From the editors and reporters of Scientific American , this blog delivers commentary, opinion and analysis on the latest developments in science and technology and their influence on society and policy. From reasoned arguments and cultural critiques to personal and skeptical takes on interesting science news, you'll find a wide range of scientifically relevant insights here. Follow on Twitter @sciam.
Contact Michael Moyer via email. Follow Michael Moyer on Twitter as @mmoyr.
Brain-Machine Interfaces in Fact and Fiction
AUSTIN, Texas—Use your brain to control the world. That’s the promise of the brain-machine interface, a system that directly translates your thoughts into actions. Here at the South by Southwest Interactive conference, Julian Bleecker and Nicolas Nova, technologists from the Near Future Laboratory, have showed how popular culture has explored the possibilities of the devices—for both good and evil—and how researchers are making the technology a reality today.
Consider, for example, the 1983 sci-fi classic Brainstorm, starring Christopher Walken and Natalie Wood as scientists that invent “The Hat,” a device that can record thoughts and project them into the minds of others:
After one character uses the Hat to record her own death, others who view the tape nearly die from the shock. Of course, the military soon gets involved.
The thought-recording interface was recently revived by Black Mirror, a hit British miniseries that premiered at the end of last year:
After 28 years, the fictional Hat has been shrunk to an actual implant behind the ear that records your entire life.
While researchers have yet to devise a brain-recording device quite as powerful, they’re working on it. Nova took the audience through a few real-world approaches. The most direct way to record brain activity is to cut open the skull and place electrodes directly onto your grey matter, which provide “exceptional spatial and temporal precision,” according to Nova. Of course, cutting open the skull presents other problems, and so most of the research on brain machine interfaces in humans uses EEG technology—specifically “dry cap” technology that doesn’t require electrodes dipped in gel to be placed directly on the skull.
Such technology can be used for just about anything, says Nova—gaming, cursor control, brain training and brain-to-brain communication, to name a few. Right now, a few devices are already on the market. The Xwave headset connects to your iPhone. It helps train individuals to maintain certain brain states—relaxation, for example.
Cuter is the Necomimi, a Japanese device that uses brain waves to control a pair of fuzzy animal ears that you wear. Really:
Of course the examples to date do not exploit the full potential of brain-machine interfaces. As the technology progresses, Nova highlighted a few different possibilities for how the devices could be designed.
Should users have to explicitly control the device, or should it work automatically—in the background of your consciousness? Put another way, should the user adapt to the device, or the device adapt to the user?
Should the devices be based on real-time or non-real-time control? Most all are currently use real-time control, but it’s entirely possible to design a device that scans your brain for a day or a week and design an application on top of that.
Should designers create stand-along brain interfaces, or ones that also require a separate device—for example, a remote control you hold in your hand?
If the Necomimi is any indication, the one certainty regarding the future of brain-machine interfaces is that the truth will prove stranger than fiction.
About the Author: Michael Moyer is the editor in charge of space and physics coverage at Scientific American. Follow on Twitter @mmoyr.