Goldmark: Think it, and a computer will make it happen
We've learned that most of what the brain does consists of receiving, sending and processing electrical signals.
And we've seen what modern technology can do in terms of capturing and interpreting digital signals. Just ask the presidents of Germany and Brazil, whose phone conversations were hacked by modern American signal-capturing equipment.
So wouldn't it be logical to expect that techies would be trying to connect signals from the brain directly to computers to perform tasks the brain commands?
Guess what: It's happening. They call it brain-computer interface (BCI) and it's a cutting-edge scientific field that will some day engineer direct electronic commands from your brain to a computer, and then from the computer to a robot or a 3-D printer or perhaps a stock market exchange or a drone.
Many activities in our brain have electronic signatures that scientists are learning to read. There have been experiments at Brown University and the University of Pittsburgh in which someone who has lost an arm can "instruct" an artificial limb to grab something purely through mental activity. At this early stage in the research, a small electrode must be planted on or inside the brain to allow the subject to interact with the computer that controls the movement of the artificial limb. But that will not always be the case. A lab at Samsung Corp. is working on devices that would be placed on a person's head like a cap to detect and translate the weak electrical signals of brain activity. It will be a small step from a cap to something like the computerized glasses Google is working on which allow a person to nod to turn a computer on or off, or wink to take a picture.
Like the research that originally led to the Internet, much of the early work in the area of brain-computer interface has been commissioned and financed by the Defense Department. Researchers at the University of Washington published findings this summer that show how the part of the brain that is sending the "instruction" draws on many other parts of the brain to formulate and transmit the "message." The implication of this is that you don't have to find "the right neuron" in the brain to attach the electrode to; the brain itself may learn to find "the right neurons" and hook them up to the BCI, according to researchers.
Several high-tech companies already are working on BCI applications, and you may see some soon.
NeuroSky, a Silicon Calley company, has released a Bluetooth-headset that can monitor slight changes in brain waves and enable users to play concentration-based games on computers and smartphones. In one game you have to dodge bullets -- and in this app your mind is the joystick. In some experiments, subjects have moved the cursor on a computer screen through mental activity alone.
Carmakers are working on gimmicks they can put into seat backs that will detect a change in brain waves if you begin to fall asleep while driving. The device will rattle the steering wheel or shake the seat to wake you up. (Personally, I'd prefer a trumpet blast from the radio.)
Wizards in the Defense Department are reportedly working on both human and robotic "super soldiers." The human variety, reports Dr. Gareth Evans of the University of Durham in Great Britain, would use BCI technology to manage an entire range of weapons capabilities.
The Defense Department researchers also are apparently looking into whether BCI and other lines of research could help the "super soldiers" ignore such inconvenient obstacles as conscience or empathy that might interfere with the most efficient possible discharge of their duties.
BCI may not be a one-way street. If the brain can communicate with the computer, then there is no reason the computer should not someday be able to send instructions to the brain. And then maybe someone can hack your mind.
You think the Internet changed the world? Wait till you see what BCI does.Peter Goldmark, a former budget director of New York State and former publisher of the International Herald Tribune, headed the climate program at the Environmental Defense Fund.