Scientists Reconstruct 'Another Brick in The Wall' From Patient's Brainwaves

Brain Waves
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A research team with the University of California, Berkeley, reconstructed Pink Floyd's iconic song "Another Brick in the Wall, Part 1" purely by decoding a listener's brainwaves. Led by Dr. Robert Knight et al. and published in the journal PLOS Biology, the feat showcases how good humanity has become at decoding information that should be the last bulwark of privacy. In the future, someone with access to this technology wouldn't even have to pay the proverbial penny for your thoughts: they'll just be able to read them as well as one of those NYU ad walls.

The research, which took place between 2012 and 2013, strapped the brains of 29 epilepsy-suffering patients to electrodes (unlike other approaches, these had to be directly connected to the patient's brain, meaning invasive surgery was required). The electrodes then captured the electrical activity of brain regions specifically responsible for music processing - areas that focus on pattern recognition and processing of tone, rhythm, harmony, and words.

The researchers then played a 3-minute clip from the original song, and the EEG proved to be accurate enough that they could decode the contents of the patients' brainwaves - and successfully reconstruct the song from the brain activity's electrical "echoes." They even got part of the reconstructed song - 22 seconds -  in a sound clip.

Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCI) are one of the most promising research areas for the bodily impaired (with specific applications even for the brain-function impaired segment of the population). But any great advancement presents itself as a double-edged sword. As Orwell's increasingly-relevant 1984 novel shows, Thinkpol (Newspeak for Thought Police) is one area that any authoritarian regime (or person, or company) would love to explore.

There's also the risk to the fabric of society. Interpersonal relationships happen in the space that lies between the thoughts we have in private ("Jesus, mom, I hate you for making me eat spinach") and those we choose to release onto the real world ("But mom, I had spinach yesterday!"). But when the frontier between private and public is blurred, it becomes difficult to understand precisely where chips might ultimately fall - and who might be most negatively impacted.

It's one thing to be able to reconstruct the outside world (and its stimuli) from a person's brainwaves, but it's also a typical truth that research tends to trickle down towards the consumer space (let alone the private and governmental branches of society). While it isn't in the same league as the research covered in this article, even gamers have taken advantage of brain waves to control their in-game characters. Just look at what Twitter user @perrykaryal managed to do on From Software's Elden Ring with a "simple" electroencephalogram machine (EEG). I couldn't beat Godrick with my thumbs; she managed to do it by just thinking about it.

The fact that these experiments required physical contact and invasive surgery precludes most of the "bad actor" threats that could emerge from it. But there shouldn't be any doubt that, given enough time, techniques that don't require much physical availability will be developed.

I, for one, would love to be able to simply think articles into existence. But questions must be asked whether the benefits of such a technology being generalized outweigh the risks. Then again, most of us are lucky not to have to deal with life-limiting illnesses such as the epilepsy patients that took voluntary part in the study - it's almost guaranteed they'd have a different outlook on all of this.

Francisco Pires
Freelance News Writer

Francisco Pires is a freelance news writer for Tom's Hardware with a soft side for quantum computing.

  • sygreenblum
    My biggest problem with this is, "Another Brick in the Wall" was not on Dark Side of the Moon. Our AI overlords would not have gotten this wrong.
  • sygreenblum
    Yeah, that's a good one. Personally I'd say "Us and Them" but the whole album is epic.