The power of thought

Labs around the world are building machines that we can control with our minds. How long will we have to wait for an upgrade?

4th June 2018
The power of thought © Getty

You get back from work, crash out on the sofa and pick a track from your favourite playlist. Without moving from that spot you start heating up the oven to cook dinner before beginning a conversation with your friend who lives on the other side of town. You do all this without ever saying a word or pressing a single button. How did anyone get anything done before brain interfaces?

The idea that we could run our lives from inside our heads is, obviously, a fantasy, but there are those who are attempting to make it a reality. In 2017, SpaceX and Tesla billionaire Elon Musk announced a new venture, Neuralink. Its aim: to build a high-bandwidth, implantable brain-computer interface that will put us permanently online and allow us to communicate wirelessly with anything that has a computer chip. The device could, theoretically, allow us to have thought conversations with our friends, share memories as if they were smartphone videos and ‘know’ anything we wanted by simply calling it down from the cloud.

Meanwhile, earlier this year, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), announced plans to develop next-gen brain-computer interfaces, with the aim of enhancing the abilities of military personnel. A recently released document suggested a possible experiment for testing these devices: “a human subject controlling multiple drones in a virtual reality setup, while receiving sensory feedback to portray the status of each drone.” In other words, we might one day see soldiers controlling drones with their minds.

Back in 2009, the Honda Research Institute demonstrated a helmet that allowed a user to control an ASIMO robot by thought alone. Yes, it looked a little clunky, but it represented a ginormous leap forwards in technology © Shutterstock
Back in 2009, the Honda Research Institute demonstrated a helmet that allowed a user to control an ASIMO robot by thought alone. Yes, it looked a little clunky, but it represented a ginormous leap forwards in technology © Shutterstock

It sounds impressive, but is it possible? Primitive versions of brain-machine interfaces have already been used to help paralysed people move prosthetic limbs, but could we really see this technology making the leap to everyday use?

Group thinking

A brain-computer interface is a device that’s able to read the electrical impulses coming from the brain’s nerve cells (neurons) using electrodes and ideally also write to the brain, delivering information to the user by stimulating groups of neurons. Neuralink’s ultimate goal is to build an interface that interacts directly with each of the 86 billion neurons in our brains, and the company is apparently in the process of putting together a crack science team for its project. The finer details of exactly how Neuralink plans to do this remain under wraps, however.

“I’m still looking for more information on this,” says Dr Davide Valeriani, who studies brain-computer interfaces at the University of Essex. “Musk has announced these initiatives and then for a while hasn’t said anything else.”

Valeriani works with the kind of brain-computer interfaces that you might be more familiar with – electroencephalography (EEG) caps, those ugly skullcaps with all the sensors and wires attached to them. “You can imagine this as a system you can put in a backpack, with electrodes integrated into something we wear already, a hat or hairnet or whatever,” says Valeriani. All it takes to get this system working for a particular user is half an hour or so of training, not for the human but for…

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