The Neuroshopping Network: direct-to-mind marketing

In a future presented in Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report, crime is prevented by catching would-be criminals before they commit the act. The process used in the science-fiction story, neuroimaging, works by detecting activity in different parts of the brain. As you might have guessed, the different physicals regions of the brain are more active than others during specific activities. These differences  can be observed through brain scans.

There are many types of scans which are being heralded in crime detection. Some can indicate which individuals have a greater tendency to exhibit certain behaviors, such as the tendency to become aggressive. There needs to be additional studies before we can even consider using brain scans regularly for new purposes because there isn’t a clear idea about how scans correlate with criminal actions. We also know from common sense that simply because someone can be aggressive doesn’t mean that he or she is going to be a criminal. Consequently, the promise of these tools is currently greater than the utility.

fMRI brain scan

If you follow the news carefully, you may have noticed a recent firestorm of controversy over whether functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), one of the most powerful techniques of neuroimaging, can be used as better lie detectors. Results are inconclusive so far and favor not using the technique, but the debate will not abate anytime soon.

Still, the remarkable power of neuroimaging is undeniable. A research article published last week in the prestigious American journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences used fMRI to record brain activity of speakers and listeners during the act of verbal communication. The article found something called neural coupling occurring during active communication. In simple terms,  brain scans showed that the listener’s brain activity mirrors that the brain activity of the speaker. Detectable neural coupling happens only when the listener understands the speaker. So, if you’re speaking in Bangla, I can act like I don’t understand a word you’re saying, but my brain will leave tell-tale signs of my bluff. Will this be useful for crime detection? Maybe not right now. For one, my guess is that we don’t really know what happens if the listener concentrates on not paying attention to the speaker.

Now, let us switch gears and focus on a corporate setting. Suppose you’re a customer given the choice between an established soft drink and a new one being tested prior to product launch. Companies now rely on focus groups, surveys, and other tests to try to gauge customer preference. These do the job, but are notoriously unreliable.

But what if you didn’t need to verbally respond? What if the company could detect your preference for their drink or a competitor’s advertisement by scanning your brain? In addition, what if the company knew exactly which part of the brain the product appealed to and could make it even more irresistible? Companies wouldn’t need full-scale roll-outs or even smaller pilot projects to determine if they had a customer-base.

That is the goal of neuromarketing and it is being heralded as the next big advance in marketing. In theory, through neuromarketing it should be possible to tailor-design products so that a customer is compelled to buy it (and in case of food products consume in large quantities). Quite a fearful thought, but I doubt that will worry shareholders of the companies as their profits soar.

Let us now break down the central requirements for successful neuromarketing. The key steps are finding out which parts of the brain are involved in making the purchasing decision by observing subjects,  feeding this data into a computer to generate a mapping template, and successfully predicting the likelihood that a naive subject will make a purchase solely by comparing his or her brain scan.

A few years ago, a landmark research study published in Neuron entitled “Neural Predictors of Purchases” showed that at least the underlying assumptions of neuromarketing are not outlandish. In those series of experiments, researchers found, quite amazingly, that there are distinct brain circuits involved in the act of shopping.

In other words, different parts of the brain get activated when you consider buying an item and during the actual purchase. And we should be able to know without asking you just by scanning your brain. At least for the data used in the study, the model is predictive. What that also means is that with a sophisticated fMRI machine it may be possible to make an informed guess about whether or not you’re likely to buy something way before you do. No need for you to be polite or to lie. Just sit back while the companies ask your brain and let your mind do the talking!

But why should we stop there? After all, a customer does need to leave the sofa, go to a computer or a brick-and-mortar shop and make a purchase. There are just too many opportunities for the customer to change his or her mind before the actual transaction is made.

There is a way to get around customer indecision, lethargy, and changes in preference and although it requires a leap in science and technology, it is definitely within the realm of the possible. I propose to call it neuroshopping and here it how it goes:

You are sitting in your living room wearing an iShop helmet device with sensors monitoring synaptic activity in various parts of your brain. These signals are being fed into a computer that has access to your bank account information. You’re watching products flash by in 3D on the Neuroshopping Network. As soon as brain scans show that you’re interested in purchasing a product, a computer makes an automatic purchase on your behalf.

Perhaps, you repent later and you return some of your purchases, but if you’re anything like I am, you’re too lazy to return even the items you don’t need or can’t afford. The company makes a profit because it has connected directly to your impulses and has reduced marketing to the simplest essence – telling you that you need something and getting you to purchase instantaneously without giving you a chance to rationalize or second-guess your decision. (Bye bye

Quite honestly, as I mentioned earlier, a major stumbling block right now is the technology. A decent fMRI machine costs around one million dollars per Tesla. It also requires dedicated staff to run and costs in the hundreds of thousands of dollars every year to operate.

I was trained as a scientist, not as an engineer. But I do know a little bit about the short history of personal computers. I’ll wait for those with the “know-how” to make it happen. I keep thinking to myself: give it some time. Technology always gets cheaper.

The bottom-line is that one day that you will impulsively spend even more than you do now. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Image courtesy of Erik1980 and licensed under GDFL by the creator. If you also have time take a look at this interesting one-paragraph short story by Surekha Pillai.

© Text, 2010-2012


How to make medical decisions based on Bollywood movies

A few days ago, I wrote a short medical article on how Bollywood was an excellent source of information on how to treat bullet wounds. Based on the excellent feedback I received, I decided to search for a suitable venue for publication in a scholarly medical journal. Physicians and life scientists generally use PubMed, a comprehensive database provided by the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

In searching the database, I came across a medical article published in the March 2010 issue of The Journal of ECT entitled  “The depiction of electroconvulsive therapy in Hindi cinema.” You probably didn’t know this, but  electroconvulsive therapy or ECT is  popularly referred to as “shock therapy” in Bollywood movies.

Who knew?

The authors of the medical research article, all Indian physicians, felt that Hindi movies were a source of misinformation on shock therapy. To remedy the injustice, they first identified 13 Hindi movies between 1967 and 2008 “based on inquiries with e-communities, video libraries, and other sources.” These 13 movies were then listed in Table 1 of the research paper. The movies identified in this research were Jewel Thief, Raat aur Din, Khamoshi, Yarana, Arth, Coolie, Damini, Raja, Dastak, Har Dil Jo Pyar Karega, Kyon Ki, Woh Lamhe, and Manthan Ek Kashmakash (starring the other Sanjay Kumar and Anisha Babi if you insist on knowing).

The authors state that “between 1967 and 2008, 13 Hindi movies contained referrals to or depictions of ECT.” I hope they had good reasons for excluding Pagla Kahin Ka, Khilona, and Dhara , all of which that have explicit referrals to ECT within that time-frame.

Shockingly, the authors found inaccuracies in the depiction of ECT in Hindi movies. Who would have thought?

The authors also provide a thorough discussion of the implications of these inaccuracies. Two points are worth quoting from the abstract of the medical article.

“Although the inaccuracies are a cause for concern, we suggest that because Hindi cinema is generally hyperbolic, the public may be willing to distinguish real life from reel life when facing clinical decisions about ECT.”

Hindi cinema, generally hyperbolic? Although I probably couldn’t recognize a hyperbole if it burst out in song-and-dance wearing a tomato red chiffon sari, it is possible that the authors’ comment might be a slight understatement.

“Nevertheless, considering the potential for harm in the dissemination of misinformation, filmmakers should exhibit a greater sense of ethics when creating impressions that might adversely influence health.”

Shame on you Hindi filmmakers for not having any ethics! Priyadarshan, I know you probably haven’t had time recently to browse through issues of The Journal of ECT, but I really must protest. This sort of ignorance on medical matters clearly will not do!

The public deserves better.

More Bollywood Science here.

Disclaimer: These are my personal views and do not necessarily represent the position of my current or former employers. I am not a physician and have no knowledge of ECT so my comments should be taken with a pinch of salt. Fair-use rationale of images: All images are low-resolution and used only for purposes of demonstration for no monetary gain where a free equivalent is not available. Copyright of original works resides with the original creators.

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban

How to catch a killer or a spy

How to catch a killer.

Murders happen all the time. As reported by the UN, there were at least 37,000 murders in India in 2002 making it at least one of the top two “killer nations” that year (since China did not openly disclose this sort of data). In addition to the reported numbers, there are death that go unreported, as well as deaths that aren’t definitively determined to result from homicide. How many of the reported murders actually get solved? I’m curious to know the numbers for India, but interestingly, in the United States, one of the most advanced nations on the planet in terms of forensic technology, the numbers aren’t stellar compared to what they were only a few decades ago. It is estimated that around 90% of murders in the United States were solved in the Sixties compared to about 65% nowadays. Clearly, improvements in technology and training have not been able to deter all criminals or bring them to justice.

Now, I want to put aside these sobering thoughts and mention a murder case that actually did get solved.

A body of a man was retrieved in a village in China, On examination, it was found that the man had been stabbed to death. The investigator, wanted to know more about the instrument used to stab the victim, so he obtained the carcass of a dead animal. By stabbing the carcass with various sharp instruments and comparing the wounds on the carcass to the that of the dead man, he was able to determine that the victim had been stabbed to death with a sickle.

Having established the type of weapon that was used to commit the crime, the investigator set about to identify the criminal. Now, a sickle is a very common farming implement in many parts of the world. In those days, it was common in China too. The investigator decided to start the process of interrogation in the village. He asked each villager who owned a sickle to meet him for questioning. All the villagers who owned sickles obliged, and one was immediately apprehended. On further interrogation, this villager broke down and admitted that he had committed the murder.

How did the investigator determine the identity of the killer? Although the killer had wiped the sickle clean, flies were attracted to only his sickle. The astute investigator had been able to connect the dots and to pursue his line of questioning with that incidental clue.

By now, you may be wondering what was so special about the resolution of this particular case. Modern forensic entomologists use their knowledge of insects all the time to determine time and place of death. What is amazing is that the incident I recounted occurred in 1235 and is the first recorded case in forensic entomology.

How to catch a spy.

In the fog-of-war it is imperative to obtain actionable intelligence in a timely manner. Chanakya, prime minister to the first Maurya emperor Chandragupta, provided a detailed discussion on the use of spies in the defense of the realm in his magnum opus, Arthashastra. Similarly, in the Art of War, Sun Tzu mentions five classes of spies: 1) local spies who actually live in the territory of an enemy, 2) moles who are traitorous officials in the employment of the enemy, 3) double agents, who keep up the deceptive appearance of being a spy for the enemy, 4) doomed spies, who are sent with the purpose of providing false information to the enemy, and 5) surviving spies who successfully bring back information from enemy territory.

In the height of the Cold War the intelligence agencies of the two superpowers played a constant game of cat-and-mouse and the term surviving spy became something of a euphemism. Soviet agents tried to utilize US sources to gain vital information on American national security. Similarly, American agents entered the Soviet Union with hopes of being able to report back to their home bases. The American spies underwent extensive training to fit into Soviet settings. They knew how to speak perfect Russian and dress like the Russians. They had all the right papers including fake Soviet passports. On paper, it seemed like the perfect plan. In reality, hundreds of the American spies did end up getting caught.

How did the Soviets successfully pick out the American spies? Simple artifacts found in the KGB museum in Moscow point to the answer. The fake Soviet passports were identical to the genuine ones in every way, save one important detail. The staples. The pages of the fake passports found on the American spies were held together by staples made out of stainless steel and therefore did not corrode, while the genuine Soviet ones rusted. By the simple test of adding a drop of water to the stapled portion of the passport and observing the next day, the Soviets were able to pick out the forgeries. One seemingly minor detail turned out to be the undoing for hundreds of intelligence agents.

Moral of these two stories:

Le diable est dans les détails. Details, details, details. No machine can do the job of a dedicated analyst. Technology can aid in investigation, but cannot replace astute observation.

Royalty-free images courtesy of spekulator@SXC

© 2010-2012, Anirban

Five important questions technology can’t answer

An hour-long internet outage today made me feel ashamed of myself. I was ashamed because I felt helpless without the connection even for the short period of time. While a vast proportion of humanity lacks basic amenities such as clean drinking water, nutritious food, and proper shelter, I’ve made my life so complex that I can’t go on without something I didn’t have twenty years ago. Is this what life has come to? Is this what I’ve become?

Has my life come to this?

My parents, grandparents, and generations before them were born in villages in eastern India. The walked to school and studied under the flicker of lanterns. They drew water from wells. They wrote actual letters.

In the last few decades, our lives became “simpler” with electricity, running water, and telephones. Sometimes utilities  were available, and other times they weren’t. That was the only thing that was simple.

Then, in the early Nineties, cable television, the internet, and a liberalized economy opened us up to to the rest of the world. Soon we were relying on cell phones, mp3 players and laptops. We were buying Hondas and Toyotas. We were traveling on-site for IT projects and abroad for higher studies. Our BPOs became attuned to the needs of foreign clients in global timezones. Ironically, what was supposed to make our lives simpler actually made them more complex!

Today I’ve identified five technological questions that technology can’t answer.

1. What is the resolution on a television and audio quality on a stereo system that will satisfy us?

The first television my parents had was a 14 inch black-and-white. Once they could afford color, they bought a Sony Trinitron which is still in working order. They bought a VCR and the VHS format was in vogue for decades too. Not these days – in the last decade, I’ve bought a couple of television sets (including one in high-definition), home theater systems, and DVD players. Very recently I became the owner of a Blu-ray player. I am sure all of these will soon be replaced by newer technologies. But does 7.1 surround sound turn an out-of-tune song into ear-candy?  I can sit and watch Transformers II a hundred times in high-definition glory (actually I can’t watch it even once), but I still won’t get the same feeling I get when I watch grainy prints of Pather Panchali. How many pixels do we really need on our screens to feel satisfied?

2. How many redundant devices do we need to feel secure?

I remember the day I got my first digital wristwatch. I was so proud! Flash-forward to the day I bought my first mp3 player (really a hard-drive in disguise). I was pretty happy that day too. I own three laptops, four generations of mp3 players, four external hard drives, and at least half dozen flash drives.  I can safely say I’m not atypical. Decades ago, I used to own music cassettes. Now I have CDs that I never listen to and at least ten copies of each song backed up on my devices. How many copies do I really need to feel secure?

3. How many software updates and patches do we need until we have software we can use?

When you buy a piece of software, you don’t expect it to be perfect. You expect it to do the job that you want satisfactorily. After all, if a software company ever created the “perfect” software it would go out of business, since there would be no need for patches, updates, and support. I understand the need for security updates for programs to counter threats. I understand the need for updated programs that interface better with newer technologies especially in light of Moore’s law. What I do not understand is the need for multiple versions of programs that do simple tasks such as viewing standard graphical files.

4. How many buttons are necessary on a remote control?

Have you ever used all the buttons on the 10 remote controls that you have in front of you? “On/off”, “play”, “pause” and “stop” are probably the ones you use most. I once pressed the wrong button on the remote control for my DVD-recorder and got trapped in a sub-menu filled with symbols that made no sense. It was quite an existential experience since there was no way for me to get out. “Man can will nothing unless he has first understood that he must count on no one but himself,” as Jean-Paul Sartre famously said. So, I got up and unplugged the monstrosity. (I admit I have never pushed the “random” button on my Kenwood home-theater system out of fear of disturbing the order of the natural world).

5. How many razor blades do men need for a truly close shave?

My grandfather used to shave using Wilkinson Sword razor blades. I’ve never used a safety razor in my life. I’ve used electronic shavers a couple of times, but find that my skin usually turns beet red, which makes me look like I’ve been swigging the bottle early in the morning. I usually use cartridges. In high school, I started shaving with cartridges that had one blade. Then I promoted my stubble to the “revolutionary” Gillette Sensor which had two blades which was advertised to help lift and cut. Then I flew for a few years with three blades at Mach3. Now, I’m on interplanetary orbit with the five-blade Fusion. How many blades will I end up using to shave? Seven? Ten? Twenty?

Technology can’t answer these five questions. We need to understand human psychology instead.

Text: © 2009-2011, Anirban

Cartoon cc 2.0: (created using