Listening to the private thoughts of other people, understanding their motivations, passions, and anxieties has been played out again and again in fictional utopias and dystopias, and near-future stories. But mostly dystopias. Moderating one’s thoughts and considering the feelings of others before acting is a key part of a peaceful society. Luckily, we’re a ways off from confronting this technology. But we can cheaply read electrical activity in the brain. And it’s allowed for some pretty cool ideas and visions of the future.
The biggest impediment to BCI technology at present is the lack of a sensor modality that provides safe, accurate and robust access to brain signals. It is conceivable or even likely, however, that such a sensor will be developed within the next twenty years. The use of such a sensor should greatly expand the range of communication functions that can be provided using a BCI.
Any revolutionary new technology will pose new questions about ethical use. Technologies that monitor or even modify our bodies carry an even greater burden of proving that they will do more good than harm, but these ethical debates are often difficult to hash out before a technology becomes mainstream. One way to consider this is through extrapolative science fiction, like Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl does for big agriculture or John Scalzi’s Lock In does for brain interfaces. Scalzi raises interesting social issues that could arise from widespread use of brain-computer interfaces:
- Is a crime against a human-controlled machine a crime against his person?
- What would digital property rights look like?
- Should potentially dangerous technology be made available to everyone? When do the benefits outweigh the costs?
Brain-computer interfaces fall into two categories: invasive and non-invasive. Invasive brain interfaces can produce the highest quality signals, but as they’re connected directly to the brain over time the body will reject the foreign object and scar tissue buildup will weaken the signal. It’s also a scary sounding idea. Non-invasive brain interfaces pick up weaker signals due to the interference caused by the skull, but give casual users the opportunity to try out brain interface technologies like electroencephalography (EEG) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
Human brain activity was first recorded by Hans Berger in 1924. Ethical concerns have restricted further brain-machine interface research to animals. Researchers have tested rats, cats, and several species of monkeys. Some interesting research from Duke University demonstrated not only that monkeys could control robotic arms, but that they could distinguish between different textures through direct stimulation of the monkey’s sensory cortex. Involving all five senses is critical to developing truly immersive computer interfaces.
Just as the military sponsored octopus research in my last post, DARPA has been sponsoring brain-computer interface research since the 1970s. According to Wired, the research currently focuses on methods to enable “user-to-user communication on the battlefield without the use of vocalized speech through analysis of neural signals.” Researchers found that that it is possible to use electrocorticography to discriminate the vowels and consonants embedded in spoken and in imagined words.
Interested in trying out brain-computer interfaces for yourself? The coolest toy on the market is the NeuroSky. For $79 you can pick up an EEG sensor to measure states of concentration and relaxation. NeuroSky has used this to make games, meditation tools, and even a helicopter that you launch using brain waves. In 2009 NeuroSky collaborated with Mattel to build the Mindflex, a toy that used focus to navigate a ball through a customizable obstacle course. Some critics have claimed that the Mindflex doesn’t read brainwaves at all, and that the ball will move throughout the course even if you strap the headset to a mannequin. This may be why there haven’t been more brain games released since.
I’m personally interested in how brainwaves can be used for selection tasks on hands free displays. For further reading/viewing, check out Pentagon Preps Soldier Telepathy Push or this Intro to EEG video.