Machines may be replacing us slowly, one human at a time, but at least we’ve still got our dignity, right? We’ve still got our dreams. Well, maybe not! Sure, computers can’t take away your waking aspirations but now they are beginning to detect the dreams we have while sleeping. Worse, humans — neuroscientists, of course — are teaching them to do it! Even dreamland isn’t safe anymore, but wait, maybe some good can still come from this.
The study, led by Masako Tamaki at Brown University and published in Science, suggests that a computer can identify what someone is dreaming about simply by reading brain activity.
Tamaki and her team used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) — like those computers that predicted crime — to scan the brains of three people. First while awake, then while asleep. These must have been some very good sleepers, because every few minutes, the researchers woke the trio up to find out what they had been dreaming about.
Throughout this process, the team collected roughly 200 visual images, which were ascribed to specific patterns recorded in the fMRI brain scans. When this information was fed to a computer model, the model would analyze it then correctly identify when each sleeper dreamed of a specific object based on the brain activity it had recorded while the person was awake.
This correlation showed that we’re using the same regions of the brain thinking about certain things whether we’re sleeping or awake. Even more interesting, the computer found common patterns used by multiple people, which suggests that certain objects can be grouped into distinct but broad thought classes, like people or scenery. Or evil clowns.
There are a lot of theories about what purpose dreams have — that they let our minds puzzle through everyday conflicts, that they’re some sort of wish fulfillment, that they’re just random byproducts of the sleep cycle — but we’ve never had any conclusive proof for any of them. Tamaki’s study is one good step in finding out. More interestingly, these findings could help us understand what’s going on with nightmares.
So my conclusion is: Yes, despite the risks of empowering machines, let’s teach computers to read our dreams and figure them out. Something‘s got to deal with the nightmares.
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