Thursday, July 27, 2006
by Chris Taylor Kiss your keyboard goodbye: Soon we'll jack our brains directly into the Net - and that's just the beginning. SAN FRANCISCO Two years ago, a quadriplegic man started playing video games using his brain as a controller. That may just sound like fun and games for the unfortunate, but really, it spells the beginning of a radical change in how we interact with computers - and business will never be the same. Someday, keyboards and computer mice will be remembered only as medieval-style torture devices for the wrists. All work - emails, spreadsheets, and Google searches - will be performed by mind control. If you think that's mind-blowing, try to wrap your head around the sensational research that's been done on the brain of one Matthew Nagle by scientists at Brown University and three other institutions, in collaboration with Foxborough, Mass.-based company Cyberkinetics Neurotechnology Systems. The research was published for the first time last week in the British science journal Nature. Nagle, a 26-year-old quadriplegic, was hooked up to a computer via an implant smaller than an aspirin that sits on top of his brain and reads electrical patterns. Using that technology, he learned how to move a cursor around a screen, play simple games, control a robotic arm, and even - couch potatoes, prepare to gasp in awe - turn his brain into a TV remote control. All while chatting amiably with the researchers. He even learned how to perform these tasks in less time than the average PC owner spends installing Microsoft (Charts) Windows. Decoding the brain Nagle was able to accomplish all this because the brain has been greatly demystified in laboratories over the last decade or so. Researchers unlocked the brain patterns for thoughts that represent letters of the alphabet as early as 1999. Now, Cyberkinetics and a host of other companies are working on turning those discoveries into real products. Neurodevices - medical devices that compensate for damage to the brain, nerves, and spinal column - are a $3.4 billion business that grew 21 percent last year, according to NeuroInsights, a research and advisory company. There are currently some 300 companies working in the field. But Cyberkinetics is trying to do more than just repair neural damage: It's working on an implantable chip that Nagle and patients in two other cities are using to control electronic devices with their minds. (Check out this demonstration video). Already, the Brown researchers say, this kind of technology can enable a hooked-up human to write at 15 words a minute - half as fast as the average person writes by hand. Remember, though, that silicon-based technology typically doubles in capacity every two years. So if improved hardware is all it takes to speed up the device, Cyberkinetics' chip could be able to process thoughts as fast as speech - 110 to 170 words per minute - by 2012. Imagine issuing commands to a computer as quickly as you could talk. But who would want to get a brain implant if they haven't been struck by a drastic case of paralysis? Leaving aside the fact that there is a lucrative market for providing such profoundly life-enhancing products for millions of paralyzed patients, it may soon not even be necessary to stick a chip inside your skull to take advantage of this technology. What a tale your thoughts could tell Brain-reading technology is improving rapidly. Last year, Sony (Charts) took out a patent on a game system that beams data directly into the mind without implants. It uses a pulsed ultrasonic signal that induces sensory experiences such as smells, sounds and images. And Niels Birbaumer, a neuroscientist at the University of Tuebingen in Germany, has developed a device that enables disabled people to communicate by reading their brain waves through the skin, also without implants. Stu Wolf, one of the top scientists at Darpa, the Pentagon's scientific research agency which gave birth to the Internet, seriously believes we'll all be wearing computers in headbands within 20 years. By that time, we'll have super fast, super tiny computers that make today's machines look like typewriters. The desktop will be dead, says Wolf, and the headband will dominate. "We already know we can trigger neurons mechanically," he says. "You can interact directly with the brain without implanted electrodes. Then the next step is being able to think something and have it happen: Flying a plane, driving a car, operating household machinery." Controlling devices with the mind is just the beginning. Next, Wolf believes, is what he calls "network-enabled telepathy" - instant thought transfer. In other words, your thoughts will flow from your brain over the network right into someone else's brain. If you think instant messaging is addictive, just wait for instant thinking. The only issue, Wolf says, is making sure it's consensual; that's a problem likely to tax the minds of security experts. But just think of the advantages. In the office of the future, the conference call, too, will be remembered as a medieval form of torture.
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