NDA #3 – Minded

I have written before about 2 of the programmes I have worked on where the NDAs I signed have expired.

This one is different. For a start, there are no bears involved but, more importantly, the status of that NDA is unknown for reasons which will become apparent.

For reasons which escape me, humanity has always been obsessed with the idea of telepathy, being able to read another person’s mind or to speak directly mind to mind.

There is a touching faith in the idea that perfect communication would exist if we could only bypass language and “see” into the soul of another.

Touching, but nonsense.

Why, yes, we did split up after that. I had not realised that she was arachnophobic.

Anyway. There is at least one area where ideas which are both impossible and pointless can get funded. Ok, two if we include Silicon Valley. However the programme in question was funded by the more classical source of funding for wacky ideas, the intelligence community.

They had already spent a vast amount of time and money on experiments on “psychic powers”. And obviously had got nowhere as psychic powers don’t exist.

So instead the focus shifted to two areas of research. The first was Machine Telepathy. The idea that you could communicate with a computer simply by thinking. Interrogation of suspects would be as simple as wiring them up to the machine and asking them questions.

The problem is that there is no common mental language. Every mind constructs itself differently. The internal representation of ideas, objects, language itself is uniquely built.

Take something as simple as thinking itself.

Research by child development theorist Linda Kreger Silverman suggests that less than 30% of the population strongly uses visual/spatial thinking, another 45% uses both visual/spatial thinking and thinking in the form of words, and 25% thinks exclusively in words. 


I think in words, I can only hold an image in my mind for a moment and that with intense effort. So when I think “bear” I think the word, not the image. And that word then cascades into all kinds of associations which are personal to me and based on experiences unique to me.

You can do some very simplistic mapping of internal mind states but qualia are individual, fluid and unmappable.

This is why mind-machine interfaces take the approach of the user training the machine to recognise particular mental states as triggers. Which can be immensely valuable in itself but as it requires the cooperation of the individual it is useless for purposes of interrogation.

So the focus shifted to the second area, subvocal communication. The idea being that many people already naturally subvocalise their thoughts or can be taught to this providing a way to silently communicate.

The technology to do this is already well developed and it soon became apparent that the results were at best only as good as using standard throat mikes and you still needed an earpiece to hear. So the spooks lost interest until we thought about accidental subvocalisation.

As I said earlier, many of us unconsciously subvocalise when thinking, especially under pressure. So could we use say an infrared laser to pick up the movements of someone’s larynx to read these subvocalisations? Throat movements to reflected laser light to sound?

It would only work for a small number of people but I got the distinct impression that the funding was on the line unless they could demonstrate something!

So we set up a lab with volunteers and tested it out. After many iterations we managed to build a combined laser/computer/translator/speaker which we used on volunteers who also wore throat mikes so we could compare and improve the laser based system.

It was not perfect but we did get results. Which pleased management who then wanted a public trial which they could then use to a) justify the quite extraordinary sunk costs and b) get even more of that Black Budget money.

So we found a shopping mall in a mid-sized American city and set up a stall where we pretended to do market research into car insurance with the shoppers. In an empty office overlooking the stall we positioned the laser system so we could “read” the larynxes of the shoppers being quizzed.

We proposed to run the experiment for a month to give us a good baseline and to iron out any issues.

The first day we had some teething problems with the system which were down to people moving while answering the questions so we drew circles on the floor by the stall and ensured that the people stood in them.

By day 4 we had found that only about one in ten people actually subvocalised enough for us to read them. The rest either were silent or we got just ambient body sounds from them.

We had started to settle into a routine and I returned to the lab to review results and avoid the call of the food court!

A couple of days later I was in the lab which was situated in a nondescript building in an industrial estate pondering on noise filters when I had a call from the research team at the mall.

They had a problem. It looked like there was a glitch in the system. One of the people they had stopped and quizzed had been perfectly normal but the results from the laser were odd. They got neither subvocalisation nor silence nor ambient noise. They played a snippet of what they had recorded, converting the signal back into sound from reflected light.

I cannot describe the sound. I do not mean that it was hard to describe, I mean it was literally impossible to describe. It was as if it was a qualia, an internal representation utterly alien to us.

All I can describe is the effect it had on me. I felt as though I was falling from a great height, that the floor I stood upon was somehow unreal and that it and I were in motion, as was everything else. Everything was falling, plummeting, no, being pulled towards some place at vast speed. Or perhaps we were stationary and the destination, the object, the entity was moving towards us, was engulfing us. Everything. There was only it; we were atoms, dust, parts, smaller than, smaller than, smaller than hope.

The sound stopped. I looked at my phone, I had only heard 3 seconds of the sound. I dropped my phone, I have no idea where it landed.

I took a taxi to the mall to do something. Destroy the machine perhaps. When I got to the mall the team, the stall and the machine were all gone.

No trace.

I went back to the industrial park. The research lab was a burnt out shell. Firefighters were hosing down the remains but it was clear that nothing had survived. I say “survived” but I could not bring myself to look for human remains. There were no ambulances so I presumed that my colleagues had either escaped the fire or…

I flew back to London that very day and tried to put the whole incident out of my mind.

I have no idea what became of the team nor the project. Internet searches for their names have been sanitised and the people who hired me have vanished. I like to think it was their choice to do so but I doubt it.

So I have no idea if the NDA is still in effect.

And I no longer answer phone calls.

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