Imagine you could replace every controller in your life with one simple device. No more instruction manuals and no more keyboards or buttons. We’re not talking about a fancy new remote control, though. Not when your brain is already able to interface with technology.
According to Edward Boyden, Benesse Career Development Professor at the MIT Media Lab, “The brain is an electrical device. Electricity is a common language. This is what allows us to interface the brain to electronic devices.” Essentially, the brain is a complicated, well-programmed computer. Everything is controlled by electrical impulses sent from neuron to neuron.
One day, you may be able to interfere with this signal just like in a James Bond movie, where you can use a watch to interfere with a certain signal. You may one day be able to override the thoughts of animals or even other people. Although the ability to control animals and objects with your mind seems like something out of a sci-fi movie, mental control may be closer to fruition than it seems.
Researchers at Harvard have developed a non-invasive technology called a Brain Control Interface (BCI) that allows humans to control the movement of a rat’s tail. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the researchers have complete control over the rat’s brain. To truly be able to manipulate the signals of the brain, we’d have to completely understand the way the signals are encoded. This means that we’d have to understand the language of the brain.
For now, all we can do is manipulate the language through interruption. Imagine that you’re listening to someone speak a foreign language. You can’t tell them what to say or how to say it, but you can manipulate their speech by interrupting them or demonstrating that you can’t hear them. In this sense, you can give signals to another person to make them change their speech.
Why Can’t I Have it Now?
In order to manually interfere with the brain, scientists use a device called an electroencephalogram (EEG) that can detect electric signals passing through your brain. These are detected through small, flat disks of metal that attach to your head and serve as electrodes.
Currently, BCI technology is incredibly imprecise, primarily due to the complexity of the brain. Until the technology can seamlessly integrate with the electrical signals of the brain, the data being fired from neuron to neuron won’t be processed correctly. Neurons that are close together in the brain often output similar signals, which is what the technology processes, but any outliers create a type of static that BCI technology is unable to analyze. This complexity makes it difficult for us to simply develop an algorithm to describe the pattern. However, we may be able to simulate more complicated wavelengths in the future by analyzing the patterns of brain waves,
The Possibilities are Endless
Picture your phone needing a new case and you don’t feel like dropping another thirty dollars on a new one at the store. If you could imagine the dimensions necessary and output the data to a 3D printer, you’d have your new case for a fraction of the price and hardly any effort. Or on a more simple level, you could change the channel without ever having to reach for a remote. In this sense, BCI could be programmed to interface with and control machines rather than brains.
Let Me Try
Board games and video games have started incorporating EEG technology to allow you to test your brain. Systems that use EEG technology range from simple systems, like the Star Wars Science Force Trainer, to sophisticated systems, like the Emotive EPOC.
In the Star Wars Science Force Trainer, the user focuses on levitating a ball mentally, spurred on by Yoda’s encouragement. The Neural Impulse Actuator, a game-play accessory marketed by Windows, which can be programmed to left-click and otherwise control game play through tension in the head, is a bit more sophisticated.
Though this technology may seem like a cheap gimmick, the possibilities are truly endless. For instance, a paraplegic could control prosthetic limbs completely by thought. Losing an arm or a leg wouldn’t have to be a limitation or inconvenience since the appendage could be replaced by an improved system with identical operation procedures.
These types of impressive prosthetics have already been created and tested in laboratories by patients who have lost control over their bodies. Jan Scheuermann’s one of 20 people who participated in a test of this technology. Scheuermann’s been paralyzed for 14 years now by a rare disease called spinocerebellar degeneration. This disease essentially locks Jan inside her body. Her brain can send commands to her limbs, but communication’s halted partway through. She can’t move her limbs as a result of this disease.
When Jan heard about a research study that could allow her to regain control over her appendages, she agreed immediately. Upon finding that she could move a robotic arm with her mind when she was plugged in, she states, “I was moving something in my environment for the first time in years. It was gasp-inducing and exciting. The researchers couldn’t wipe the smile off their faces for weeks either.”
Over the last three years of training with the robotic arm, which she calls Hector, Jan has begun to exhibit a more fine-tuned control over the arm. She has achieved her own personal goal of being able to feed herself a chocolate bar and has accomplished many other tasks put forth by the research team at the University of Pittsburgh.
Over time, Jan began to lose control over the arm. The brain is an extremely hostile environment to the electronic devices that must be surgically implanted. As a result, scar tissue can build around the implant, preventing neurons from being read. Jan is disappointed that she’ll never be able to get better than she was, but “accepted [this fact] without anger or bitterness.” This is an indication that the technology will not be ready for use in the field for a long time.
In order for the technology to be worth it, the benefit must outweigh the risk. Although patients could perform basic tasks with the prosthetic limbs such as brushing one’s teeth, the arm doesn’t offer enough diverse motion to be worth the money and physical pain of brain surgery to use.
If the patient’s ability to move the limb deteriorates over time, the time it takes to master the prosthetic limb may not be worth the effort. Once this technology’s further developed, it could be extremely useful, but for now, it is impractical to the real world.
More than a Feeling
Since these prosthetics work by receiving signals sent from the brain, the signal process could be reversed as well. Nerves, when prompted by touch, send electronic impulses to the brain to let you know that you’re being touched. It could be possible for the electronic impulses within the nerves to send signals in the opposite direction back towards the brain. Imagine losing a leg and getting a new one that still allows you to feel touch.
Although it’s still a ways away from being integrated into society, the current mind control technology is incredible. Recent advancements in our ability to interface with the brain through BCI will lead to more precise analysis of brainwaves, which will make mind control more and more feasible as time goes on.