‘Thoughts read’ via brain scans

August 10, 2005

Scientists say they have been able to monitor people’s thoughts via scans of their brains.

Teams at University College London and University of California in LA could tell what images people were looking at or what sounds they were listening to.

The US team say their study proves brain scans do relate to brain cell electrical activity.

The UK team say such research might help paralysed people communicate, using a “thought-reading” computer.

We are still a long way off from developing a universal mind-reading machine

Dr John-Dylan Haynes, University College London

In their Current Biology study, funded by the Wellcome Trust, people were shown two different images at the same time – a red stripy pattern in front of the right eye and a blue stripy pattern in front of the left.

The volunteers wore special goggles which meant each eye saw only what was put in front of it.

In that situation, the brain then switches awareness between both images, sometimes seeing one image and sometimes the other.

While people’s attention switched between the two images, the researchers used fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) brain scanning to monitor activity in the visual cortex.

It was found that focusing on the red or the blue patterns led to specific, and noticeably different, patterns of brain activity.

The fMRI scans could reliably be used to predict which of the images the volunteer was looking at, the researchers found.


The US study, published in Science, took the same theory and applied it to a more everyday example.

They used electrodes placed inside the skull to monitor the responses of brain cells in the auditory cortex of two surgical patients as they watched a clip of “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”.

They used this data to accurately predict the fMRI signals from the brains of another 11 healthy patients who watched the clip while lying in a scanner.

Professor Itzhak Fried, the neurosurgeon who led the research, said: “We were able to tell one part of a scene from another, and we could tell one type of sound from another.”

Dr John-Dylan Haynes of the UCL Institute of Neurology, who led the research, told the BBC News website: “What we need to do now is create something like speech-recognition software, and look at which parts of the brain are specifically active in a person.”

He said the study’s findings proved the principle that fMRI scans could “read thoughts”, but he said it was a very long way from creating a machine which could read anyone’s mind.

But Dr Haynes said: “We could tell from a very limited subset of possible things the person is possibly seeing.”

“One day, someone will come up with a machine in a baseball cap.

“Then it really could be helpful in everyday applications.”

He added: “Our study represents an important but very early stage step towards eventually building a machine that can track a person’s consciousness on a second-by-second basis.

“These findings could be used to help develop or improve devices that help paralyzed people communicate through measurements of their brain activity.

But he stressed: “We are still a long way off from developing a universal mind-reading machine.”

Dr Fried said: “It has been known that different areas of the temporal lobe are activated by faces, or houses.

“This UCL finding means it is not necessary to use strikingly different stimuli to tell what is activating areas of the brain.”

Berners-Lee on the read/write web

August 10, 2005

In August 1991, Sir Tim Berners-Lee created the first website. Fourteen years on, he tells BBC Newsnight’s Mark Lawson how blogging is closer to his original idea about a read/write web.

This full chat can be viewed in the given link

Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s chat on BBC

Teens urged to be future thinkers

August 10, 2005

Students in the UK will have the chance to win a visit to Nasa’s Kennedy Space Center in a competition announced by the Arthur C Clarke Foundation.

It is timed to coincide with the 60th anniversary of Sir Arthur’s famous paper on communication satellites.

The paper was the first to suggest that the use of geostationary orbits could aid global communication.

To take part in the contest, entrants must submit a five-minute presentation on the future of the technology.

VIP visit

The competition is divided into two age ranges: 14-16 and 16-18. One winner will be chosen from each group.

An essay
Short film
Mock documentary
Mock-up newspaper report
Filmed TV debate
Powerpoint presentation

Entries will be judged by a panel from the Arthur C Clarke Foundation, the Institute of Physics, National Science Learning Centres and BBC Focus magazine.

They will be looking for both “understanding of the scientific principles” and “imaginative flair” in entrants’ presentations.

The Foundation has also put an emphasis on an ability to communicate “the excitement and practical uses” of the scientific theory.

The format of entries is to be decided by the entrant. The judges’ suggestions range from essays to short films, but they will accept anything “which can easily be delivered in hard copy or electronic format”.

The winners will be treated to a VIP visit to the Space Center, based at Cape Canaveral, Florida. The Space Center is the site of the launch of the Discovery shuttle. The deadline for applications is 15 December this year.

Arthur C Clarke
A true broadcast service, giving constant field strength at all times over the whole globe, would be invaluable, not to say indispensable, in a world society

Arthur C Clarke, 1945

Science fiction

The competition is being organised by Sir Arthur’s niece, Angela Edwards. She is keen to see “this seminal piece of work” bought to “an audience whom it’s passed by”.

The contest aims to encourage students to view science as exciting in its own right. She hopes that Sir Arthur’s role as both a scientist and sci-fi writer can help to achieve this.

“There’s a whole generation for whom science fiction has been overtaken by science fantasy,” she told the BBC News website.

National Science Learning Centres has provided advice on the educational aspect of the competition.

“We anticipate that the multiple formats for submission will produce a lively and innovative range of entries,” said a spokeswoman for the institution.

“We are very much looking forward to being involved in the judging process.”

What satellites are for, where they go, and how they are launched

Sir Arthur’s original article, entitled Extra-terrestrial Relays, was published in October 1945 in the science journal Wireless World.

The idea of a satellite using a geostationary orbit – one where its position relative to the earth remains constant – was groundbreaking.

Sir Arthur’s importance is immortalised in the unofficial name for the technique: the Clarke orbit.

Discovery returns safely to Earth

August 10, 2005

Discovery landed at Edwards Air Force Base at around 1312 BST (0512 PST; 1212 GMT) when bad weather forced a change to the intended Florida landing site.

Columbia broke up on re-entry because of damage it sustained when foam debris fell off the fuel tank during lift-off.

On leaving Discovery, the crew went to inspect the vehicle on the tarmac.

“It’s absolutely fantastic to be back on planet Earth,” said Discovery’s commander Eileen Collins at a post-landing press conference on Tuesday.

But the first woman to command a shuttle mission added that the crew had experienced mixed feelings: “It’s a very bittersweet day for us too. We remember the Columbia crew and their families.

She added: “Our heart goes out to them as we reach a point of closure.”

Nasa officials cheered and clapped as Commander Collins made a perfect landing on runway 22 at Edwards Air Force Base about 54 minutes before dawn.

Grounded fleet

The shuttle touched down at around 322km/h (200mph), deploying its parachute to slow its speed after making a 196-degree turn to align itself with the landing strip. Its steep trajectory took it over the Pacific Ocean and just north of Los Angeles.

“It’s going to be really hard to top this mission,” Nasa’s administrator Mike Griffin told reporters at a post-launch news briefing at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, “The crew performed fantastically well.”

Kennedy Space Center – the shuttle’s “home” and preferred site for landing
Edwards Air Force Base – the shuttle has landed a total of 50 times at the base
White Sands – back-up known as Northrup Strip lies 45 miles north of US Army missile range

But the mission was not a complete success. As with Columbia, foam debris broke free from Discovery’s external tank during launch. On of these chunks of foam was only slightly smaller than the one that doomed Columbia and Nasa has grounded its shuttle fleet until the problem is fixed.

Officials wouldn’t be drawn on when the shuttle mission – still officially slated for September – might be able to launch.

“Until we get some data back, we can’t make that decision. We will fly it when it’s ready to go,” said the shuttle programme manager Bill Parsons.

Astronaut Steve Robinson also had to conduct an audacious spacewalk to remove two cloth gap fillers which were sticking out from beneath the vehicle.

“This is a difficult and risky endeavour,” said flight director LeRoy Cain, adding: “If it was easy everyone would be doing this.”

Expensive return

Commander Collins made an open plea for people to support the shuttle and Nasa’s programme of space exploration: “Some people say we should stop flying the shuttle because we’ve had an accident – frankly two accidents – but we are people who believe in this mission and we’re going to continue it.

“I ask you to please support it it’s very important to us…space exploration is a fantastic part of the human experience.”

Eileen Collins and Andy Thomas, Nasa

Eileen Collins talks to astronaut Andy Thomas after landing

At 1206 BST (0706 EST; 1106 GMT) on Tuesday, the orbiting shuttle began its return to Earth by firing its two Orbital Manoeuvring System engines for about two minutes 42 seconds at an altitude of around 329km (205 miles).

The shuttle started to experience the burning effects of the atmosphere at about 120km (75 miles) and a speed of about 27,360km/h (17,000mph), pitching down and then up so the protected underside was exposed to the most intense heating.

Under certain circumstances, the shuttle’s belly can be subjected to temperatures of 1,600C (3,000F) – hot enough to melt steel. Five minutes after hitting the atmosphere, Discovery began the first of four banks from side to side in order to lose speed.

Nasa will spend about $1m on returning the shuttle from California to Florida where its launches take place. It should be back at Kennedy Space Center in nine or 10 days.

Second choice

Edwards Air Force Base was the second choice landing site. Rainstorms and lightning within 30 nautical miles (55.6km) of the Kennedy Space Center – the shuttle’s “home” – forced Nasa to scrub the two available landing opportunities in Florida on Tuesday.

The situation aboard the shuttle meant Nasa were keen to bring Discovery down today.

The crew only had enough consumables, such as food and water, to take them through Wednesday. The shuttle’s ability to remove carbon dioxide gas from the crew decks was also due to run down after Wednesday.

Discovery was due to land on Monday in Florida but bad visibility due to a deck of low-lying cloud forced a delay for 24 hours.