Microsoft’s mind reading patent

The art of predicting customer behaviour has become increasingly sophisticated, as technology companies have improved their data mining algorithms and added ever-greater processing power to the number-crunching machines. This has allowed organisations to build detailed profiles of their customers, their buying habits and interests, often without the consumers knowing they were being tracked.

Now one company believes it can take the concept of customer profiling one step further: it wants to literally read its customers’ minds.

In August 2007, software giant Microsoft filed a patent application for a system that would allow it to access thoughts. The patent describes pattern-recognition techniques that can be applied to electroencephalograph (EEG) signals – a measure of electrical activity in the brain – to determine what cognitive state the subject is in.

Microsoft’s intention is ostensibly to use EEG testing to measure the effectiveness of its own user interfaces. “It is possible to determine the effectiveness of a user interface by analysing a user’s brain states before, during, and/or after a user performs a task using the user interface,” the company asserts in its patent application.

But it is hard to believe that Microsoft will stop there, if it does effectively hone and patent EEG techniques. For one thing, its presence in the computer games market opens up intriguing possibilities: it could use brainwaves as a control mechanism.

There are other possibilities too. Microsoft has an avowed commitment to taking on search engine giant Google in the lucrative online advertising market. Now that is one area where a little mind reading could go a very long way.

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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