To enjoy good health, to bring true happiness to one’s family, to bring peace to all, one must first discipline and control one’s own mind. If a man can control his mind he can find the way to Enlightenment, and all wisdom and virtue will naturally come to him.–Buddha
On the wall of my bedroom I have a small art piece by Erin Smith that features a picture of a child all dressed up and sort of floating in the sky. In the background are these words prominently featured: “as much as I try to be an easygoing, stretch your wings and fly type… i just can’t stop trying to burst people into flames with my mind.” And it was precisely this piece that came to mind when I read recently about efforts to make mind-controlled computing a reality. “Fantastic,” I thought to myself, “It won’t be long before I can actually get this done without leaving fingerprints!”
It started with a press release from InterAxon that floated across my Twitter feed. The press release described how the company had raised a bunch of venture capital to bring their “brain-sensing technology” to market. My first thought was that it would be very useful to have technology to sense if certain people I know do, in fact, have brains, as their outward behavior would suggest otherwise. But it turns out this technology has a different set of applications—it is not for sensing whether a brain is in there at all, but sensing what that brain is doing and channeling the resulting data to make thing happen. I suppose that means it would still be applicable for my original planned use, as the device, called Muse, would sit idle if no target organ were present, but again, this is not on the company’s product roadmap.
InterAxon’s press release says they are an “innovator in the emerging field of brainwave-controlled technology, designing meaningful and transformational experiences from a levitating chair to a thought controlled beer tap.” I guess a thought-controlled beer tap will soon be very meaningful to my daughter and her friends when they start college next year, but it was the health and wellness applications for this technology, and similar technologies from competitors NeuroSky and Emotiv that really caught my attention, at least for now.
Each of these companies reports developing headband like products that apply a series of sensors to the head in order to read the brain’s various electrical signals and turn those signals into actions. The Emotiv product claims to be able to “detect the user’s thoughts, feelings and expressions in real time.” NeuroSky says that it “measures brainwave EEG (electroencephalography) and heartbeat ECG signals to entertain, relax, detect, heal, and exercise the most vital of our organs.” Similarly, InterAxon uses EEG to read your brain’s electrical patterns and translate them into binary code usable for controlling anything electric. In other words, you can use your mind to move things around without touching them. I am hoping a future version will have a feature that enables you to use your mind to make somebody burst into flames.
While the primary initial application for these products is gaming, all of them also have significant parts of their websites and promotional materials dedicated to how their products can and will help people improve health and wellness. While none have FDA approval to make their products officially useful for those in wheelchairs, confined to bed or suffering from paralysis, it is easy to see how these products could be a huge help to such people if they really work. If by wearing a headband you could think your way to cooked food and necessary items being delivered into your hands, it would be incredibly valuable and life-enhancing for those who wish to be more self-reliant. Emotiv suggests its product can be used to create a brain-controlled wheelchair, for instance, while NeuroSky claims that it’s “research-grade instruments measure brainwave EEG and heartbeat ECG signals to entertain, relax, detect, heal, and exercise the most vital of our organs.” InterAxon suggests its product may someday be useful for reducing strokes or controlling prosthetic body parts and, at a minimum can now be used for a sort of relaxation-oriented biofeedback program.
I couldn’t help but think that if you could control everything electronic around you simply by using your mind, then that whole Google Glass interface would look pretty obsolete pretty fast, relying, as it does, on old-fashioned voice commands. With these various brain-controlled computing products you could simply think you want to look up the definition of eletroencephalography or view porn on your Google Glasses while in a Board meeting and you wouldn’t have to let on to the world you were doing so. Unless of course you started breathing hard.
In a world where wearable computing is becoming a big deal, particularly among the quantified self crowd, these brain-sensing headbands might just become the body accessory of the future. Unlike the other sensors on the market that simply read the body’s information (heart beat, calorie burn, etc.), these EEG products can both read data and let you drive a response to the data all in one thought. For instance, a reading that you had been eating too much could help you tell your brain to tell the computer to slam the freezer door shut and lock it before you get to the Ben & Jerry’s. Now that’s an advanced wellness application.
The challenge of marketing brain-controlled computing products, aside from the obvious question about whether they will work, is fear among the public that the device is not only reading your thoughts, but reporting the content of them to others. All of the websites spend time on this topic, seeking to assuage concerns that these devices are the fast track to government mind-reading and black helicopters lurking around gathering your deepest thoughts about eating ice cream or wanting your acquaintances to burst into flames.
The companion concern is that you could use the devices to input thoughts to people’s heads, turning legions of people into FemBots or other tools of the evil empire, whoever they are (I have my own opinion on that one). While this is a worrisome thought (wait, don’t think…someone might know!), it is pretty unlikely since the devices are basically one-way data senders and don’t have a means of receiving data from outside the brain and sending it in. At least for now. Somewhere out there a hacker is no doubt trying MacGyver the cure to that little problem for release 2.0. In fact, I read an article about brain-to-brain controllers being tested in humans and working when it comes to games and basic movements, so maybe we should all be very worried. Then again, maybe we should be relieved by the impending opportunity for a reduction in personal responsibility?