Professor Charles Xavier, better known as Professor X, is the founder of the Marvel X-Men team and is one of the most powerful telepaths in the Marvel universe. Telepathy is the ability to perceive another person’s thoughts, often by hearing or seeing them, and is a fairly common ability in many works of science fiction and fantasy. Fictional telepaths are able to hear or see another person’s thoughts through concentration and some can even transmit their own thoughts to communicate or, in some cases, control or manipulate other people’s minds. In most cases telepathy is described as being an inherent psionic ability and some people claim to possess it in the real world, though there is very little evidence to support these claims. Although such a power may seem strictly limited to the psychics of fiction, scientists are working hard to create devices that will be able to detect and even read people’s thoughts.
When most people think of machines that can read minds they may immediately think of shadowy government organizations scanning people’s thoughts, but the focus of current research is very different. The main goal of this research is to create functional brain-computer interfaces, machines that will allow people to control computers and other machines mentally. These devices take signals from the human brain and convert them into information that a computer can understand, then use this information to provide instructions for a computer or other device. Although research into this branch of technology began only recently advancements are being made at a rapid pace, and it may not be long before these interfaces make all other forms of computer input obsolete. One of the main problems with brain-computer interfaces is that for a long time they have relied on implants wired directly into the brain, which requires expensive invasive surgery which can cause brain damage and requires a recovery long time. In recent years these implants have been improved and newer models can be implanted in the skull rather than the brain itself. Although this is a safer and easier procedure it still requires surgery, and researchers are looking for ways around having to implant anything at all. The most promising technology right now is that used in electroencephalography (or EEG), which detects the brain’s electrical impulses through the scalp and uses them to create a map of what areas of the brain are active. This technology can receive brain signals through an electrode cap or headset, eliminating the need for implanted components, and scientists are working to improve its precision. Current models undergo a period of synchronization where the user assigns certain mental commands to computer functions, however as technology becomes more advanced it may be possible to have machines that can interpret direct mental commands without being synchronized beforehand. Once this technology becomes easy and cheap enough to be made commonplace it has almost unlimited applications.
The ability to control machines directly has the potential to completely change the way people use computers. By eliminating the need for keyboards, computer mice, and other input devices brain-computer interfaces would allow people to more easily and naturally operate computers while at the same time achieving much more impressive results. Once perfected such a device could allow people to input data much faster than using a keyboard, as well as eliminating the errors caused by accidentally hitting the wrong keys, and may one day have the potential to allow people to upload images from their memories or even imaginations into a computer in order to save them. Such technologies might even allow a person to record their dreams in order to watch them later, as in the movie Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. Allowing people to control machinery with their minds will help some people more than others, and a great deal of research into brain-computer interfaces is aimed towards helping people who have trouble using a computer due to injury, disease, or paralysis. Helping these people access computers with their minds will allow them to enjoy greater quality of life and more opportunities than they experience now, and as the technology progresses scientists are envisioning a world where the handicapped can operate devices like electric wheelchairs purely by thought.
Brain-computer interfaces promise to improve the quality of life of many people, including those who have been paralyzed and even those who have lost body parts. Improvements in interfacing machines with the human brain will allow fully functional replacement body parts to be created that are as natural to operate as a flesh and blood limb, as I discussed in a previous article. By allowing the replacement limb to communicate directly with the user’s brain it will by controlled by the same natural thoughts that move an organic limb. Researchers in this field have already allowed people to mentally control robotic arms, and further research will revolutionize prosthetics.
The idea of controlling personal computers and prosthetic limbs mentally is promising, but some researchers are already working towards pushing the envelop another step with attempts to create mentally controlled vehicles. By combining EEG with a car’s standard controls scientists in Berlin managed to create a car that could read the driver’s mental commands and brake in response to dangerous conditions. The prototype version was not only successful, but decreased the time required to brake enough that a car using this system and traveling at 100 km/h would stop an entire car length sooner than one using conventional brakes. Saving that amount of distance could prevent many accidents, and so this research is certainly promising. The applications of this technology would be wide-ranging, and could be combined with the technology used in unmanned vehicles to create unmanned vehicles controlled directly by an operator’s mind. Brain-computer interfaces could also allow robotic exoskeletons to be controlled in an easy and natural way, like the cyber-jacks from the Exosquad cartoon.
Brain-computer interfaces also have a promising future in the entertainment market, and some companies are already introducing affordable entertainment products that work by receiving mental commands through a headset, such as the Force Trainer toy which detects the user’s level of concentration and powers a fan accordingly, and Necomimi robotic cat ears that respond to the wearer’s emotional state. Devices like these show the many different ways brain-computer interfaces can be used in entertainment products, and as the technology is improved and becomes more widespread new uses will continue to be found for this technology.
The ability to control machines with one’s mind will revolutionize the way people use, interact with, and think about computers, and will make people’s interactions with machines far more intuitive than they currently are. Allowing machines to be controlled mentally will help those unfamiliar with technology to utilize it, as well as opening many opportunities to those who have lost the ability to use conventional controls like a mouse or keyboard. These control systems also promise to improve people’s lives in other ways, like making driving safer and allowing the creation of replacement limbs for those who have lost them. The future for brain-computer interfaces seems bright, and as the technology advances we will see many new and amazing uses for it.