Neural interfaces: the state of the market

Paul Raven @ 22-07-2010

Back in May we dipped into a heavy H+ Magazine article to find out about the cutting edge of neural interface research, the theoretical boundary-pushing stuff. While it’s fun to know where things are (or might be) going, like all good cyberpunks we’re much more interested in what we can realistically get our hands on right now; the things the street could be busily finding its own uses for. So head on over to this short piece at ReadWriteWeb, which is a neat list of six real products with basic neurointerface abilities, just waiting to be hacked or repurposed for something awesome [via TechnOccult].

Actually, the latter two are research devices rather than commercially available gizmos, but even so, those proofs-of-concept will need to be monetized at some point, AMIRITE? And of the real products on offer, I think this is my favourite:

[T]he Emotive EPOC neuroheadset […] features 14 saline-based sensors and a gyroscope. Primarily marketed to gamers, the device also helps people with disabilities regain control of their lives. Included with the device is the EmoKey, which is a lightweight application running in your computer’s background. It allows you to map out thought-controlled keystrokes. This headset is the preferred device of the Dartmouth Mobile Sensing Group, which created a brain-to-mobile interface that allows you to call your friends by thinking about them.

If any smart hacker types in the audience would like to kludge one of these things up so I can do all my blogging and editorial work without having to move my arms, drop me a line so we can discuss funding, OK?

Dangerous ideas: controlling design files for illegal objects

Paul Raven @ 14-05-2010

Here’s an interesting question for a future full of fabrication devices: if it’s illegal to own a certain object, is it also illegal to own the design files that would enable you to print out that object?

Fabbaloo asks the question after noticing some enterprising member of the counterculture thought of a great market for customisable designs in 3d-printed plastics – namely bong-lovin’ weed smokers.

We know that possession of “drug paraphernalia” is considered illegal in some jurisdictions. But would possession of The Design be considered illegal?

When we’re in a world where we can (relatively) instantly produce any object ourselves, is it the actual object that counts or the design? We like to think that’s the case for run-of-the-mill objects, since it’s not the printing goop that’s important; goop becomes commodity and the design rules.

Will our repositories be searched for the presence of “illegal objects”? Will repository operators ask submitters to delete suspected items for fear of the authorities? Will questionable content migrate from public repositories into private libraries run by secret cabals?

The simple answer, I’d suggest, is “yes”: nation-states will almost certainly try to outlaw or control ownership and/or access to design files for objects with potentially criminal uses. (The bong is a rather mundane example, as it facilitates a victimless crime; however, that’s not so clearly the case with a hundgun made almost entirely from plastics.)

Of course, az eny fule no, controlling the distribution of entirely digital data (especially files of small size) is something that nation-states and corporations alike are struggling to do even now. Which suggests that 3D printing itself will become the target of legislation; if you can’t control the draft, your best bet is to close the door tight.

Karl Schroeder is one smart guy

Paul Raven @ 28-07-2009

Karl Schroeder, despite being a fairly recent discovery, is one of my favourite science fiction writers. This brief fifteen minute talk he gave to the O’Reilly Open Source Conference should do a pretty good job of explaining why.

See what I mean? Smart guy.

Mind control – non-invasive mind-machine interface

Paul Raven @ 06-04-2009

OK, so it’s crude, but it’s a start – boffins at the Honda Research Institute have built a helmet packed with electronics that enables its wearer to control the movement of a robot just by thinking about it:

The helmet is the first “brain-machine interface” to combine two different techniques for picking up activity in the brain. Sensors in the helmet detect electrical signals through the scalp in the same way as a standard EEG (electroencephalogram). The scientists combined this with another technique called near-infrared spectroscopy, which can be used to monitor changes in blood flow in the brain.

Brain activity picked up by the helmet is sent to a computer, which uses software to work out which movement the person is thinking about. It then sends a signal to the robot commanding it to perform the move. Typically, it takes a few seconds for the thought to be turned into a robotic action.

Honda said the technology was not ready for general use because of potential distractions in the person’s thinking. Another problem is that brain patterns differ greatly between individuals, and so for the technology to work brain activity must first be analysed for up to three hours.

Well, a calibration period is inevitable; I expect they’ll shave that timescale down considerably, and in fairly short order. And then it’ll just be a case of waiting a decade or so before applying to be a mecha-warrior, like the strung-out teenagers in Ian McDonald’s story “Sanjeev and Robotwallah”.


Paul Raven @ 02-03-2009

This month’s fresh fiction at Futurismic is another examination of the ways small and alarmingly plausible advances in science and medicine might affect people’s lives in the near future. This time out, Philip Brewer delivers a dark and touching take on the classic love triangle in “An Education of Scars”. Let us know what you thought in the comments – and enjoy!

An Education of Scars

by Philip Brewer

I was just two steps from escaping the party by slipping out onto the terrace when I spotted Hostess and Investment Banker Pickering watching me. She didn’t say anything, but her expression of reproach stopped me. I ducked my head.

“Oh, stop it, Peter,” she said. “I invited you to the party to cheer you up, not make you miserable.”

I did my best to look happy.

Hostess Pickering sighed. “Is there anybody here you actually want to talk to? I’ll introduce you.”

I looked around.

The floor was a shimmering sea green. Forty or fifty people drifted back and forth in couples and small groups. Outside it was night, but the terrace was lit just enough to keep the windows from turning into mirrors.

“Peter? I’m not going to introduce you to the terrace.”

I snapped my head back and looked again at the people.

Then I saw a woman. Continue reading “NEW FICTION: AN EDUCATION OF SCARS by Philip Brewer”

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