Sal McKeown examines the latest developments in mind control and discovers that we could be using our thoughts to perform remote actions sooner than we, well…think.
Imagine a world where you can make things move around your house simply by using the power of thought. It sounds like something from a science fiction movie – but in 2013, researchers at the University of Minnesota’s Institute for Engineering in Medicine were able to control a flying robot with their minds. It now increasingly seems as though anything is possible, from turning on devices in our house to driving a car.
Thought control technology creates a pathway between the user’s brain and an external device, the latter of which can be anything from a computer to a wearable robot. The phrase ‘wearable robot’ is mind-boggling in itself – and yet, inspired by the exoskeletons that grasshoppers and lobsters have to protect their vital organs from predators, engineers have created a type of body suit that can capture brain waves and translate them into control commands for a computer, which will in turn make an individual’s limbs move.
The most obvious and most publicised example of this was at the 2014 Brazillian World Cup opening ceremony, where a 29 year-old-paraplegic called Juliano Pinto wore a full-body robotic suit to help him kick a ball. The display was a showcase for the Walk Again Project, which involved 150 researchers led by the Brazilian neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis, now based at Duke University in the USA.
Nicolelis has spoken of using electroencephalography (EEG) – where sensors placed on the scalp to record brain activity – to identify ‘brainstorms’, and sees his role as trying to separate such activity from the messages they carry to different parts of the body. As he put it in a 2014 promotional video for the Walk Again Project, “Let’s see if we could use the brain signals to control the movements of artificial devices, without any movement of the body.”
At the other end of the scale from exoskeletons, electronics manufacturer Samsung is exploring ways of incorporating mind control technologies into its mobile devices. Researchers in the company’s Emerging Technology Lab have carried out tests into people potentially using their thoughts to operate software and hardware – from sending emails, to choosing a song from a playlist and turning oon a Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 tablet.
In order to launch an app or select a particular option, users had to concentrate on an icon that blinked at a particular frequency. They managed to make a selection once every five seconds, with an accuracy ranging from 80 to 95% – so there’s still some way to go before such a system can be brought to market.
One application of thought control technology that holds particular promise is the operation of electric wheelchairs. In 2009, researchers at Toyota and Tokyo’s RIKEN scientific research institute created a wheelchair that could be guided by an EEG cap. Perhaps the most impressive detail to emerge from the project was that the chair’s control interface only took 125 thousandths of a second to convert a thought into a directional command. According to the researchers, the system worked 95% of the time.’
In the UK, Professor Huosheng Hu heads up the Robotics Research Group within the University of Essex’s School of Computer Science and Electronic Engineering. Speaking on previous occasion to Access, he made the point that “Brainwave control is at a very early stage. The need to wear sensors around the skull is invasive for the user and there’s a lot of noise [interference].”
However, new developments are coming from the video games industry. Instead of having to look like some kind of modern-day Frankenstein’s monster with a slew of wires attached to their scalp, it’s now possible to use thought control – of a sort – with the aid of a neat, futuristic-looking headset thanks to the American company NeuroSky. Its MindWave Mobile consumer EEG headsets retail for $79.99 (about £55) and work with Windows and Mac computers and iOS and Android mobile devices. Something that used to be confined to the realm of science fiction is now very much within reach of ordinary users.
Once you have the hardware, however, you’ll need the software to make things actually happen. Enter Tre Azam, who may be familiar to some from his appearance in the third series of The Apprentice. These days is the CEO of the ‘London-based neurofeedback and media technology company’ MyndPlay, which has developed a software package of the same name that it bills as, ‘Your introduction to the world of EEG and neurofeedback!’ Buyers are promised that they can play games, music and movies and control apps, simply by relaxing and using the power of their brain.
Azam’s original plan involved developing a video platform which could let people have fun, while at the same time ‘training their brain’. Having previously worked as a therapist, he was also interested in the nature of emotional intelligence. In a YouTube video he is quoted as saying, “There is a serious lack of ‘Jedi’ ability in kids, and that’s because they are emotionally weak. We teach them physical skills, we teach them sports skills, we even tell them what to think, but we don’t teach them how to feel. We don’t teach emotional intelligence.”
It’s a sentiment that’s echoed in the work of Dr Eric Etka – a leading expert on Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) based in Virginia, USA. Rather than seeing ADHD as a problem, he sees it as a gift and is opposed to drugs interventions for children. “I personally have spoken to possibly over 1000 parents by now,” he says, “and I can honestly tell you that the vast majority of them do not want their kids on medication.’
Having started to use MyndPlay technology in his clinic, he believes that the approach of combining EEG brainwave technology with video games to foster cognitive development is a winner. ‘The technology helps users filter out distractions and tune in, remaining focused,” he says. “I believe that role playing – acting out these learning modules, in real life or virtual reality video – will create a faster learning experience that is also better received and integrated into the person’s brain.”
The next stage beyond controlling devices seems to be brain-to-brain communication. As reported in the Daily Telegraph last year, researchers at the University of Washington were able to record the brain signals of a regular computer gamer and then ‘fire’ them into the brain of another volunteer, triggering nerves that controlled their hand muscles.
Possible future applications for this might include getting skilled surgeons to take over from a distance to help less experienced staff to perform difficult operations, or to allow experienced pilots on the ground to remotely take control of a plane in the event of an emergency.
Another interesting idea is that of creating a template of a ‘healthy brain’, to help people who have experienced strokes and other forms of brain injury. A ‘brain template’ could help them to relearn skills such as swallowing, picking up objects and walking. One of the big downsides to the forms of thought control demonstrated so far is that it makes people very tired – generally not a good thing for those recently affected by brain trauma.
Perhaps people themselves will have to change before they can actually such technology properly – though in the short term, it’s possible that doing yoga may help. Last year, researchers at the University of Minnesota studied 36 people – 24 with little or no experience of yoga or meditation, and 12 who practised at least twice a week for an hour.
As a piece on the university’s website put it, ‘The participants with yoga or meditation experience were twice as likely to complete the brain-computer interface task by the end of 30 trials, and learned three times faster than their counterparts for the left-right cursor movement experiments.”
Some developments in thought control are still in the early stages, others are quite well developed, and some are even surprisingly affordable. The good news would seem to be that it’s a technology with the potential to bring many benefits to society.