How merging minds with computers could help disabled people

The ultimate way to use a computer is by thought alone – you think it and it happens. While comprehensive brain control is some way off, today’s tech is already pretty mind-blowing and the thought-controlled tech of tomorrow has the backing of billionaires.

The rise of brain-computer interfaces

It's long been the goal of both the military and assistive-tech manufacturers to enable computers to be controlled by thoughts alone. Back in the mid-nineties at AbilityNet we were shown a headband which was purported to read brainwaves and control the mouse on-screen.

Elon Musk is one of several billionaires known to be developing mind control interfaces

The headband had a number of sensors that attached to the forehead, but in reality we strongly suspected the electronic signals these sensors picked up were mostly governed by energetic facial muscle gymnastics than anything our brains were thinking.

We soon learned to contort our faces in certain ways to make the arrow progress up, down or across the screen in the vague direction we’d intended. A successful click was achieved by a concerted effort to think “click” but again was probably more to do with the intense furrowing of the brows than any brainwaves we were generating.

Nevertheless this solution was used very successfully, if very slowly, by people with no other means of controlling a computer. For users able to combine this tech with the incredibly expensive and often temperamental eye-tracking technology of the day, it was even more effective.

Fast-forward a few years and we see a positive proliferation of brain-computer interfaces – many of which are being used to help people with paralysis control their environment, as I outlined in my recent post on a new age of thought-controlled robotics.

While tech billionaires like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos can have lots of fun developing and driving giant robotic suits (as we see below), the ability to do away with the need for manual control of not only robotic helpers but how we interface with technology in its broadest sense is a goal well worth pursuing.

The century of the cyborgs

For several years we’ve been able to peer into the human brain and understand much of its activity – as we see here in this video demonstrating how, using an MRI scanner, researchers at Berkeley can actually reconstruct the movie someone is watching from a brainscan alone.

However, if we want a seamless connection with computers, their processing power and knowledge, we need to be able to control technology with our thoughts. The dream of adding to our own brain all the power and potential of artificial intelligence and the internet is an awesome one for some – but it’s a dream that another tech billionaire, Tesla CEO Elon Musk, hopes to hasten into reality.

According to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, Musk is heavily investing in a brain-computer interface venture called Neuralink. The project is centred on developing devices that can be implanted in the brain - with the ultimate objective of enabling human beings to ‘merge’ with software and enable man’s cognitive abilities to keep pace with ever-faster advancements in artificial intelligence. This is the ‘cyborg’ (or cybernetic organism) so familliar in science-fiction.

Over the last few months Musk has often referred to the need for more sophisticated interfaces, hinting at the existence of Neuralink. Recently he told a crowd in Dubai: “Over time I think we will probably see a closer merger of biological intelligence and digital intelligence,” adding: “it's mostly about the bandwidth, the speed of the connection between your brain and the digital version of yourself, particularly output."

The benefits of having such ‘brain extensions’ are truly breathtaking - if still a long way off. For now, however, we’ve quite enough tech to get our heads around. Advances in brain-computer interfaces still continue apace.

Ever-better brain-computer connections

In recent months we’ve seen several announcements of advances in technology which could lead us to believe that Musk’s vision may be more than idle fancies.

These include thought-controlled software that can type at the speed of the average one-finger typist and developments in mind-reading computers that can translate thoughts directly into words.

 

Thus, while we may still be some way away from a cyborg future where our every thought is interpreted by the brain-implants we have embedded in our heads and our every wished command is acted upon with the swiftness of silicon (or possibly sub-atomic quanta), we have certainly come a long way from that first headband.

In the same way that interacting with computers with everyday natural language is not only helping people with disabilities, but is soon set to become second-nature to everyone (possibly supplanting the internet as we know it), we will one day take for granted that those who need it most will be talking directly to their technology through the power of their minds alone.

 

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