Microsoft’s image tagging brainwave

In November 2007, Information Age reported that software giant Microsoft had filed an unusual patent application that had some readers reaching for their tin-foil hats.

The patent described a system that could analyse electroencephalograph (EEG) signals – brainwaves, in short – to determine a subject’s state of mind. At the time, the company said it would employ the technology to test the usability of its own software, but critics questioned whether Microsoft could resist applying the technology to its then-burgeoning online advertising business.

Two years later, Microsoft has turned the technology to a third, rather innocuous, application. Scientists in its research labs have developed a technique for tagging images based on the brain activity of subjects wearing EEG devices on their heads.

The theory is that subjects produce different EEG readings when they perceive different stimuli: a face will activate different regions of the brain to a building, for example. The researchers developed an algorithm that could ‘learn’ to associate certain readings with certain stimuli.

The system is not yet as effective as other image-tagging mechanisms (such as the system developed by Google that turns image tagging into an online game), as both the EEG devices and the algorithms to interpret the data are still crude, scientists say. Its advantage, though, is that it requires no effort from the subject.

But the application of a so-called ‘brain-computer interface’ to what is in essence an information management problem raises interesting questions about the future of work.

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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