Imagine the possibilities in a world where the actions of a computer could be controlled by simply using your mind. No more typing, no more buttons, no more screen-tapping. Just you; your mind; and a computer. While this technology sounds like something straight from Black Mirror, it may soon be more than science fiction.
Have you ever struggled to get out of bed to turn a light off? Have you ever failed to take the perfect selfie because you couldn’t quite reach the capture button? Have you ever been annoyed about having to take your phone out of your pocket just to change a song? Have you ever wanted to just move your hand again after being paralysed from the neck down? Well, Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCI) may offer a solution to all these problems.
When you think about doing something, anything, your brain emits tiny electrical signals relating to this thought process, these signals are the result of neurons firing and communicating with each other. This activity can be viewed using an electroencephalogram (EEG). Don’t worry, I’m not sure how to pronounce that either.
Certain patterns of activity produced can be associated with unique thought processes (event-related potentials or ERPs). If someone sits and repeatedly thinks about performing a physical action, machine learning can be applied to understand the patterns of brain activity produced. When the pattern and all its variants are understood, the intended action can then be passed on to another machine to perform the event.
He could control its movements simply by thinking about what he wanted to do.
The pioneering force behind the development of this technology stems from research into giving life-long paraplegics the ability to move once again.
Bill Kochevar’s life was changed seemingly forever when he was paralysed from the shoulders down following an accident. After nearly a decade of being unable to even perform the simplest of tasks for himself, his future looked bleak. That is until 2017 when he was fitted with an invasive EEG sensor that monitored the electrical activity from his brain. Then over a four-month period, Mr Kochevar trained the system by thinking about specific movements, such as turning his wrist or gripping something.
Then 36 muscle-stimulating electrodes were implanted into his arm and hand, he could control its movements simply by thinking about what he wanted to do. Within weeks, he could feed himself again, providing him with a new lease of life. Research teams are also working on mind-controlled wheelchairs (that’s some serious Professor X sh*t right there), and on using sensors to allow people who are completely paralysed to give yes-and-no answers through the power of thought.
A company called Neurable has recently adapted a VR headset to be fitted it with an external EEG. They’ve created a simple game that demonstrates how this technology can be incorporated. When something changes on screen, whether an object is moving, flashing or making a sound; these changes provoke brain activity. This brain activity can then be used to provide feedback in the game, allowing the user to make selections, which has been likened to using a mental computer mouse.
Microsoft recently filed a patent for a machine learning system that would use EEG waves to launch and control computer applications. Nissan is even looking at integrating BCI with the control systems of their cars to allow for pre-emptive manoeuvres to reduce road traffic accidents.
Admittedly, the technology is still in very early days, and even when it starts to become widely available to consumers, its complexity may not surpass that of a task more complicated than what can be equated to a simple keystroke. Such as allowing you to take selfies, change a song or turn a light off.
Of course, one thing that is holding back sophisticated uses is the need to use externally mounted electrodes, as not everyone will want to opt for having electrodes implanted in their brain. Therefore, the consumer applications may be limited for a long time, before external sensors are perfected and sensitive enough. Brain implants are risky and expensive, making them suitable for only the most life-changing applications; this is where we will first see this technology come into its own.
Last modified: 16th February 2018