Imagine accurately making an object move left, turn right, stop, and back up, all without touching it or moving any part of your body.
This astonishing feat is made possible by the technology of brain-controlled interfaces, also known as BCIs, which can send commands from your mind to a device and instruct it to perform various actions. If you can think it, you can move it. How? Because thoughts are made of interactions between neurons, and each interaction produces electricity that can be measured and used to generate signals.
Since the average person has about 70,000 thoughts per day, that sounds like a lot of energy to tap into. But electricity from a neuronal communication is so minuscule that it couldn’t power an amoeba’s flashlight. BCIs overcome this problem by tapping electrical charges from many neuronal interactions at the same time.
Turning Thoughts into Action
There are two major challenges to making BCIs work:
- There has to be a sensor for measuring brain signals that accurately reflects what the thinker wants to do. This can be achieved by placing electrodes on specific parts of the scalp—a process known as electroencephalography—to measure brain activity for different types of thoughts and actions. The electrodes can measure “evoked potentials”— the electrical activity in the brain resulting from stimulation via sight, sound, or touch.
- A language needs to be created that translates electrical signals from the brain into a form that can be “understood” by a computer. This can be accomplished by converting neuronal messages into symbols that a computer can detect and convert into commands to be delivered to a device.
Interestingly, the signals produced in your brain when you imagine doing something (such as moving your hand) are similar to those produced when you actually do it. This finding has helped scientists make interfaces that accurately match thought to action, by placing electrodes on areas of the scalp that sense the impulses of a particular imagined action in the brain below. This sensory capture has been greatly expedited by innovative caps worn on the head that are equipped with a large array of carefully positioned sensors.
Bringing BCIs to the General Public
Today’s sophisticated brain scanning and measurement of neuronal activity have opened the door to all sorts of possibilities with BCIs. As Grady Johnson and Sean Vitka noted in an article about BCIs in Slate, “The technology has broken out of the lab and into the marketplace with surprising speed.”
One of the leaders in this new marketplace is NeuroSky, a company that uses advanced headsets to measure activity in the prefrontal cortex, particularly on FP1—an area on the left side of the prefrontal cortex that is responsible for higher-level cognitive decision making.
When the prefrontal cortex is active, there tends to be a heightened level of beta waves. Beta waves are small, fast brainwaves associated with an alert, focused state of mind. They are especially prevalent when the brain is making calculations, working on logical puzzles, or dealing with other intellectual challenges.
NeuroSky and other companies offer products for monitoring brainwaves and training our brains to promote better attention and learning. There are even games that allow you to move objects on a video screen by sheer concentration alone.
Thoughts Go Airborne
We’ve all seen people navigating miniature airplanes through the air with a hand-held remote-control device. Now imagine that device is your own head. Researchers at the University of Minnesota created a thought-controlled helicopter that can be steered by the mind of someone wearing a cap equipped with 64 electrodes. This cap transmits instructions from the wearer’s brain to a computer, which translates them into commands sent skyward to the chopper.
One might think that such mind-controlled aviation requires heavy-duty concentration and complex thought patterns. But it’s actually quite straightforward, requiring only very logical thinking by the capped navigator on terra firma. Subjects in the study were able to make the flying robot turn, rise, dip, and even sail through a ring via brain-activated commands.
The implications of such advances are nothing short of staggering. “The promise is irresistible: from restoring sight to the blind, to helping the paralyzed walk again, to allowing people suffering from locked-in syndrome to communicate with the outside world,” Will Oremus wrote about BCIs in Slate. “In the past few years, the pace of progress has been accelerating, delivering dazzling headlines seemingly by the week.”
But advances in our ability to tap the brain’s “out of body” potential also warrant caution. Think back to when the discovery of nuclear fission opened up a new era of cheap energy—and a Pandora’s box of unspeakable destruction. Today, brains can control devices. Tomorrow, will brains take over other brains?
I’ll explore this topic in a future article on Rewire Me.