Fun and Games with Brains
At the beginning of March, I had the pleasure of giving a talk on brain waves and technology at Portland State University as part of the Nuts & Bold Ideas seminar program. It’s always nice to spend a little time catching up on subjects I love but don’t get to deal with on a day-to-day basis. Inspiration for this topic came from my background in cognitive science and my interest in emerging technology.
I posted the slides over at Slideshare, however, out of context they have little value. So below is a summary of the information covered.
As is typically the case, much of the early research exploring brain waves and neuronal implants sought to understand how the brain works and explore options for people who had suffered brain injuries or brain disabilities.
One specific area of interest and potential has been around memory loss and memory disorders. Would it be possible to develop a neural prosthetic that replaced the hippocampus and helped the patient form long-term memories? Such technology might be applied to patients with head traumas, strokes, and Alzheimer’s Disease.
Locked-in syndrome has been another area of interest. Perhaps technology could help patients who are paralyzed and not able to communicate express their thoughts through brainwaves. In this area, devices have been explored that allow patients to control robotic prostheses and devices that allow them to type out messages by moving a computer cursor.
From Rats to Monkeys to People
Over the past 20-30 years, research has progressed from initial studies of neuronal firings to experiments with rats and monkeys, all the way to preliminary work with people. Researchers set out to find ways to replicate certain brain activities using silicon brain implants. Many robust studies have been performed with monkeys; monkeys with silicon implants have been able to control computer mice over the internet, move a robotic arm to feed themselves, and keep a walking robot moving, all through the power of their thoughts.
One person who’s gotten a lot of attention from the media is Matthew Nagle. After being paralyzed from the neck down in an accident, Matthew is now the user of one of the most sophisticated brain-computer interfaces in existence. The cords implanted into his brain attach to a computer that allows him to play pong and practice drawing circles on the screen with his mind.
Playing with Brain Technology
Recently, several companies have developed consumer-facing EEG technology at a lower cost (and lower level of sophistication) than technology typically used in medical environments. This has opened the door for toys, hacks, and experiments powered by brain waves.
The Australian company Emotiv launched their Epoc EEG neuroheadset just over a year ago, and it’s currently the most sophisticated device for consumers (I have this one). Competing companies and products are the Neural Impulse Actuator (NIA) from OCZ and an EEG headset from Neurosky. The NIA from OCZ is a headband designed for heavy gamers. They use their thoughts to control actions in the game, rather than using a mouse or joystick for the movements. Neurosky stays competitive by licensing their technology out to other companies like Mattel, Sega, and Nokia, for games and device development.
Building Off the Mind
Using these tools as a springboard, new games have emerged and hackers have put together their own devices. Some researchers tweaked the NIA to work with a Roomba (robotic vacuum cleaner). When the wearer had happy thoughts, the Roomba scooted closer. If thoughts were more agitated, the Roomba spun away. Another researcher named Adam Wilson attracted attention after he hooked an EEG brain cap up and used it to send messages to Twitter by selecting characters from a computer interface.
The MindFlex game from Mattel uses Neurosky technology to move little balls around. The XWave is another creation built off Neurosky technology. This one proclaims to allow you to control apps on your phone via your thoughts while wearing the headset. Naturally of course, Mattel also released a Star Wars game built off the Neurosky.
A musician named Robert Schneider modified the MindFlex game from Mattel (Neurosky technology) and hooked it up to an analog synth that would play music based on mind activity.
Bigger Applications for Brainwaves
Intendix is a company that developed the EEG brain cap by Adam Wilson to tweet. Their technology allows the wearer to select characters from a computer screen in order to type. In addition to medical advances, this technology could be used by other researchers and commercial groups who want to explore and experiment with brainwaves as aspects of their studies or product developments.
Intel announced that they would like to have brain sensors developed by 2020 that could be implanted and would allow people to control and operated personal technology. If Intel integrated this technology throughout their product line, brain implants could become more common and widespread for consumer use.
While American car companies in Detroit have been playing around with possibilities for using an EEG headset to control things like radio stations, volume, and air conditioning, one research group in Germany went ahead and hooked an Emotiv up to a car. Their “braindriver” setup allows the user to control the steering wheel with thoughts alone.
The Government Funds Cyberkinetics
The US government has a history of sometimes funding projects related to cyberkinetic research. The government has contributed money to medical projects in this area, and the Department of Defense gave funding to the BrainGate software project. Even before the movie Avatar came out, people were brainstorming possible ways for soldiers to control and command robot fighters.
With Project Silent Talk, DARPA set aside $4 million in funding during 2010 to explore mental communication between soldiers. The idea behind the project was to create EEG maps of soldiers’ brain responses to certain military commands. With this information charted, it might be possible for soldiers to think commands and have the information translated and sent to other soldiers without direct communication.
Personal Uses of Mental Technology
If widespread brain technology were to become more of a reality, what could we expect? As we’ve already seen with the brain driving car and the neuro-controlled video games, some tasks might be completed hands-free. The catch here is that attention and mental control are still required.
Many people have speculated about a “telepathy chip.” While still theoretical, such a device might allow you to project your thoughts or feelings onto another user, and then receive feelings or thoughts back. This raises the question of whether we would be able to understand and interpret the various symbols and feelings floating around in each other’s heads. It also could lead to social problems. If you come home late on a Friday night and don’t want to have a brain sync with your spouse, what does that say?
With a brain implant, we might be able to gain augmented intelligence. Could we look up articles on Wikipedia or perform a Google search without anyone knowing?
Problems and Further Questions
If we were to implant chips into our brains and use them to transfer information wirelessly, it’s possible that these networks could be hacked. In fact, some researchers have already begun publicizing the fact that current technologies aren’t being designed with tight enough security and controls.
Brain implants are high cost and carry a high risk. Many of the most sophisticated non-invasive EEG readers also have a high cost and come with a lot of equipment that must be moved around. With the high cost attached, what if brain augmentation became a realm only accessible by the wealthy?
The most accurate information about our brains comes from silicon chips implanted in the brain or placed directly on top of the brain and underneath the skull. Data coming in from the less invasive EEG caps has to travel through your skull to get picked up, which can make a weak signal weaker. Some researchers have said that because of the limitations involved, devices utilizing EEG technology are near a dead-end. They may never be able to develop the high spatial resolution needed to further applications.
On a philosophical level, brain implant technology might be hard to get widely accepted. Oxford philosopher Bernard Williams said that, just like people initially had a hard time with heart transplants because the heart belonged to someone else and because it carries strong symbolism, brain prosthetics might be difficult for some to accept. The brain controls our identity and personality. If we change it or modify it too much, what becomes of our Self?
To explore the immediate future of brain-computer interfaces, the XPrize committee has said they’ll explore a BCI XPrize. First they must determine what this kind of challenge might look like, how long it would take to develop the technology, and which organizations are best set up to complete a BCI XPrize challenge.
If you made it this far, you might also be interested in the Ignite talk I gave.
In no particular order, some articles on brains and technology.