Thought-controlled computers closer than we think

We’ve gone from the mouse to Kinect-style gesture control in just thirty years. Might the next frontier in computer interfaces be controlling machines just by thinking about it?

A recent breakthrough from the University of Washington showed that when technology lets the brain control a device such as a computer-controlled robotic arm, the brain is behaving in the same way as if it was commanding the relevant muscles to carry out the act in reality. In other words, by thinking about kicking a ball, the area of the brain active in doing so behaves the same as if you were really kicking a ball.

That means that in brain/machine interaction, just thinking about an action might prompt a machine to do it for you. Mind-controlled technology itself isn’t new. Last year quadriplegic Cathy Hutchinson used a robotic arm to sip coffee from a bottle thanks to a sensor array connected to her brain that relayed commands to the arm via a computer.

Gains are also being made in computers responding to signals from elsewhere in the body. In September The Wall Street Journal reported on an amputee controlling an artificial leg using sensors that received nerve and muscle impulses to move the knee and ankle with much more precision than traditional artificial limbs offer.

What’s changed now is that the researchers in Washington have seen how much easier it might be to translate those neutral signals into more complex movements and commands. Serving herself coffee was much slower and more imprecise for Hutchinson than an able bodied person using their body to do the same thing, so complex commands like those needed to control a computer (then translated into movements for robotic limbs, for example) are still out of practical reach.

But if faster brain/machine interface communication because of the new research was put together with the kind of technology mentioned above (controlling device with muscle and nerve signals), the possibilities to command any kind of body prosthesis seem endless.

And while faster body/machine communication will make computing even more available to disabled people, the applications for able-bodied users are just as endless. At the moment a device the size of two matchboxes has to be connected to the top of the patient’s head to unscramble and transmit neural activity to the computer interface.

But with improvements in size and performance, even the gesture-based interface popularised in the movie Minority Report might be obsolete. If a device can read your thoughts to the extent that it can discern fine detail like ‘open an email, attach the spreadsheet I did yesterday, open a browser’ can be translated into computer commands, controlling computers with thoughts might be closer than we think.

Professor Judy Kay of the University of Sydney’s Computer Human Adapted Interaction Research Group can see the potential, but says there’s a lot of work to be done to get there. “The problem is at the moment the mouse, keyboard and even gesture-based interfaces are faster and more fluid than brain-machine interfaces,” she says. Non-invasive neural sensing is also a challenging area but one Kay says is ‘being tackled’. “At present the interaction is slow.”

But Rajesh Rao, a researcher from the University of Washington study, points out that the way the brain learns tasks offers an upside. “There’s a lot of engagement of the brain’s cognitive resources at the very beginning, but as you get better at the task, those resources aren’t needed anymore and the brain is freed up,” he says. So as computing power increases in such a system, the precision of neural signals it has to read to translate an action might decrease, making the process even faster.

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