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  • Imagine that - thought-controlled computers are here today

Imagine that - thought-controlled computers are here today

When US Air Force major turned super-spy Mitchell Grant, aka Clint Eastwood, infiltrated the Soviet Union to steal a super-secret, Mach 6, Cold War-winning MiG prototype stealth fighter in the film Firefox, there were at least three big holes in the plot (in addition to some light-emitting gaps in the model aircraft used for filming).

First, Clint Eastwood is at his best playing a police detective or a cowboy, but not a jet jockey; second, the Soviets would clearly have been able to stop a random man in a flight suit from flying away with an aircraft they really cared about; and third, the fact that Clint could control the aircraft as long as he remembered to "think in Russian" was preposterous.

But fast-forward 30 years and the idea that machines might be thought-controlled is quickly moving from science fiction to science fact. It will be a long time, if ever, before fighter jets do not need control sticks and rudders, but Toronto software company Interaxon expects to be shipping consumer applications of thought-controlled computing within 18 months, with a software and hardware package to sell for around $150.

The first applications are likely to be for computer games. At January's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Interaxon demonstrated the addition of a thought-controlled element to the ZenBound 2 game for the Apple iPad and a brainwave-measuring electro-encephalogram (EEG) headset.

San Jose-based NeuroSky has already teamed with Mattel to offer a brainwave-controlled three-dimensional puzzle game and with Interaxon to demonstrate what could be a new take in-flight entertainment - a brainwave-controlled meditation trainer that promotes relaxation or, rigged up to different software, claims to help busy travellers "practise", at least mentally, their golf swings while in the air.

On a grander scale, at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Interaxon rigged up an exhibit in which visitors could wear an Interaxon headset and by deliberately altering their brainwaves control the coloured lighting 3,000km (1,860 miles) away on Ontario landmarks including Toronto's CN Tower and Niagara Falls.

These demonstrations, according to Interaxon founder and chief executive Ariel Garten, offer people "the opportunity to immerse [themselves] in a cognitively controlled experience, further opening the door to next-generation games, mental trainers and connected interactions".

There is doubt as to whether cognitive training - so-called brain fitness - can, for example, help preserve mental agility in the elderly, although figures cited by Interaxon note that in the USA the cognitive training business has grown from a $2 million industry in 2005, to an $80 million industry today.

But a brief demonstration in Interaxon's Toronto office showed that people indeed can, with just a little practice, exert some control over the ratio between alpha and beta brainwaves, as measured by a simple headset that holds a single electrode against the forehead.

Alpha waves prevail in rest and beta waves during a state of concentration, so well-established brainwave measurement technology can in principle, via software, be used to control any device that can be computer-controlled. "If you can plug it in, you can control it with your brain," reads one Interaxon slogan.

In Interaxon's office demonstration, a subject hooked up to an on-screen mountain lake scene can conjure up a flock of birds with more beta waves and make it snow with more alpha waves. The headset can detect a wearer's blinks, which make a boat on the lake rock back and forth. Brainwave control masters, presumably, would be able to make the birds fly through a snowstorm.

The single-electrode headgear can easily be incorporated into 3D glasses or a Bluetooth earphone, so while the technology is in its infancy it is possible to imagine applications ranging from video games to training or help for disabled people.

Toyota is reportedly experimenting with brainwave-controlled wheelchairs, and a YouTube video from Japan purports to show Honda's humanoid robot, Asimo, responding to thought commands from a controller wearing an EEG cap.

University of Portsmouth research in the UK has used brainwaves and eye and muscular movements to move the cursor on a computer screen.

Garten is enthusiastic about medical applications, including the constant, real-time monitoring of epilepsy patients with the potential to send an alert to carers in event of a seizure. She also cites studies which show that using Interaxon equipment to teach children suffering from attention deficit disorder to push themselves into a beta wave-prevalent state can be as effective a treatment as the drug Ritalin.

While notions of thought-controlled gadgets are attractive, Garten is adamant that the real potential of this technology may lie not in giving people the ability to control computers, but in giving computers the ability to respond better to people's moods and attention levels.

For example, as pilots are wearing a headset anyway, it is no great stretch to imagine an aircraft cockpit system capable of monitoring alpha versus beta states to know if the crew are fully awake or not.

Garten says discussions with Ontario aerospace business leaders attending a Toronto reception in March for visiting journalists from Flight International and other Europe-based publications turned up "at least three" possible aerospace applications. She is not giving away any details, but rest assured that, this year at least, none of them involve control of a supersonic fighter jet.

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