Are Thought Interfaces the Next Frontier?

Brain tech – more science less sci-fi

The robotic voice of Professor Stephen Hawking is familiar to us all. The renowned scientist uses a sensor activated by a muscle in his cheek to type out the words he wants to say. This is mind blowingly brilliant medical science, but it’s still slow and labour intensive. In order to help paralysed people communicate more effectively, you’d need to move technology into the brain. It sounds like a typical sci-fi storyline, but thanks to a research team at Ben-Gurion University in Israel, it’s becoming more fact than fiction. MindDesktop, the university’s brain to computer interface, is able to type out sentences at a rate of 20 seconds per character. Although this doesn’t sound particularly impressive, it could give people the ability to speak again. And that’s not all it can do.

Controlling computers with your mind

The aptly named MindDesktop project is, first and foremost, about connecting the human brain to PCs. This isn’t a new idea, but the systems already in use today have various set backs. That’s why the Israeli project is so exciting – it’s gradually breaking down these barriers. Whilst existing systems can type one character per minute, MindDesktop is 75 per cent faster. Helping a paralysed person to communicate is just one application of brain to computer interfaces. So, what else can you do by controlling a computer with your brain? In theory, you’d be able to control any object or software programme associated with that computer. This could range anywhere from manipulating machinery to quite literally making a mental note. Right now, we have yet to develop an interface that can handle this sort of processing. But, if and when we do, things are going to get very interesting.

How disruptive are thought interfaces?

Thought interfaces have the potential to be just as disruptive as the Internet. Giving people the ability to remotely control computers could even be regarded as the next step in self made, human evolution. This has obvious uses within healthcare, but also in other industries where computer processing is a standard business tool. In construction, manufacturing and production, interfaces could even replace other innovative technology like Augmented Reality and wearables. This will continue to reshape traditional workplaces. In some sectors, it could remove the need for physical offices by moving control centres into the brain. Outside of corporate and professional environments, brain to computer interfaces have astounding potential in Internet of Things connectivity. Instead of relying on an app to adjust heating or close the garage door, users would just have to think about it. As well as changing how people interact with the physical world, thought interfaces will change the nature of search.

When the World Wide Web became publicly available, knowledge underwent a fundamental transition. If access to information can be universal and instantaneous, what’s the point in formal education? It’s difficult not to be wary of the negative consequences of connecting human brains to the internet. Firstly, this could theoretically give someone superhuman knowledge. It’s seriously worth debating if any one person should have so much power. And, in light of cybersecurity breaches, is it really wise to connect our physical selves to computer? Connecting a brain to a computer is a two way street. If a hacker can meddle with the computer, they could potentially meddle with the mind.

As well as disrupting industries from healthcare to construction, it’s possible that brain to computer interfaces will change humanity itself. Imagine having the ability to control computers in an IoT connected world, carrying out your job entirely in your mind, or accessing instantaneous information. Developers are a long way away from creating a system capable of bestowing the power of the Internet on a human brain, but this seems to be the logical progression from sensors and wearables. It’s certainly an exciting prospect, but it’s also undoubtedly scary. Should anybody be able to access that much info? Could it do more damage than good? There’s always the threat of cyberattack lurking in the digital shadows, too. If hackers can undermine cybersecurity measures in order to access data, possessions and money, perhaps it isn’t the best idea to let them into our minds.

How could thought interfaces be used in your business or industry? In the face of widespread cyberattacks, can brain to computer interfaces ever be safe? Are Internet connected brains anything more than a sci-fi pipedream? Share your thoughts.