This week, I had the chance to do something remarkable (at least in my book): I controlled a computer with my mind. I attended a talk given by Sven Gabor Janszky who is one of Germany´s eminent futurologists. During his presentation, I volunteered for an experiment: he put a device (a kind of headset) on my head (see photo below) that serves to detect my brainwaves (electroencephalography; EEG). The data is then fed into a laptop that is able to identify individual patterns of brain activity. Basically, an algorithm learns what your brain does when you think a specific thought.
First, the algorithm needs a baseline. For about 20 seconds, it registers what you do when you don´t think of anything at all (what neuroscientists now call the default network). Then, you´re given a task. For example, you see a cube on the screen and the goal is to move that shape from the center to the left of the screen. So, there are two trials of just 8 seconds. In that time, the algorithm learns what your brain does when you think/imagine “Cube, please move to the left!”. After that, you´re able to move the cube just with mind – as long as you are pretty consistent with regard to your mode of thinking while trying to move the shape.
In a second experiment, my goal was to make the cube disappear – which is harder because basically our brain is not made to think about things that are not there. But I also managed to that after just two trial runs. It was really easy. You can have a look at the exact same procedure via this TED talk by Tan Le:
There are a couple of really good news in this story: First, I do have a brain. I could watch it on the screen and see it do its magic. Hey, I mean you can never be sure until you see it. Second, making that cube move around was really easy. The whole procedure only took about three minutes. And finally, the technology behind it all isn’t that expensive any more.
So for me, the question is: will this be a piece of positive technology in the near future? We´ll see. I´m very sure the military are all over it already, trying to fly jets or tanks that way. I mean, if you can move an image on a screen, you can also move a vehicle. Which brings us back to the post´s title. Maybe, in the near future, we will be able to operate the vacuum cleaner sitting in an armchair watching reruns of the X Files.
But then, there might be use cases that are far more beneficial. If there´s a distinct brain pattern for “Cube, please move left!” – then there could also be a distinct brain pattern for, e.g., “I feel like my life has a meaning”, or “I feel grateful and at peace with myself and others”. And if that were the case (and the technique became so cheap as to make it a mass-market product) then it could become a powerful tool to prevent people from slipping into depression or other psychological disorders.
I´ll stay tuned…