Thought control can aid disabled
"You can't plough a field by turning it over in your mind," goes an old saying. But you might soon be able to operate a computer, television and even lights in your home purely by thinking.
Research into developing a "brain-computer interface", a system that translates electrical signals exchanged by human brain cells into a language understood by a computer, goes far beyond recent attempts at basic voice and gesture control of smartphones, televisions and games consoles.
"A brain-computer interface encompasses any form of controlling a computer via a direct electrical connection to the human body," says Peter Cochrane, an independent technology analyst with a reputation for radical thought. The most common way is through an electroencephalogram, which involves donning a headset made of electrodes that senses, and then amplifies, changing micro-volt electrical signals through the scalp. Once digitised these signals can be used by a computer.
Work on the brain-computer interface has been largely dominated by the military for more than 30 years. "Experiments and developments centred on targeting and weapons activation at very high speed, plus the flying of aircraft at speed," says Cochrane. "These were largely abandoned in the 1990s due to the unreliability of humans and their replacement by machines in the combat-contra situation."
A take on the technology could find its way into our homes. Chinese manufacturer Haier has a "brainwave" television, which is so far limited, but impressive. I recently had a go; wearing a basic headset I was able to make an onscreen graphic of a ball rise purely by relaxing and clearing my head of thought - and thus lowering my brain's activity. As soon as I started to think of the possible uses of this technology, the headset picked up a rise in electrical signals and the ball sank to the bottom of the screen.
Haier has also developed an "eye control" television, which uses a camera to calibrate a user's eye movements; I was soon double-clicking just by blinking. Ideas like this could open up a whole new world of communication for paralysed people.
Not surprisingly, the video games industry is exploring the technology in search of ever deeper, more immersive virtual reality experiences. Emotiv Systems already markets its EPOC neuro-headset, which is able to read electrical signals in the wearer's brain to operate specific games, although, so far, it is rather basic. One game is a "no blinking" contest with an onscreen "Emobot", with the headset sensing when you momentarily close your eyes, while another lets you shoot fireballs at an opponent using the mind alone.
That same headset is being used in real-world applications, too. Smartphone app developer Chaotic Moon Labs has used the EPOC to enable a motorised skateboard - nicknamed the Board of Imagination - to use its rider's brainwaves to control its direction.
"Far more important and impressive is the work on prosthetic arms and legs, where there needs to be a direct electrical connection to the human brain and nervous system," says Cochrane. "People are learning to walk and manipulate artificial legs, arms and fingers with this approach."
The latter is achieved by using nerve signals from limbs, or by sensing muscle impulses, and thus movement, using electrodes.
More inconvenient is an MRI scanner used to achieve an electrical connection to the brain or - and this is where it gets serious - a computer chip installed inside the head.
The Mindwalker project seeks to help those who cannot walk operate robotic legs, known as an orthosis or exoskeleton, purely by thinking about the intended movement.
As well as the gift of movement for paralysed and disabled people, the brain-computer interface could also help other conditions.
"It can potentially enable people with locked-in syndrome to communicate and to continue to be creative," says Clare Carmichael, a research analyst at e-accessibility charity AbilityNet. She is working on BrainAble, a prototype brain-computer interface for exactly those people. Participants in Liverpool in Britain and Barcelona, Spain, have concentrated on producing specific electrical signals in their brains using "thinking strategies".
"So far people have been able to communicate through a speller, perform binary tasks such as turning a light on and off and changing the channel or adjusting the volume of a TV," Carmichael says. "Participants have been able to navigate a robot, control a camera and enter a virtual reality that lets them meet and talk to other people using BrainAble."
That same speller - the P300 intendiX from Austrian company g.tec - is also being used for experiments in brain painting, and it is thought that the brain-computer interface in general will ultimately benefit a wider group of people in more meaningful ways.
"Ultimately, it's possible to think of a world where it offers people additional bandwidth," says Carmichael. "I like the idea of an as-yet-unrealised future world where I can wirelessly communicate through my universal translator chip."
Are we entering an age of machines that binds us together? "Brain-computer interfaces will fit into the internet of things by including chips and implants in people and animals - everything will be connected by default," says Cochrane. "We need a symbiotic relationship with our machines if we are going to progress further, and to do that they need to observe, understand, anticipate and take action on our behalf."
Used correctly the brain-computer interface could be both a lifesaver and a life-enhancer. Now that's joined-up thinking.