Mind Controlled Digital World

Experts weigh in on our not-so-far-flung sci-fi’ish future

When I started wondering, “When will I be able to tweet directly from my mind?” – I never imagined where that question would take me.  It started as an idea for the CBC Radio program Spark – a show about tech, trends and ideas.  I knew a biomedical engineer from the University of Wisconsin Madison had tweeted from his brain using an EEG system.  I also knew researchers from the University of Utah recently announced they used microelectrodes implanted on the brain to decode a few words.  I figured tweeting from our brains would be within our grasp.

It is and it isn’t.

The best systems out there can only spell a letter at a time.  And they’re not really meant for someone like me who just wants a more direct route to tweet.  At this point, I can type a heck of a lot faster than these systems can spell out my thoughts.

Where my research took a twisted turn was when I started looking into the bigger arena of thought controlled computer interfaces.  As I mentioned in my Spark piece, the gaming industry is starting to jump into this brave new world by developing headsets to read simple brain waves.  Imagine a Wii-like system where instead of holding a joystick-like device to measure your intent, you’d wear a headset where Jedi tricks reminiscent of controlling “The Force” would be your interface to get around a game.  That’s where they are – to a certain extent – and where they’re going.  Not just for games either, but also for anything that can be programmed.

Here’s what Ariel Garten, the CEO of Interaxon – a company using headsets like the NeuroSky mindset to develop applications, says about what she sees for our mind-controlled digital future.

“In the future, we’re going to be engaging in the world pretty constantly using our mind.  The sci-fi visions of a thought-controlled future are going to be an actual reality 10 to 15 years down the road.  So right now the technology are in a pretty basic state, but in a short period of time you’re going to see commercial products out on the shelves – some from us some from other companies, some with our solutions inside of them.  In 10 to 15 years we’ll be doing things like turning on and off appliances in your house with your mind, you’ll be interacting with your computers, you’ll have computers understand your emotional state so they can respond when you’re getting frustrated, you’ll be able to communicate of course with your cell phones and your mobile devices and you’ll have a world that’s far more sensitive to you and your needs.”

Marcel Just is one of the neuroscientist from Carnegie Mellon University who’s in the fascinating collaboration with Intel I referred to in the Spark piece.  They’re using a sophisticated, yet not at all practical, imaging system to peer inside the brain to predict what you’re thinking about.  His thoughts about our pie-in-the-sky future abilities have us being able to connect via an ultimate mind-computer interface like we have ESP.

“The reason that the human race has language is a way to get thoughts primarily from one brain to another brain.  We have a thought – some complex configuration of ideas – we put it into words that come out of our mouths one word at a time making up phrases, sentences, and paragraphs.  And this stream of language – either acoustic or written, let’s say acoustic goes into an ear and into another brain that either decodes it and tries to recover the original set of ideas that the first person had in mind.  If I’m thinking, ‘the cup is on the desk,’ you get the idea.  But it started as a configuration of ideas in my head and language is just a code that human race has conveniently developed to convey these ideas.  But you see in principle that if I can decode, and I can’t quite yet, but if we can decode in the not to distant future ‘the cup is on the desk’ in one brain, it should – it may be possible that within our lifetimes that that thought can then be transmitted into another brain without the medium of language.  It’s a little – you asked for pie in the sky futuristic, and there you have it.  So right now if I can decode ‘apple’ and I can decode ‘hammer’ how far away are we from being able to put that idea into someone else’s brain – if I know the right pattern is.  We don’t have the technology right now to put it in there because people don’t have implanted electrodes – and of course, very few people do.  But that’s approachable, that’s a pie in the sky thing that only a decade or two away.”

Dean Pomerleau is the research scientist on the Intel side of the collaboration with Carnegie Mellon University.  He’s the one in the Spark piece who says the future he’s envisioning is one where we’ll have to rethink what it means to be smart – i.e. someone with a ton of facts stuffed into his / her brain.  He describes this global network as a type of a collective consciousness knowledge-vat – one with a purpose to make our lives easier.

“For example, my wife asks me a question the other day what is the capital of Hungary.  I didn’t know that off the top of my head, but I knew I could get to that information in just a few seconds through my mobile device.  So I jokingly said, ‘I know the answer to that’ and quickly looked it up on my device on the web.  But it was sort of a joke.  It’s not really that I knew the information – it’s just that I could get to the information fairly quickly.  Imagine a day when in fact you can instantly pose a query to the global network like that, but simply through the power of your thoughts and get the answer back instantly.  At that point, your own organic knowledge – the information you store in your brain – becomes indistinguishable from the vast amount of information out there on the web, so we’d have instant access to that.  And it would change the whole notion of what it means to be a smart person.  Trivial pursuit – the old board game – would become a thing of the past because you could instantly call up information from the Internet.  And it’s not just static information like that, like what’s the capital of Hungary.  You could also check when the next bus is coming to the corner you’re standing on or check the location instantly of your friends you’re supposed to be meeting for lunch simply by being able to share information through the global network through the power of your thoughts.  It really would, or will – we believe – change how we communicate with each other and how we access information when we instantly and naturally interact with the global network simply through the power of our thoughts.”

Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?  As long as I can control the information I share, I’m in.

Now it’s just up to physicists and engineers to develop the means to make this not-so-far-flung sci-fi future a reality.