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Microsoft seeks mind-reading patent

October 15, 2007

Watch out, Google. Microsoft has applied for a patent for a method of tapping into people's brains as they use their computers, ostensibly for the purpose of improving user interfaces. Reports New Scientist:

Not content with running your computer, Microsoft now wants to read your mind too. The company says that it is hard to properly evaluate the way people interact with computers since questioning them at the time is distracting and asking questions later may not produce reliable answers. "Human beings are often poor reporters of their own actions," the company says. Instead, Microsoft wants to read the data straight from the user's brain as he or she works away.

The patent application summarizes how the brain-computer feedback system would work:

In the exemplary system ... a user performs a task using the mouse. The user views results of the task on the electronic display. Sensor pairs in the sensor array sense electrical signals transmitted from a user's scalp. Electrical signals from the sensor pairs in the sensor array are transmitted to the EEG. The EEG filters and transmits the electrical signals, i.e., EEG signals, to the computing device. The analysis software on the computing device analyzes the EEG signals to determine the brain states associated with the task the user is performing.

The system does have one small bug that Microsoft hopes to fix in a future release: If you get the blue screen of death, your head explodes.


That emerging company demonstrating speech recog last month, Japanese playing on Second Life and now a Microsoft patent. . . I'm assuming that will be embedded into the Google phone coming for next Season?
I remember when new technologies used to be hip for more then a week. . . I'm that old.

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Posted by: quochung9999usd [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 15, 2007 09:15 PM

I just finished reading through the whole patent. Aside from all the legalise, the gist of it appears that they are applying a simple form the the traditional EEG array, sampling the electrical activity while subject perform Windows tasks, dump the numbers and then apply mathematical algorithms to categorizes filtered data into what they call classifier models. Scientists have know for years that motor activities and response to visual phenomenon cause certain broad types of brain activity. However, because the there is infinite variability between individuals and even the same brain overtime, all attempts to correspond brain wave activity to specific subject cognitive process have failed. Presumably the point of their invention is to use mathematical filters to get the elusive high level patterns that correspond to events like moving a mouse on a screen or typing a word, create a software interface that monitors for these high level patters and allow the end user to carry out Windows tasks merely by thinking about them.

I don't know though, aside from a few reference as a research tool, I don't see an mention of practical applications in consumer devices demonstrated in any part of the patent. This kind of research as been going on in academia for years-even before the PC era. I'm not a patent lawyer or a neuroscientist, but, I don't see anything new here. It looks like a rehash of stuff that has been going on for a long time with a little mathematical hocus pocus to make it look like original art.

I was wondering, why is Microsoft even filing a patent for this “original art”? Could they be trying to muscle into the EEG market? Then, I saw the names of the authors, both are Asian, one works for Microsoft and one, apparently, works at a university in Pittsburgh. Lately, Bill Gates has been stuffing a lot of money in the underwear of DC politicians to get the H1B cap lifted. He has testified that letting these guys in from China and India are critical to American innovation and success. (Please ignore that fact that according to the LCA database most H1Bs at Microsoft earn less than 50K/year and are not even doing R&D.) My guess is that this lame attempt of a patent is part of Microsoft's propaganda campaign to show how brilliant Chinese immigrant scientists are, how stupid and lazy the rest of us are to justify lifting the H1B cap and flooding the US market with more cheap labor.

The history of the EEG points out the gaping whole in Gates logic and the Microsoft R&D model. The EEG, the basis of MS original art, was invented by Hans Berger, a German, and Edgar Adrian, a Briton.(Or, are they just funny looking Hindi and Chinese names?) Historically, almost all the major technological innovations in the last 400 yeas have occurred in Europe or America by largely people of European descent. Asia's big contribution has been largely to find ways to cheaply mass produce the artifacts that European invented; I cannot think of any great leaps forward from the same period of time from Asia that have had significant worldwide impact. If you look at a list of the great inventors and scientists of the past four hundred years, they are all overwhelming people of European descent. Why is that?

My guess it has to do with language and culture. If you look at the biographies of the great scientists and inventors you will see that they were cultural and linguistically composite: German Jews, Russian Jews, Germans, British, American Jews, German Americans, Anglo-American, American Jews, Russian Americans and etc. The commonality is that English, German, Russian and Yiddish are composite languages that are highly idiomatic, semantically and phonetically complex. For example, in English all the following words sound the same: to two too- but have very different meanings. Is it funny that English speaks can mix metaphors like “my feet smell and my nose can run” without confusion? ( Don't forget Mark Twain's “The Awful German Language”.)

I think that this has lead to brain development in which different parts of the brain are forced to make odd ball associations and therefore lead to more novel permutations in the applications of technological artifacts - more of the right brain intuitive and synthesizing type of functions. My guess is that the Chinese and Hindi languages are more restrictive, less idiomatic or for some other reason don't program the neurons of their speakers for the kind of orthogonal thinking and intellectual “cross linking” leading to a more left brained logical and analytical type of functioning. It seems to me that this lame patent just underscores this.

Despite $35 billion in the bank, the best Microsoft can do is dredge up a couple of Chinese scientists rehashing 100 year old technology with no new practical applications. Where's the next big thing in this? Where the “killer apps” that people are going to be line up outside Fry's at 3am to get? Maybe that money should be released back into the capital markets where it might get into the hands of native born American innovators who can actually invent the brain reading machine. See Dan Pink's “A Whole New Mind.” I'm done!

Posted by: Linuxguru1968 [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 15, 2007 10:10 PM

wonder if some of the Stargate resources ended up at MS?


Posted by: vinnie mirchandani [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 15, 2007 10:11 PM

Oh, I misread the quote as "Not content with RUINING your computer,..."

Posted by: Shawn Petriw [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 15, 2007 11:27 PM

The LAST thing that Microsoft wants to do while I'm using one of their products is read my mind.

Posted by: D Steele [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 15, 2007 11:44 PM

One of the reasons by your memory is often compared to a hologram is because it is clear that your mind stores the same memories in massively redundant ways, just as a glass hologram, if shattered still can display the image in each of the smaller shards. This massive redundancy allows some people to suffer a loss of a part of the brains (as in a minor stroke) and still be largely coherent and conscious. The nature of this complexity and the flexibility of the mind is part of the reason why EEG's do not easily translate to single memories via some simple transform and analysis like an FFT or whatever. Our scrawled handwriting makes a good CAPTCHA. Many early voice recognition packages needed extensive "training" before the could understand even simple commands.

Nick, in your "Avatar-human mind meld announced" column from the other day, I suspect that the user in the video had to train himself to stayed focused on the same simple thoughts consistently before the BCI algorithms had any chance of producing somewhat consistent results. Furthermore, I would suspect that he learned some rather artificial temporal series of thoughts that the computer could more easily recognize as representing a particular command. In other words, the human, which is so much more flexible, did much more of the overall training and learning required bridge the gap and to make the demo a success.

Posted by: SallyF [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 16, 2007 05:40 AM

A little message for Linuxguru1968.

As a scientist who actually works in Asia I find your off topic comments about Chinese and Hindus not being as innovative scientifically as people of European descent completely wrong. I would hate other readers of your comment to actually believe anything you actually said. European scientific advancement in the last 400 years has been good for various reasons mostly economic but prior to the last 400 years you would have to be completely ignorant not to recognise some of the great advancements to civilisation that come from NON-european countries. Did you know for instance that arabic numberals (thats 1,2,3 etc) came from arab states? Did you know that gunpowder, dyes and paper came from China? Don't you know about the countless martial arts developed in the orient and Asia? If this isn't innovation I don't know what is. Just because Europeans have it good right now doesn't mean that everyone else is dumb.

Posted by: typekey [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 16, 2007 09:25 PM

A little message for Anonymous.

>> I find your off topic comments about Chinese
>> and Hindus not being as innovative
>> scientifically as people of European descent
>> completely wrong.
>> you would have to be completely ignorant not to recognise some of the great
>> advancements to civilizations that come from NON-European countries.

I did not say that. I was just pointing out most of the major technological innovations in the last four hundred years have been largely in Europe and America. Considering the vast diversity of cultures in the world, the fact that telephones, television, radio, tubes, transistors, integrated circuits, computers and the Internet were invented here not in China and India is a significant fact that needs to be studied. As I look around by home, aside from the noodles in my Ramen and the gun power in the bullets in my gun(I live in Arizona – we all have guns here!), I can't spot any other tangible artifact that was invented in either India or China. Can you point out some others? That doesn't mean that Asians or Indians are more stupid or smarter than European or vise versa. It just means that some other factor is involved and since we all benefit from these kinds of innovations we need to look long and hard at the factors that lead to their development. Nick's post concerned a patent filed by two scientists who work for Microsoft, a company the preferentially hires foreign born workers. It's fair game to take a critical look at the patent, see if it is truly cutting edge or just a rehash of old technology and if so, is there a cultural bias in the work of the scientists involved.

I am very aware of the great innovations made by other cultures. Native Americans in Mexico were the first people to apply computing technology to astronomical phenomenon. As you pointed out Arabs invented mathematics and algebra. IMHO, the Chinese martial arts which I have studied are the most advanced of all in Asia. But, democracy and the free markets were invented here, not in China and India. America has been the focus for spreading innovation and economic freedom throughout the world. When politicians and corporate executives openly accuse us of being stupid and lazy and point to some other culture as having a edge, we have every right to look at the evidence and make a decision. I just looked at a patent filed by Microsoft and some of its top scientists who happen to be Asian and was not impressed. If anyone took offense, I deeply and sincerely apologize. At Nicks discretion I will refrain from posting to his blog in the future.

Posted by: Linuxguru1968 [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 17, 2007 01:16 AM

Linuxguru1968 - You're not jingoistic or racist at all are you? You must be American!

I can tell you one thing that came from Asia, Africa and South America without which we wouldn't have any of the technological marvels that you mention.

"What is it?" I hear you ask. Well, if we hadn't ruthlessly exploited the poor and the weak with tyrannical empire building (which the USA is still doing) then they would have had stronger economies, higher GDPs, better standards of living etc.

Poor people are more concerned about feeding their families than sitting trying to invent TV or telephones (which aren't much good without electricity anyway). In the third world, there are people who still do not get any education at all. It doesn't mean that they're not capable of inventing things!

Your argument boils down to "we're great because we previously exploited everyone else". Disgusting.

Posted by: RodMacLean [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 17, 2007 07:03 AM

What Linuxguru1968 does not know is that while Johnny C. Lee lives in Pittsburgh, he was born in Arizona and owns a gun!

Posted by: Cale [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 17, 2007 10:16 AM

Linuxguru1968 your comments are excessively short sighted and overlook the contributions of peoples of Asian (and yes, Hindu) descent who emigrated to Western nations and provided the brawn and brains that made all these advances possible.

Morevover, it overlooks the fact that all of the technological advances you cite are, in reality, outgrowths of the cultural revolutions which we collectively call the industrial revolution which, in turn, afforded western civilizations the impetus and luxury to explore the physical sciences to a historically unprecedented degree.

Posted by: speaker [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 17, 2007 10:48 AM

The argument that the economically and/or educationally underpriveledged can't be innovative is not totally correct. The underpriveledged individual can be challenged, stimulated by his/her own life contidions and necesities to be become creative. Consider the hispanic indiginous poor and no-so-well educated population in Central and South America. They invented in the corn tortilla an artifact that serves as a holding plate, a spoon, and a nutricious bite. More interesting still, it is reported that the first europeans setting foot in the region found small wheeled artifacts for the amusement of adults and children, dispite the wheel being ineffective otherwise because of the discouraging jungles. (A personal note: this site will do us all a great service if it could incorporate a spell checker.)

Posted by: Badbard [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 17, 2007 10:50 AM

Folks,calm down! You guys didn't answer my question! Aside from noodles and gun powder, what other tangible artifacts laying around your house were INVENTED in China or India? I'm still waiting for the answer! Peace.

Posted by: Linuxguru1968 [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 17, 2007 11:16 AM

>But, democracy and the free markets were invented
>here, not in China and India. America ...

"History is so yesterday...." was a quote I heard last night describing US attitudes to education. I thought it was just comedy, apparently not.

Posted by: p [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 17, 2007 11:35 AM

Microsoft focuses on so many things except one: to think simple, to make things work greatly, to refine and build what they had into superb excellence.

Out of frustration (as they keep on producing ugly complex confusing OS & Office product these past few years) they now would like to "tap" to people's mind to really "get" what consumer want? What a fad.

I believe a simpler "thinking" tool like paper and pencil -- and a better process that sync the whole programmer together into one goal -- will do.

What a strange concept and mind they increasingly had these days. Freaking scarry that someone at such "great" institution could come up with a patent that sounds such silly ... and so pity.

In retrospect to that, below is my view regarding the state of their OS system today. See how the way Microsoft respond to "competition" -- especially under Mr. Ballmer "leadership" -- has really changed into "really strange ways" (and "ugly ways") these days.

What a sad, pitiful situation. I just never realize this kind of rotten behaviour could expand to reach the most pitiful act of all such as "doing the human brain scan to find what we really want". What a sad fad!


Posted by: Arvino Mudjiarto [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 17, 2007 01:03 PM

to LinuxGuru1968:

The way you've presented your thoughts is disdainful, but it represents a sad but true picture of the supremacist mindset of a smaller class of western people.

Here's something for you to read.


Posted by: ctrlalteredmind [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 17, 2007 05:39 PM

Wow. This comment thread has taken a twist.

Posted by: Nick Carr [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 17, 2007 11:09 PM


I will try remain factual.

What you wrote, in most European countries, would have you sued for racism or hate-speech: I doubt you would win the trial. While you are in Arizona, enjoy your freedom — but on the Internet, please refrain.

Sanskrit (the Indian equivalent of Latin) and Cantonese Chinese —and to a lesser extend Russian and Mandarin Chinese— are notoriously the most challenging, un-restrictive, subtle and idiomatic languages ever invented. All Chinese 6-year-olds know a five minutes song with nothing but the syllable "Di", both very funny and eventful. There are grammar elements in Sanskrit that are so deep that they don't make sense for the immense majority of non-speakers. Hindi could be described as a simplified version of Sanskrit, significantly more idiomatic then English.

I believe most people outside of the American Midwest would know that, so please consider any foreigner more knowledgeable about other cultures then you are.

I suggest you look at a biography of Srinivasa Ramanujan: his works are not published because *no* Westerner can understand them, however all mathematicians agree his contributions are historic. Amartya Sen's works could be insightful too. You might remember the Russian mathematician that proved Poincarré's conjecture, Grigory Perelman? Well, the only person who could fill in the gaps of the demonstration was Chinese: Shing-Tung Yau. But I'm afraid if you never heard of those, this might be because you are not able to comprehend the consequences of their findings.

Posted by: Bertil [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 18, 2007 08:31 AM

You guys still haven't answered my question. How many technological artifacts laying around your house were INVENTED in China or India? I counted two: noodles and gun powder. Please post your answer please! I am waiting!

You can do the ad hominem attacks you want. You can falsely allege that I'm a supremacist or a racist but you still cannot dispute these:

Thomas Jefferson(Democracy)
Ben Franklin(Electricity, BiFocals, Fire Dept, etc.)
Robert Morse(Telegraph-Digital Communication),
James Fergason(Combat Submarine),
Charles Goodyear(Vulcanization Rubber),
Herman Hollerith(Punch Cards,IBM)
Cyrus Field(Transatlantic cable)
George Eastman(Kodak,Roll Film)
Henry Ford(Auto Industy,Standardized parts),
Thomas Edison(Phonograph,Motion Pictures, Light bulb),
The Wright Brothers(Powered Flight),
Robert Goddard(Rocketry),
Philo T. Farnsworth(Electronic Television)
Lee DeForest(Vacumn Tube, Radio)
Edwin Howard Armstrong(FM Radio)
Vannevar Bush(Search Engine, Internet?)
Hewlett & Packard( HP)
Atanasoff &Berry(First Programmable Computer)
Edwin Land(Polaroid Camera)
Percy Lebaron Spencer(Microwave Oven)
Shockley, Brattain &Bardeen(Transistor)
George Pake (Xerox Parc)
Jack Kilby/Robert Noyce/Gordon Moore(Intel,Integrated Circuit)
Douglas Engelbart(Computer Mouse, Windows)
"Ted" Hoff Jr(Microprocessor,motherboard)
Tim Paterson(DOS)
Bricklin & Frankston(VisaCalc spreadsheet),
Rubenstien & Barnaby(WordStar word processor)
Ivan Edward Sutherland(Sketchpad)
Metcalfe & Boggs(Ethernet)
Alan Shugart(Floppy Disk)
Bill Joy(BSD, Java)
James Fergason(LCD Imporved)
Roberts & Mims(Altair personal computer)
Jobs & Wozniak(Apple Computer),
Gates & Allen(Microsoft,Windows)
Larry Ellison(Oracle,Relational Database)
Marc Anderseen(Web Browser,Netscape)

The question on the table is, given the 2000+ years of recorded history in China and India, why were these things invented by people of largely European descent in America and Europe and NOT in China or India?

Posted by: Linuxguru1968 [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 19, 2007 02:40 AM

Referring to linuxguru's first post - 100 million Indians speak English, many as a first language.

Posted by: filipb [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 19, 2007 06:59 PM

I'm still waiting. Where is the list of tangible technological artifacts laying around the typical American home that were INVENTED in China or India? Silence....? Let's make a deal. I settle for the name of an H1B or L3 visa holder imported into the US after 1990 that patented original art that was the basis for the start up of a Fortune 500 company that is in operation today. I just need the NASDQ ticker. Please post it below. Thanks! :)

Posted by: Linuxguru1968 [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 22, 2007 09:49 PM

Well, its been two(2) weeks with no one answering my challenge so the score is final: China/India 2 America/Europe 40+ - game over! Looks like Bill Gates coolies and dalits aren't as smart as they think! How about shutting down H1B, deporting the 700K+ visa overstayers and start giving these jobs back to Americans? For example, how about Garrett Yazzie:
Intel sponsored his the science fair, maybe they should give him a job.

Posted by: Linuxguru1968 [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 2, 2007 10:06 PM

Linuxguru1968: Thomas Jefferson(Democracy)


You are joking right?

Posted by: HatHead [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 24, 2007 04:29 PM


>> Linuxguru1968: Thomas Jefferson(Democracy)
>> ****
>> You are joking right?

He didn't invent democracy; the Greeks did. I meant that he and the other founding fathers (FF) formulated the modern secular democracy: separate church/state and freedom of citizens to compete in their own country without interference from foreign powers. The question is, if Chinese and Indians are so much smarter and harder working that native born Americans, why didn't they invent democracy first? My point: it doesn’t' make sense to give the jobs of native born Americans to NIVs from cultures that have no proven track record for inventing anything important.

Posted by: Linuxguru1968 [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 26, 2007 04:48 PM

>> Linuxguru1968: Thomas Jefferson(Democracy)
>> ****

>He didn't invent democracy; the Greeks did. I meant >that he and the other founding fathers (FF) >formulated the modern secular democracy.

Yeah, and Montesquieu was the first Taliban.

Posted by: yocsilva [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 30, 2007 11:05 PM


>> Yeah, and Montesquieu was the first Taliban.

Sorry - I don't understand the juxtaposition of Montesquieu and the Taliban. I take it you disagree with my assertion that free market representative democracy was largely and American invention – not Chinese or Indian. I'm still waiting for the list of technological artifacts laying around the typical Americans household that was INVENTED in India. I still think Intel should fire some H1Bs and give Garrett Yazzie( a real Indian) a job.

Posted by: Linuxguru1968 [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 31, 2007 01:26 AM

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