The amazing (and surprisingly real) possibilities of Brain-Computer Interface technologies: from robots controlled by the mind to telepathy
Back in 1924, when the German psychiatrist Hans Berger first discovered the electrical activity of our brains, he could not have anticipated the potential implications of his discovery. It was the seed for a completely new field of research that may dramatically change our lives in a not-so-distant future.
Brain-Computer Interface technologies, or BCI, explore the electric signals of our brains to create connections that will exchange information between the brain and the technology, enabling us to control machines with our minds and to receive information from man-made devices. Through this technology, it is theoretically possible to develop anything from neuro-powered prosthetics and artificial sensory mechanisms to devices for silent communication which is also known as telepathy.
The musical composition “Music for Solo Performer” (1965) by the American composer Alvin Lucier was one of the first documented examples of a working BCI. In creating his piece, Lucier used a rudimentary setup of equipment to detect some of his brain’s functions and translate specific signals (namely, alpha waves) to operate acoustic percussion instruments via loudspeakers. Although the musical quality of Lucier’s composition might be debatable, the historical value of this proof of concept is indisputable.
Music for solo performer (1965) by Alvin Lucier
Amazingly, in just a handful of decades, the development of BCI technologies already has achieved several mind-blowing landmarks.
At Duke University, a group led by the Brazilian researcher Dr. Miguel Nicolelis produced a BCI that, besides providing control of a robotic arm through brain activity, also gives sensory feedback to the operator through direct stimulation of their sensory cortex. In another example of the extraordinary, and potentially frightening, possibilities for BCI applications, in 1999 Dr. Yang Dan and his team at the University of California managed to reproduce the images seen by cats just by reading and decoding their brain activity. A few years later, the Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute in Kyoto, Japan, and researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, also had similar successes interpreting the brain activity of humans to see what they were seeing.
Although the development of BCI still faces significant challenges, mainly related to physical and neurological effects and technological limitations, the attention – and funding – for this technology has grown as its potential applications become closer to reality, accelerating the pace of development. One of the latest and most significant shifts in the field was the trend to increasing the access to the hardware and software necessary for research in this area, with an intent to increase the number of people involved in creating and testing BCI systems.
Example of a BCI device
The pioneers of the open-source movement in the BCI world, Joel Murphy and Conor Russomanno launched their platform, aptly named OpenBCI, through an immediately successful Kickstarter campaign in 2013. Since its inception, OpenBCI has been committed to developing and distributing an open-source affordable BCI system. According to Russomanno, their goal is to “lower the barrier of entry” to the world of BCI for people interested in this technology, from high-school students to independent researchers and enthusiasts of biohacking. OpenBCI already offers many options of biosensing devices that can record brain, muscle, and heart activity, as well as EEG headsets, including the 3D-printed model called Ultracortex.
The 32bit ChipKIT OpenBCI board, a biosensing device
By significantly increasing the number of people who can access BCI technology, this movement allows new ideas to be tested and further develop the field.
OpenBCI even created a list of the top 10 Projects performed by their community. Among the featured projects, we find an impressive variety of applications, like people collectively controlling a shark balloon with their brainwaves. There is also an experiment testing whether binaural beats interfere with our brainwaves. Coincidently enough, following a different direction, the list also includes a project using a BCI system to translate brainwaves into a soundscape.
“Binaural beats consist of two audio tones of slightly different frequencies, one played into each ear. If the frequency difference is right, this beat frequency can be heard as a strange pulsing sound inside your head.” — The Autodidacts
Moving forward, the prospects for the development of BCI has never been greater. The European Commission, which is the executive branch of the European Union, created in 2014 the Framework Programme for Research and Innovation, which secured approximately €80 billion in worldwide funding for a variety of research projects including BCI. With that level of investment coupled with the increase in accessibility to BCI systems by more people, we should be looking for more breakthroughs soon.
The DEKA Arm, a robotic prosthesis operated through electromyography
The possibilities for new BCI technologies are potentially endless.
There is a vast spectrum of unexplored frontiers, ranging from better prosthetics in medical applications, to neuro-powered robots that give sensory feedback to operators and enable humans to explore inhospitable environments. We may also see applications targeted at augmenting our sensory universe, connecting artificial sensors to our brains to enable us to perceive things like electromagnetic fields or ultraviolet light. In the same realm, we may also see mechanisms that expand our ability to monitor variations in our bodies, like temperature and blood sugar levels. Another notable example is the possibility to access otherwise inaccessible information in the thoughts of people with health conditions that include speech impediments, or even with disorders of consciousness such as comas or vegetative states. BCI technologies may allow people in these situations to communicate and even make decisions regarding their treatments, for example.
First, though, researchers will still need to overcome some serious technological challenges, mainly to increase the quality of brain activity sensors especially for non-invasive mechanisms. The mobility of users is another concern, given that none of the currently available technologies allow the user to move freely, which in many situations makes them pointless. Meanwhile, we also must further our knowledge of how the use of BCI affects the functioning and morphology of our brains and to what degree these changes may or may not be reversible.
There are also a host of ethical issues to address in the developing technology. These include ensuring its peaceful and beneficial use, and that it does no present or future harm to its users in ways that may not be predictable, given our limited understanding of how our brains work. Legal considerations, for example in obtaining informed consent, will also become increasingly important.
Despite those obstacles, in the wondrous world of BCI the possibilities are endless, and each day they become closer to reality.