US 'brain-reading' technology patents soar

There has been a surge in the number of technology patents awarded which relate to the reading of brainwaves, an analysis released on Wednesday has shown.

From ways to eavesdrop on brains and learn which adverts trigger a reaction in consumers, to devices that alleviate depression, there has been a dramatic rise in so-called neuro-technology patents since 2010.

Patents for neuro-technology bumped along at 300 to 400 a year in the 2000s and then soared to 800 in 2010 and 1,600 last year, SharpBrains reported.

Research company Nielsen holds the most neuro-technology patents with 100, while Microsoft holds 89 patents for software that can assess mental stress.

But it was rather unexpected according to the report that patents have been awarded to investors well beyond those at medical companies. The expansion into non-medical uses represented a dawn of the pervasive neuro-technology age, said Alvaro Fernandez, SharpBrians CEO.

“Neuro-tech has gone well beyond medicine, with non-medical corporations, often under the radar, developing neuro-technologies to enhance work and life,” he said.

Some of Nielsen’s patents describe ways to detect brain activity with EEG – a way of recording the electrical activity of the brain by placing sensors on the scalp.

In a similar way, Microsoft holds patents that assess mental states, with the goal of determining the most effective way to present information. If software knows a user's attention is wandering, it could hold back complicated material.

A considerable number of companies are using this kind of neuro-marketing with EEG to anlayse what exactly a consumer test subject honestly thinks about a new product, advertising or packaging.

However, such patents won’t go much beyond neuro-monitoring and some scientists say even these findings are no more effective than simply asking people what they think about a product.

Matt Wall, of the Centre for Imaging Science, at Hammersmith Hospital, said: “There probably are some decent companies doing work in that space, but there are a massive number of neuro-marketing companies that have sprung up in the last few years.

“Because of the wide availability and low-cost of the EEG hardware these days, they all seek to define their [unique selling point] and intellectual property (i.e. patents) based on their fancy analysis techniques and claim to measure things like 'engagement' or 'interest' from EEG signals.

“Any EEG researcher knows this is absolute rubbish, but they do succeed in producing fancy sciencey-looking graphs and results that appear convincing enough for the marketing people they're selling it to.”

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