Will the real BCI please stand up?
As reported today in the UK’s The Register, a research team based at the University of Maryland is scheduled to publish a breakthrough in brain computer interfacing in this week’s issue of Journal of Neuroscience.
The team, led by José Contreras-Vidal, reports that they have been able to discriminate enough information from EEG signals to accurately reconstruct 3-dimensional hand movements. I’m itching to see the paper itself because–assuming it is legit–this will be a remarkable advancement in extracting information about intention from extra-cranial sensors.
For several years, now, research teams have been able to interface sub-cranial EEG sensors directly to the brain in order to allow–for example–paralyzed individuals to direct prosthetic limbs using their mind. To date, however, sensors positioned outside the skull on the surface of the head and face have been relatively low-yield for intentional, sophisticated movements. (One only need to spend 3 minutes playing with games such as NeuroSky’s “Adventures of Neuroboy” to appreciate how low-grade the current extra-cranial EEG interface world truly is.) Part of the problem is that the brain’s electrical signal–while already faint–is even further dampened by the insulating properties of the bones of the skull. Another messy complication for extra-cranial EEG measurements is the huge electrical spiking caused by muscular activity that distorts or masks the already-weak electrical signal coming from the brain directly. How did the Contreras-Vidal group overcome these obstacles? Well…stay tuned to find out. (As of the original publication of this blog post, the Contreras-Vidal paper is still pre-press.)
What to expect from this? Well, given the fact that the Contreras-Vidal, et al, method for brain computer interface (BCI)-driven 3D motility doesn’t require the itsy-bitsy complication of open brain surgery, this seems like it will have huge potential for rapid adaptation to the general consumer market. I can’t even wrap my mind around all of the potential applications for this type of technology–from medical interventions for individuals with motor impairments, to lifestyle enhancement and convenience applications, to gaming and entertainment–not to mention the numbers of individuals who will be more drawn to neuroscience and engineering due to the inherently interesting appeal of brain machine interfaces (thus ultimately accelerating the progress of neuro/tech development).
Let me know your thoughts–are you at all nervous about our journey as we plunge toward an ultra teched-out society? What are you most excited about with respect to the fast-approaching BCI future? As with any emergence scenario, it is literally impossible for us to predict the full breadth of changes that we will encounter in lifestyle and culture as these thrilling technologies begin to saturate the social fabric. At the same time, however, it’s a fallacy to think of the future as something that happens to us. Indeed, the future is what we create.