center where psychologists, neuroscientists, and computer scientists could blend their approaches to studying the mind; M.I.T. and Stanford have invested in similar cross-disciplinary institutes. At P.N.I., undergraduates still participate in old-school psych experiments involving surveys and flashcards. But upstairs, in a lab that studies child development, toddlers wear tiny hats outfitted with infrared brain scanners, and in the basement the skulls of genetically engineered mice are sliced open, allowing individual neurons to be controlled with lasers. A server room with its own high-performance computing cluster analyzes the data generated from these experiments.
Norman, whose jovial intelligence and unruly beard give him the air of a high-school science teacher, occupies an office on the ground floor, with a view of a grassy field. The bookshelves behind his desk contain the intellectual DNA of the institute, with William James next to texts on machine learning. Norman explained that fMRI machines hadnâ€™t advanced that much; instead, artificial intelligence had transformed how scientists read neural data. This had helped shed light on an ancient philosophical mystery. For centuries, scientists had dreamed of locating thought inside the head but had run up against the vexing question of what it means for thoughts to exist in physical space. When Erasistratus, an ancient Greek anatomist, dissected the brain, he suspected that its many folds were the key to intelligence, but he could not say how thoughts were packed into the convoluted mass. In the seventeenth century, Descartes suggested that mental life arose in the pineal gland, but he didnâ€™t have a good theory of what might be found there. Our mental worlds contain everything from the taste of bad wine to the idea of bad taste. How can so many thoughts nestle within a few pounds of tissue?
Now, Norman explained, researchers had developed a mathematical way of understanding thoughts. Drawing on insights from machine learning, they conceived of thoughts as collections of points in a dense â€œmeaning space.â€ They could see how these points were interrelated and encoded by neurons. By cracking the code, they were beginning to produce an inventory of the mind. â€œThe space of possible thoughts that people can think is bigâ€”but itâ€™s not infinitely big,â€ Norman said. A detailed map of the concepts in our minds might soon be within reach.
Norman invited me to watch an experiment in thought decoding. A postdoctoral student named Manoj Kumar led us into a locked basement lab at P.N.I., where a young woman was lying in the tube of an fMRI scanner. A screen mounted a few inches above her face played a slide show of stock images: an empty beach, a cave, a forest.
â€œWe want to get the brain patterns that are associated with different subclasses of scenes,â€ Norman said.
As the woman watched the slide show, the scanner tracked patterns of activation among her neurons. These patterns would be analyzed in terms of â€œvoxelsâ€â€”areas of activation that are roughly a cubic millimetre in size. In some ways, the fMRI data was extremely coarse: each voxel represented the oxygen consumption of about a million neurons, and could be updated only every few seconds, significantly more slowly than neurons fire. But, Norman said, â€œit turned out that that information was in the data we were collectingâ€”we just werenâ€™t being as smart as we possibly could about how weâ€™d churn through that data.â€ The breakthrough came when researchers figured out how to track patterns playing out across tens of thousands of voxels at a time, as though each were a key on a piano, and thoughts were chords.
The origins of this approach, I learned, dated back nearly seventy years, to the work of a psychologist named Charles Osgood. When he was a kid, Osgood received a copy of Rogetâ€™s Thesaurus as a gift. Poring over the book, Osgood recalled, he formed a â€œvivid image of words as clusters of starlike points in an immense space.â€ In his postgraduate days, when his colleagues were debating how cognition could be shaped by culture, Osgood thought back on this image. He wondered if, using the idea of â€œsemantic space,â€ it might be possible to map the differences among various styles of thinking.
Osgood conducted an experiment. He asked people to rate twenty concepts on fifty different scales. The concepts ranged widely:Â BOULDER, ME, TORNADO, MOTHER. So did the scales, which were defined by opposites: fair-unfair, hot-cold, fragrant-foul. Some ratings were difficult: is aÂ TORNADOÂ fragrant or foul? But the idea was that the method would reveal fine and even elusive shades of similarity and difference among concepts. â€œMost English-speaking Americans feel that there is a difference, somehow, between â€˜goodâ€™ and â€˜niceâ€™ but find it difficult to explain,â€ Osgood wrote. His surveys found that, at least for nineteen-fifties college students, the two concepts overlapped much of the time. They diverged for nouns that had a male or female slant. MOTHER might be rated nice but not good, and COP vice versa. Osgood concluded that â€œgoodâ€ was â€œsomewhat stronger, rougher, more angular, and largerâ€ than â€œnice.â€
Osgood became known not for the results of his surveys but for the method he invented to analyze them. He began by arranging his data in an imaginary space with fifty dimensionsâ€”one for fair-unfair, a second for hot-cold, a third for fragrant-foul, and so on. Any given concept, likeÂ TORNADO, had a rating on each dimensionâ€”and, therefore, was situated in what was known as high-dimensional space. Many concepts had similar locations on multiple axes: kind-cruel and honest-dishonest, for instance. Osgood combined these dimensions. Then he looked for new similarities, and combined dimensions again, in a process called â€œfactor analysis.â€
When you reduce a sauce, you meld and deepen the essential flavors. Osgood did something similar with factor analysis. Eventually, he was able to map all the concepts onto a space with just three dimensions. The first dimension was â€œevaluativeâ€â€”a blend of scales like good-bad, beautiful-ugly, and kind-cruel. The second had to do with â€œpotencyâ€: it consolidated scales like large-small and strong-weak. The third measured how â€œactiveâ€ or â€œpassiveâ€ a concept was. Osgood could use these three key factors to locate any concept in an abstract space. Ideas with similar coÃ¶rdinates, he argued, were neighbors in meaning.
For decades, Osgoodâ€™s technique found modest use in a kind of personality test. Its true potential didnâ€™t emerge until the nineteen-eighties when researchers at Bell Labs were trying to solve what they called the â€œvocabulary problem.â€ People tend to employ lots of names for the same thing. This was an obstacle for computer users, who accessed programs by typing words on a command line. George Furnas, who worked in the organizationâ€™s human-computer-interaction group, described using the companyâ€™s internal phone book. â€œYouâ€™re in your office, at Bell Labs, and someone has stolen your calculator,â€ he said. â€œYou start putting in â€˜police,â€™ or â€˜support,â€™ or â€˜theft,â€™ and it doesnâ€™t give you what you want. Finally, you put in â€˜security,â€™ and it gives you that. But it actually gives you two things: something about the Bell Savings and Security Plan, and also the thing youâ€™re looking for.â€ Furnasâ€™s group wanted to automate the finding of synonyms for commands and search terms.
They updated Osgoodâ€™s approach. Instead of surveying undergraduates, they used computers to analyze the words in about two thousand technical reports. The reports themselvesâ€”on topics ranging from graph theory to user-interface designâ€”suggested the dimensions of the space; when multiple reports used similar groups of words, their dimensions could be combined. In the end, the Bell Labs researchers made a space that was more complex than Osgoodâ€™s. It had a few hundred dimensions. Many of these dimensions described abstract or â€œlatentâ€ qualities that the words had in commonâ€”connections that wouldnâ€™t be apparent to most English speakers. The researchers called their technique â€œlatent semantic analysis,â€ or L.S.A.
At first, Bell Labs used L.S.A. to create a better internal search engine. Then, in 1997, Susan Dumais, one of Furnasâ€™s colleagues, collaborated with a Bell Labs cognitive scientist, Thomas Landauer, to develop an A.I. system based on it. After processing Grolierâ€™s American Academic Encyclopedia, a work intended for young students, the A.I. scored respectably on the multiple-choice Test of English as a Foreign Language. That year, the two researchers co-wrote a paper that addressed the question â€œHow do people know as much as they do with as little information as they get?â€ They suggested that our minds might use something like L.S.A., making sense of the world by reducing it to its most important differences and similarities, and employing this distilled knowledge to understand new things. Watching a Disney movie, for instance, I immediately identify a character as â€œthe bad guyâ€: Scar, from â€œThe Lion King,â€ and Jafar, from â€œAladdin,â€ just seem close together. Perhaps my brain uses factor analysis to distill thousands of attributesâ€”height, fashion sense, tone of voiceâ€”into a single point in an abstract space. The perception of bad-guy-ness becomes a matter of proximity.
In the following years, scientists applied L.S.A. to ever-larger data sets. In 2013, researchers at Google unleashed a descendant of it onto the text of the whole World Wide Web. Googleâ€™s algorithm turned each word into a â€œvector,â€ or point, in high-dimensional space. The vectors generated by the researchersâ€™ program, word2vec, are eerily accurate: if you take the vector for â€œkingâ€ and subtract the vector for â€œman,â€ then add the vector for â€œwoman,â€ the closest nearby vector is â€œqueen.â€ Word vectors became the basis of a much improved Google Translate and enabled the auto-completion of sentences in Gmail. Other companies, including Apple and Amazon, built similar systems. Eventually, researchers realized that the â€œvectorizationâ€ made popular by L.S.A. and word2vec could be used to map all sorts of things. Todayâ€™s facial-recognition systems have dimensions that represent the length of the nose and the curl of the lips, and faces are described using a string of coÃ¶rdinates in â€œface space.â€ Chess A.I.s use a similar trick to â€œvectorizeâ€ positions on the board. The technique has become so central to the field of artificial intelligence that, in 2017, a new, hundred-and-thirty-five-million-dollar A.I. research center in Toronto was named the Vector Institute. Matthew Botvinick, a professor at Princeton whose lab was across the hall from Normanâ€™s, and who is now the head of neuroscience at DeepMind, Alphabetâ€™s A.I. subsidiary, told me that distilling relevant similarities and differences into vectors was â€œthe secret sauce underlying all of these A.I. advances.â€
In 2001, a scientist named Jim Haxby brought machine learning to brain imaging: he realized that voxels of neural activity could serve as dimensions in a kind of thought space. Haxby went on to work at Princeton, where he collaborated with Norman. The two scientists, together with other researchers, concluded that just a few hundred dimensions were sufficient to capture the shades of similarity and difference in most fMRI data. At the Princeton lab, the young woman watched the slide show in the scanner. With each new imageâ€”beach, cave, forestâ€”her neurons fired in a new pattern. These patterns would be recorded as voxels, then processed by software and transformed into vectors. The images had been chosen because their vectors would end up far apart from one another: they were good landmarks for making a map. Watching the images, my mind was taking a trip through thought space, too.
The larger goal of thought decoding is to understand how our brains mirror the world. To this end, researchers have sought to watch as the same experiences affect many peopleâ€™s minds simultaneously. Norman told me that his Princeton colleague Uri Hasson has found movies especially useful in this regard. They â€œpull peopleâ€™s brains through thought space in synch,â€ Norman said. â€œWhat makes Alfred Hitchcock the master of suspense is that all the people who are watching the movie are having their brains yanked in unison. Itâ€™s like mind control in the literal sense.â€
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