11 August, 2014

Nature's Joystick: The Brain

English: This is a photo of a dummy BrainGate ...
English: This is a photo of a dummy BrainGate interface which was at the Star Wars exhibition at the Boston Science Museum in October 2005. I took it myself. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

by Nick Bilton

Engineers studying the programming code for Google Glass in April found hidden examples of ways that people might interact with the wearable computers without having to say a word. A nod could turn the glassed on or off. A single wink miht tell the glasses to take a picture.

But even these gestures might not be necessary for long. Soon, we might interact with our smartphones and computers simply by using our minds. In a couple of years, we could be turning on the lights at home just by thinking about it, or sending an e-mail from our smartphones without even pulling the device from our pocket. Further into the future, your robot assistant will appear by your side with a glass of lemonade simply because it knows you are thirsty.

Researchers in Samsung's Emerging Technology Lab are testing tablets that can be controlled by your brain, using a cap that resembles a ski hat studded with monitoring electrodes, the MIT Technology Review, the science and technology journal of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, reported in April.

The technology, often called a brain computer interface, was conceived to enable people with paralysis and other disabilities to interact with computers or control robotic arms, all by simply thinking about such actions. Before long, these technologies could well be in consumer electronics, too.

Some crude brain-reading products already exist, letting people play easy games or move a mouse around a screen.

NeuroSky, a company based in San Jose, California, recently released a Bluetooth-enabled headset that can monitor slight changes in  brain waves and allow people to play concentration-based games on computers and smartphones. These include a zombie-chasing game, archery and a game where you dodge bullets -- all these apps use your mind as a joystick.

Another company, Emotiv, sells a headset that can read brain waves associated with thoughts, feelings and expressions. The device can be used to play Tetris-like games or search through Flickr photos by thinking about an emotion the person is feeling -- like happy, or excited -- rather than searching by keywords. Muse, a lightweight, wireless headband, can engage with an app that "exercises the brain" by forcing people to concentrate on aspects of a screen, almost like taking your mind to the gym.

Car manufacturers are exploring technologies that detect when people fall asleep while driving and rattle the steering wheel to awaken them.

"The current brain technologies are like trying to listen to a conversation in a football stadium from a blimp," said John Donoghue, a neuroscientist and director of the Brown Institute for Brain Science in Providence, Rhode Island, "To really be able to understand what is going on with the brain today you need to surgically implant an array of sensors into the brain."

In other words, to gain access to the brain, for now you still need a chip in your head.

Last year, a project called BrainGate pioneered by Dr. Donoghue enabled two people with full paralysis to use a robotic arm with a computer responding to brain activity. One woman, who had not used her arms in 15 years, could serve herslef a drink by imagining the robotic arm's movements.

But that chip inside the head could soon vanish. An initiative by the Obama administration this year called the Brain Activity Map project aims to build a comprehensive map of the brain.

Miyoung Chun, a molecular biologist and vice president for science programs at the Kavli Foundation, is working on the project. Although she said it would take a decade to completely map the brain, companies would be able to build new kinds of brain computer interface products within two years.

"The Brain Activity Map will give hardware companies a lot of new tools that will change how we use smartphones and tablets," Dr. Chun said."It will revolutionize everything from robotic implants and neural prosthetics, to remove controls, which could be history in the foreseeable future when you can change your television channel by thinking about it."

There are some fears to be addressed. On the Muse website, one passage is devoted to convincing customers that the device cannot siphon thoughts from people's minds.

Dr. Donoghue said one of the current technologies used to read people's brains is called P300, in which a computer can determine which letter of the alphabet someone is thinking based on the area of the bran that is activated when she sees a screen full of letters.

But that even when advances in brain-reading technologies speed up, there will be new challenges, as scientists will have to determine if the person wants to search the Web for something in particuular, or if he is just thinking about a random topic.

He said, "Just because I'm thinking about a steak medium-rare at a restaurant doesn't mean I actually want that for dinner."

Taken from TODAY Saturday Edition, May 4, 2013