Feature Story

When computers link directly to your brain

by Jason Deign

Mind control goes mainstream

Controlling machines with your mind is no longer just science fiction

Picture yourself reading this. Your phone rings. So you answer it. With your mind. Sounds absurd? Not at all. The power to control machines through thought alone is much closer than you might think. Some people are doing it now. For fun.

If you wanted to, for instance, for just $25 you could buy a PC game called Throw Trucks With Your Mind. The makers say it would "give you telekinetic super-powers controlled with your thoughts."

So you just think about doing something and your online ‘you' leaps into action. The secret to this no-touch game is special headset built by a San Jose based firm called NeuroSky.

The headset uses EEG biosensors, a form of brain-computer interface (BCI), to track brainwaves and turn them into commands that can be read by machines.

"Our EEG biosensors collect electrical signals, not actual thoughts, to translate brain activity into action," says NeuroSky on its website.

See also: New human-machine interfaces: Beyond verbal communication

The power to control machines through thought alone is much closer than you might think.Doctors have long used EEGs to check for brain problems. But the EEG readers of old were costly machines, worth thousands of dollars.

That confined their use to the healthcare sector until about a decade ago when experts like Dr Ted Berger, of the University of Southern California, started to delve deeper into the patterns found in the brain, and see how to make sense of them.

These studies came to a head around 2011, with the advent of the first mind-controlled machines. In 2014, researchers were able to link two brains, via a network, for the first time.

Now NeuroSky and other companies like Neuroelectrics and Blackrock Microsystems, are starting to bring these systems into the mainstream, but gaming is just one of many uses.

The main uses are still in healthcare to help control pain or to improve wellness. United Kingdom and Europe-funded ZenZone Interactive has apps that work with EEG headsets to boost health and wellbeing.

ZenZone says: "10 years ago, we realized that there was an opportunity to combine the power of technology with the power of the mind. Only recently has this vision been possible due to … new brainwave-reading headsets becoming available for the retail market." 

A more striking case of mind-machine control in healthcare got a high-level seal of approval this year.

Nathan Copeland, who was rendered quadriplegic in a car crash 12 years ago, used mind control to move a robot arm and give a fist bump to President Barack Obama during the White House Frontiers Conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in October. "Pretty cool," said the President.

Learning is one other field of growing interest for BCI firms. Nervanix, of Naples, Florida, has a product called Clarity that "measures attention levels of learners as they study," the company says on its website.

And Halo Neuroscience claims it has helped speed up U.S. Military pilot and sniper training by 50 percent. It uses a technique called neuropriming, which relies on feeding signals into the brain.

See also: A role for robots in caring for the elderly

It's applications like these that's leading the public sector to invest in BCI. In October, the U.S. National Institutes of Health announced a doubling in funds for its Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies Initiative, bringing the total FY2016 cash to more than $150 million.

Some scholars, though, have questioned whether due care is being taken to ensure all moral and ethical factors are covered as BCI research moves forward. The concerns range from keeping brain data private to stemming the scope for mind control.

It is unclear whether current laws and controls are enough to deal with these issues.

And when mind-to-mind contact is taken into account, "the very act of linking two brains together to transfer information raises a variety of ethical and safety concerns," say Emory University researchers JohnTrimper and Karen Rommelfanger. They raised the ethical issues in a paper published in The National Institutes of Health back in 2014.

Just how far these moral problems could stretch is shown this year in the cult TV series Black Mirror. In the episode, Men Against Fire the subjects were being controlled, not in control. The screenplay is science fiction, of course, but so was mind-machine control itself until a few years ago.

Nevertheless, assuming developers and policy makers can overcome the moral and ethical sticking points, Dr Peter Chadha, of consultancy firm Dr Pete Technology Experts, believes there is no reason why BCI shouldn't improve our way of life.

"I think significant hybrid computer-human augmentation will be sooner than we think; within 20 years," he says. "It will help us by recording our memories, understanding the people we've met and giving us in-depth knowledge… all without touching a screen."

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