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Brain-Computer Interfaces

Follow the link for a video-lecture summary on recent work in brain-computer interfaces (BCI), technology for reading brain signals and translating them into messages or commands (e.g. typing words by thought alone). It's aimed at the intelligent layman, not neuroscientists in the field, but it's a nice little overview. I was surprised by some of the developments in quick, clean, gel-less EEG hardware. I still see my peers using huge, ugly EEG scalp caps today, so hopefully that will change soon. More importantly, it's exciting to see the ways they've gotten better at cutting out noise in the signals.

Now, EEGs still don't have the spatial resolution of something like fMRI scans, though they benefit from great temporal resolution. The extent to which EEG's spatial resolution limitations come into play for finer-grained brain readings will probably be offset by advancements in technology before it becomes a huge issue. But it is certainly part of the reason we can only detect simple signals right now. With EEG, we can't tell what word a person is thinking, just things like when their attention changes or when they relax or tense up.

Of course, the technology is being aimed at more than just sending language-based messages on a computer. Not too long ago, scientists succeeded in getting a monkey to control a robotic arm with its thoughts by first matching the robot arm's movements to the brain signals when the animal moves its own arms, and then by training the monkey not to move its own arms but simply control the robot arms. Human experiments along these lines are coming along incredibly fast, and soon quadriplegics may be able to manipulate objects almost as easily as a human with normal biological hands.

Even in its nascent stage, this stuff is really exciting. Not just for its current and near-future implications for, say, physically disabled individuals, and not just because I want to play next-generation virtual reality video games. It's exciting because it suggests our interactions with the world around us will be vastly different after this technology becomes cheap, common, safe and perfected. We may all end up with implanted scanners that can broadcast commands to open doors, turn on lights, or send an instant message or email without having to find a computer terminal and move our hands to type. We may all end up with upgraded semi-robotic arms that can make more precise and powerful movements than a normal human hand, and give more fine-grained feedback. Cochlear implants are so wide-spread for deaf people today that next-generation implants may eventually become standard for even hearing people who wish to hear better or at frequencies normally outside the limits of our perception.

But of course much of that stuff is far away, and today the field is still in its infancy. BCI as Allison presents it is defined in a rather restricted way, as reading brain signals to send messages or commands. However, as he briefly mentions, there is a lot more going on in the field of brain-scanning and of direct brain-computer connections. For example, legitimate biofeedback techniques (as opposed to over-hyped new-age claims) are becoming more accepted in the medical community for a small number of conditions. They involve patients getting feedback on their physiological state so that they can train themselves to affect their own levels of stress, muscle tension, etc. Neurofeedback, in particular, looks potentially very promising for the future, though as yet it is a young field (and one must always watch out for bad science and pseudo-science attempting to highjack young technologies).


Of course, despite the positive promises of new brain-interactive technologies, there's also a bothersome and even somewhat frightening element here. If we can scan brains - read data from them - what about writing to them? Will this technology lead to forms of direct mind-control? Recent studies have shown that rats with a few electrodes implanted in their brains can be steered around a maze like remote-controlled cars (they can also be taught to pause when they smell bomb ingredients, a very useful potential application). In 2006, engineers working for the U.S. military announced that they were working on remove-control implants for sharks, which could be used as underwater spies. They've already succeeded in steering spiny dogfish from a laptop across the room. Perhaps radio-controlled squirrels may someday be used to monitor city parks for loiterers, litterers and terrorists, and it may not be obvious which creatures are unaffected and which are spies.

Obviously this is still a very simplistic technology. Leading the rats through a maze consisted in hooking into the cortical cells relating to whisker input and then artificially reinforcing those signals by activating the pleasure center of the rats' brains. Leading the spiny dogfish consisted in stimulating the olfactory center to convince the creature an interesting smell was to one side or the other and make it turn in response.

Yet the technology will get better, and no doubt eventually someone will find a plausible reason why it should be applied to humans. Perhaps they will use it to cease self-mutilating behavior in those with mental disorders, or to induce sleep in insomniacs, or to stimulate the pleasure center in order reinforce alternate, positive behaviors for those with behavioral problems (criminals, children with ADHD, etc.). More likely it will show up first in more subtle ways, as medical treatments for people with brain disabilities. But technology rarely goes back in Pandora's Box once it is released.

A more simple, subtle and plausible threat comes in the form of neuromarketing. Studies at universities and marketing research corporations are using brain scans from fMRIs and other medical technologies to predict buyer behavior and learn how to better influence and manipulate consumers.

Certainly this attempt to get inside the consumer mind is nothing new, but it highlights a trend that has troublesome implications. Along with targeted advertising (that is, spying on consumers and creating/mining databases of their behavior and preferences in order to market to them on a 'personal' level), neuromarketing promises to change the landscape of corporation-consumer interaction, placing the consumer at a disadvantage where their biology is used against them.

Whether current neuromarketing techniques actually lead to more success than simply placing ads in front of people is not clear (they have by no means found a "buy button" in the human brain, so far), but future developments will no doubt keep this a growing field for a while.

The television cartoon Futurama jokingly envisioned a future where advertisements were directly beamed into peoples' dreams while they slept. That may seem implausible today given our current cultural views on privacy, but as technology spreads and changes our culture and our expectations, we may someday see dream-ads as no more strange or off-limits than billboards taking up our visual field or mass-mailed ads showing up in our mailbox. There are significant privacy implications as brain-computer interface technology becomes ubiquitous, pervasive and embedded (i.e. widespread, invisible integration).

That is not to say that these technologies are bad. Tools in general aren't easy to label good or bad on their own, but only when they are applied in certain ways. There will no doubt be both positive and negative effects of these technologies, and we will just have to do what we can to mitigate the latter. Our best resistance right now is to become aware and informed, and plan ahead. But one thing is clear: change is coming, and however fast or slow, it will reshape our society.

Originally Written: 01-28-07
Last Updated: 05-23-07