Thought Bubble

Posted on 2014 September 11


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Years ago, I saw a humor photo of Russian President Putin in a group picture at an important parley of bigwigs. Above Putin’s head floated a thought bubble: “If we can just finish this meeting by 4 p.m., I can get in an hour of judo!”

…Putin, you know, likes to practice martial arts. 

Oh, never mind.

Anyway, I remembered that image when reading about how scientists sent a message from one person’s brain to another. First they trained a computer to listen in on the tiny electrical signals emitted from human brains and associate them with specific words. Then the researchers applied sensors to a subject’s scalp, and the subject merely thought the word “Hola” or “Ciao” (“Hello”, for those of us who slept through language class), and the sensors picked up the unique electrical brain signal for that word. The computer promptly recognized it and sent a message thousands of miles to another computer, which translated the message into impulses that went to electrodes attached to a second subject’s scalp. The impulses gave the subject the sensation of tiny peripheral flashes of light, in a code the subject had memorized, and he translated the flashes and wrote down the correct word.


If you were hoping for news of the first scientific proof of direct telepathy, you will likely feel disappointed. After all, it wasn’t as if one person beamed a thought directly into someone else’s brain. It’s more like, he thought of a word, then a computer translated it and sent it to another computer that converted it into impulses that a second person sensed and re-translated back into the original word. Very clever, but not exactly a direct transmission.

Still, it opens the door to a crowd of possibilities, including control of machines merely by thinking, and silent conversations between soldiers or spies or — when it gets cheap enough — kids in the back of the classroom.

I’ve read a number of sci-fi novels where protagonists engage in telepathic communication, and I always marveled at how disciplined they were: no extraneous thoughts, no embarrassing revelations. I mean, in real life they’d actually be thinking: “Sergeant! Move your squad around to the back of the house, in case the perp tries to escape.” — “Yessir! And I saw your wife at the station yesterday, and she’s hot! I wanna get into her pants!” Or: “Of course, Mister President, when we get out of this meeting, as your vice president I will do everything in my power to sweep aside these Senate holdouts and get your legislation passed. And by the way, I wish you would die so I could have your job.”

No one’s gonna want to hear that stuff.

Now, this is where Putin comes in. It’s a good bet he has his own researchers working on artificial telepathy, with a view to improving the powers of his soldiers in the field, so they can silently think-talk their way across Ukraine or Lithuania or wherever. But no way will he personally participate in such technology. There’s no chance he’d let anybody listen in on his private thoughts. 

On the other hand, he might have his ministers and aides wear little telepathy thingies on their heads, and he could simply listen in. Imagine the power he’d have: one bad thought bubble from an aide and bang! Firing squad.

So be grateful you live in a country where they’d never think of spying on your private thoughts. You know, like hijacking your phone or email to figure out what you’re doing or planning or where you’re headed at this very moment. Stuff like that. Because, you know, that’d be too weird.