The idea of controlling a computer with your mind seems like something out of a sci-fi novel, something that couldn’t possible happen any time soon, but we might be closer to the technology than we think. Brain-computer interfaces, or BCIs, are machines that read the electronic impulses that our brains release, thus knowing what you want and giving it to you immediately – without you having to lift a finger. Clicking on that mouse button could well soon become a thing of the past!
There are many ongoing research projects into just this, and the technology is being developed for a number of different reasons – aiding disability, telepathy, empathy, education, enjoyment, and supplementing human intelligence being just a few. Elon Musk, entrepreneur and founder of Neuralink, a company working towards the development of wireless BCIs, argues that while initially, the technology will be used to treat disabilities and disorders, ultimately it will be used by everyone. “We are,” he says, “about eight to ten years away from this being usable by people with disability”.
With comments like that, it may feel like the future is fast approaching, but actually, BCIs are not as new as they seem. It’s based on EEG (electroencephalogram) technology that was first developed by German psychiatrist Hans Berger when he was performing neurosurgery on a 17-year-old in 1924. Berger recorded the electronic signals sent from his patient’s brain in order to produce a picture of it – and this technology is still used today in identifying and diagnosing disorders and abnormalities. By 1973, Jacques Vidal was examining the possibility of using EEG-style signals to carry information from the brain to a computer, and it was him who coined the term ‘brain-computer interface’.
There are other examples too. Cochlear implants, for instance, have used exactly this technology since their inception in 1982. They bypass the parts of the ear that don’t work, take the sound waves from the air, turn them into electric signals, and sends them to the auditory nerves. It’s a bit more complicated to do this for visual data, but ultimately, BCIs could do a similar thing for blind people – sending impulses to the brain from a camera, allowing the blind person to ‘see’.