Brain to machine interfaces are almost here

Who’s ready to be a cyborg? Well, you may have your chance sooner than you think. Check out this wild report from Government Executive about some new “brain-computer interface strips” that can be attached to your skin and transmit your brainwaves into readable data. There’s one catch, though. In order to try it out, you may have to enlist in the military and volunteer to become a supersoldier because the military is investing in the technology.

The U.S. military has a growing interest in brain-computer interfaces: sensors that pick up brain signals and electronics that convert them to digital information that can be read by computers. But today’s most common way to pick up the brain’s electromagnetic signals via electroencephalography, or EEG, involves sensor-studded caps that are bulky, look ridiculous, need to be connected via wires to other machines, and often require conductive jelly in order to work. Moreover, they work unpredictably depending on individual factors like hair. They’re poorly suited for regular life, much less for soldiers.

A group of scientists from several universities has created an unobtrusive brain-computer interface strip that could revolutionize the way humans convert their thoughts into a machine-readable format.

I was already familiar with some of the earlier versions of this gear and was very excited about the uses they were being put to. Scientists had already developed caps studded with sensors that, with practice, could allow people confined to electric wheelchairs the ability to move them around and steer them. (You can watch a video of one model here.)

The early ones were problematic, however. The performance could be clunky and the helmet had a mass of wires that had to be physically connected to the chair or other devices. These “strips” look pretty exciting though. The circuitry is taped to your skin and then your brainwaves are picked up and interpreted, translating them into commands sent to the device.

Of course, that’s only if everything goes as planned. And I’m guessing that you have to have pretty solid powers of concentration to focus your thoughts on sending signals that will be useful and understood by the system. With my luck, I’d try one out and it would work for thirty seconds before speeding toward the nearest store that sells bacon.

Having gotten all the positive news out of the way, it’s time to look at the deeper implications. I’m still excited about the possibilities this technology holds, particularly for people suffering from paralysis. But if the initial attempt at the technology is capable of this much, what will it be able to do in the future? I’m not trying to go all Boris Johnson on you here and start warning of terrifying, limbless chickens, but how closely do we want our technology to be meshing with our actual brainwaves?

If these sensors can detect and interpret human brainwaves, translating them into useful digital data, it’s not crazy to imagine that the process could flow in the other direction. I’m picturing something where a machine interface can begin injecting thoughts into people’s heads that are not their own. How useful would that be, particularly to intelligence agencies?

Sometimes the future sneaks up on you pretty quickly. I think this is another one of those cases.

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