Ever since science fiction movies were made, the idea of a synthetic experience being uploaded to the mind has been a fantasy.
However, new brain-computer interfaces are making this a reality—although very slowly.
In front of a featureless black box, a man in a gray flannel robe sits calmly. He’s wearing a cap that looks like it’s made of gauze bandages.
A line of cords extends from the rear of his head and disappears into the device.
Something is expected to happen. “What occurred?” asks the researcher in a British accent. “I was on the beach,” he responds. “It was like I mentally arrived there.”
That’s what many people would call a vision of the future, and some scientists believe that this will be an actual technological application in the not-too-distant future.
Brain-computer interfaces (BCIs)
Brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) represent a type of biotechnology that already has some very real medical applications.
They are the product of decades of research and development, which began in earnest back in the 1970s when scientists started to explore whether it was possible to create machines that could read signals directly from the brain.
The scientist who conducted this experiment is Dr. Hans Moravec, but he’s not a neuroscientist—he’s a professor emeritus of robotics at Carnegie Mellon University and the man who developed the wireless technology that NASA now uses to control robots on planetary surfaces.
In another experiment conducted with a different subject, Dr. Moravec demonstrated that his mind-reading device was capable of translating abstract thoughts into commands for the computer.
He was even able to get the machine to recognize words that he thought about for several seconds before saying aloud (although these words were not spoken).
There are many different types of BCIs. Some systems, like Dr. Moravec’s, do not require any surgery at all, instead, they’re capable of reading signals directly from the brain with electrodes that are placed on the surface of the scalp.
Some BCIs use an implant, which is a system that’s been implanted under your skin and sends signals from the brain to a computer via cables or wires that connect through your skull.
Controlling human brain
The biggest breakthrough in BCIs came early on when scientists discovered that it was possible to send signals from the brain using electrodes attached to one side of the cortex.
At first, this seems counterintuitive—how can you get a signal from just one side of the brain?
The simple answer is: you can’t.
The more complete explanation is that it turns out to be possible to stimulate neurons on either side of the brain with electrodes placed outside the head—but only if you inject a strong electrical current into them.
This process has been shown to work in rats, cats, monkeys . . . and humans.
An individual’s ability to sense pain is a good example of how this process works.
In the brain, there’s a specific region—the thalamus—that produces a response when that person is exposed to painful stimuli. By applying electrodes on top of that part of the cortex, researchers are able to stimulate neurons on either side of the thalamus, which causes the same pain response as an actual stimulus.
It turns out that it’s possible to stimulate just one side of the brain with electrodes placed outside the head, but only if you inject a strong electrical current into them.
What this all means is that there’s nothing magical about injecting electrodes into the cortex—it simply increases your ability to control what happens in the brain. And this, of course, is what BCI researchers have been trying to do for decades.
At first glance, it may not seem obvious why you would want to control the brain directly instead of just controlling a robot or some other device that interacts with your environment. But there are several reasons why scientists are interested in developing these types of systems.
- First, there are very real medical applications for this technology that will be useful in helping people who have lost control of their arms or legs or who are paralyzed.
- Second, BCIs have the potential to improve how we communicate with each other on a fundamental level by allowing us to share thoughts and ideas on a more direct level.
- And third, it will be possible to access aspects of the human mind that are still a mystery, such as dreams and memories.
A new kind of language
There are several challenges to overcome before you’ll be able to seamlessly control your environment using signals sent from your brain.
One of the primary problems is how to get those signals in the first place. Right now, researchers rely on EEGs that read electrical impulses emitted by neurons in the scalp, but this isn’t very precise.
It’s also difficult to measure electrical impulses in the brain because they’re so easily influenced by physical things like hair and dirt, which makes it hard for scientists to get consistent data when using EEGs.
Another issue is how to interpret signals that are received from the brain—scientists don’t yet know how thoughts translate into commands that you can easily translate into actions.
And even if we know what the signals mean, scientists need to find a way for computers to act on them appropriately.
For example, if you’re trying to navigate your wheelchair using only your thoughts, does that mean you want it to move forward or backward? You can imagine these challenges quickly snowballing into an insurmountable problem.
But computer scientists may have a solution to the communication conundrum in the form of brain-computer interfaces, which allow you to control devices through small electrical signals.
Typically, BCIs send information from the user’s head into a computer that then decodes this data and uses it as input for some other machine.
In one early demonstration of this process, a monkey with an electrode-embedded head was able to control a robot deployed in another room by sending signals from his brain.
Unfortunately, the robot’s movements were so sluggish that it was nearly useless.
In order for BCIs to be better suited for human use, scientists need to figure out a way to send a much larger amount of information from a brain to a computer.
In other words, they need to find an easier way for our thoughts to translate into commands that computers can understand.
BCIs are computer systems that read brain signals and use them to provide some sort of feedback to the user. They’re also known as direct neural interfaces or brain-computer interfaces, but these names all refer to the same thing.
BCIs are designed to help people who have lost control of their arms or legs, but there are many other potential applications for this technology.
For example, researchers believe that it will be possible to communicate with one another using only signals sent from the brain.
Right now, scientists use EEGs to read signals emitted by neurons in the brain.
But because those readings are so easily confounded by things like hair and dirt, it’s difficult for them to get consistent data from EEGs.