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?
This idea for this article started when I was doing some research on prosthetics and came across an article about a wheelchair that can be controlled with brainwaves. That got me thinking about what else we might be doing to use electronics or other implants to manage our interface with the world. This was pretty interesting research: I learned a new word (Geoslavery, or location control), and I got to see that the new wave in implants may not be chips at all. Continue reading Under Your Skin: The Implants are Coming
Some heavy but fascinating reading over at h+ Magazine, in the form of James Kent’s round-up of where we are with technologies for interfacing the human brain with technological hardware, and where we’re going with it. The big take-away point for me is that the more fidelity you want from the interface, the more invasive the interface needs to be, though that might change as the technology advances.
And here’s your slice of sf-nal thinking from the conclusion:
While the primary purpose of neural interface research is putatively therapeutic, the functional potentials and ethical concerns of neural porting are problems looming in the future. Right now these are hypothetical concerns, but if a single-access embedded neurode procedure could be perfected and automated and performed at a local clinic in two hours for around a thousand dollars, and it was covered by insurance, the temptation for cosmetic and personal use of such a procedure becomes clear. Neural interfaces can be abused, obviously, and can be hacked into to enslave and torture minds, or drive people intentionally insane, or turn them into sleeper assassins or mindless consumers. Security is an inherent problem of any extensible exo-cortical system that must be addressed early in the engineering and testing stages, or anyone with an exo-cortical input would be ripe for exploitation. Sensory discrimination is an ongoing problem in any media environment, so individual channel selection, manual override, and the ability to shut down device input should be an integral part of any embedded system.
Probably not a system you want Microsoft writing the OS for, then…
Following on nicely from Paul’s discussion of direct-to-brain broadband – and Robert Koslover’s comment – here we have news of the first read-write brain electrode from a company called IMEC:
Today’s deep-brain stimulation probes use millimeter-size electrodes. These stimulate, in a highly unfocused way, a large area of the brain and have significant unwanted side effects.
IMEC’s design and modeling strategy allows developing advanced brain implants consisting of multiple electrodes enabling simultaneous stimulation and recording. This strategy was used to create prototype probes with 10 micrometer-size electrodes and various electrode topologies.
These new design approaches open up possibilities for more effective stimulation with less side effects, reduced energy consumption due to focusing the stimulation current on the desired brain target, and closed-loop control adapting the stimulation based on the recorded effect.
Presumably the avenue towards the development of devices for direct-to-brain broadband will be through the development of ever more sophisticated products of this kind, possibly travelling via wirehead-style ecstasy generators.
[from this press release from IMEC, via Technovelgy][image from IMEC press release]
Good news on the Brain Computer Interface front, from PhysOrg:
Researchers in a study funded by the National Institutes of Health have demonstrated for the first time that a direct artificial connection from the brain to muscles can restore voluntary movement in monkeys whose arms have been temporarily anesthetized.
“A robotic arm would be better for someone whose physical arm has been lost or if the muscles have atrophied, but if you have an arm whose muscles can be stimulated, a person can learn to reactivate them with this technology,” says Dr. Fetz.
Here, the researchers discovered that any motor cortex cell, regardless of whether it had been previously associated with wrist movement, was capable of stimulating muscle activity.
This finding greatly expands the potential number of neurons that could control signals for brain-computer interfaces and also illustrates the flexibility of the motor cortex.
Researcher Dr. Fetz says that this is still around a decade away from clinical applications, but hopefully this kind of research will eventually lead to new treatments for paralysis.
[image from Retinafunk on flickr]