Scientists achieved the first remote human-to-human brain interface this week, when Rajesh Rao sent a brain signal over the Internet that moved the hand of colleague Andrea Stocco—even though Stocco was sitting all the way across the University of Washington's campus.
Using one human brain to direct another person's body via the Internet was an amazing breakthrough. But other feats of mind control are already realities, particularly in the realm of human machine interfaces (HMIs).
Here are some amazing examples of what our brains can already do.
Compose and Play Music
Yes, music composition always took place in the brain. But now musicians might be able to eliminate the need for tools and interfaces like sheet music—or even playing an instrument—by simply creating music directly with their thoughts.
Electroencephalography (EEG) headwear devices record the electric signals that are produced when the brain is at work and can connect them wirelessly to a computer. Their wearers can also train their minds to associate a set of EEG brain signals with a specific task.
For example, thinking about pushing a button on the computer screen produces a brainwave pattern that computer software can then recognize and associate with that task.
To make music, such thoughts are associated with notes or sounds to create a language of musical thought that's produced directly from the brain. With this established, users can simply think musical scores to life and play them via the computer.
For an example of the way the mind can create music and other forms of art, check out the MiND ensemble (Music in Neural Dimensions) from the University of Michigan.
Screen Mobile Phone Calls
Like a tough personal secretary, Ruggero Scorcioni's Good Times app filters the incoming calls of busy mobile phone users by simply monitoring the state of the user's brain.
Earlier this year, Scorcioni won an AT&T Mobile App Hackathon with the iOS app, which uses the cuddly Necomimi Cat Ears brainwave-reading headset to monitor brain activity and reroute calls to voicemail when it perceives that the user's brain is busy with other tasks. If the user's brain is in a receptive state, it lets the call through.
With $30,000 in Hackathon prize money in hand, Scorcioni is fine-tuning his prototype, which he views as a first step in the way our brain states might directly control mobile devices and our individual environments. Someday it might enable more brain-driven mobile device features that require no user input, like his Good Tunes concept, which would read brainwaves and then play music best matching the wearer's personal preferences for their current brain state.
Create a 3-D Object
Can wishing for something make it so? Well, not quite. But a Chilean company has announced the first object to be created by thought alone—paired with the growing power of the latest 3-D printing machines.
George Laskowsky, the chief technical officer of the Santiago-based startup Thinker Thing, created the first-ever such object in January 2012.
The Thinker Thing system employs an Emotiv EPOC EEG headset to map its wearer's brainwaves. Then the company's own software, called Emotional Evolutionary Design, displays "building block" shapes on a computer screen.
From a basic beginning, the shapes change and "evolve," while the user's emotional positive and negative reactions to each change are monitored by the headset. As the software processes brain feedback, the well-received shapes and changes are kept and expanded, while the disliked ones fade away. The process is repeated until a final object is produced according to the thought preferences of the designer.
The company's Monster Dreamer project gave schoolkids the opportunity to use the software to create the monster of their dreams, or nightmares, in a matter of minutes.
Drive a Wheelchair—And a Car
For the disabled, the ability to move about using the power of their minds could be life changing. To that end, scientists have worked for years on wheelchairs and other devices that could restore mobility to those who had lost control of their own bodies but still had sharp minds.
By 2009, Japanese scientists at Toyota and research lab RIKEN announced a thought-controlled wheelchair that used an EEG sensor cap to capture brainwaves and turn them into directional commands in just 125 thousandths of a second—with 95 percent accuracy.
At Lausanne, Switzerland's Federal Institute of Technology, scientists have added "shared control" to the concept. Their chair's software analyzes the surrounding area's cluttered environment and blends that information with the driver's brain commands to avoid problems like collisions with objects.
The system also eases the strain of command because users needn't continually instruct the chair—the software processes a single directional command and automatically repeats it as often as needed to navigate the space.
German engineers at the Free University of Berlin have attempted to take this concept on the open road with a car that can be partially controlled by the driver's thoughts. The team took an autonomous Volkswagen Passat, one of the emerging breed of driverless vehicles, and outfitted it with a computer system and software designed to work with Emotiv's commercially available EEG brain-scanning headset.
Drivers were trained to produce recognizable thought commands, like "turn left," by manipulating a virtual cube on a screen. The onboard computer then analyzed and converted those thoughts to commands recognized by the car itself each time they were thought by the driver. (See the successful results here.)
The "BrainDriver" application is not roadworthy yet, the team cautions on their website. "But on the long run, human machine interfaces like this could bear huge potential in combination with autonomous driving--for example, when it comes to decide which way you want to take on a crossroad, while the autonomous cab drives you home."
In some instances, human machine interfaces are becoming part of the human body. One new prosthetic even provides a sense of "touch" like that of a natural arm, because it interfaces with the wearer's neural system by splicing to residual nerves in the partial limb.
The prosthetic sends sensory signals to the wearer's brain that produce a lifelike "feel," allowing users to operate it by touch rather than by sight alone. This ability enables tasks many take for granted, like removing something from inside a grocery bag, and knowing how hard to grip items with the prosthetic hand.
Researchers at Case Western Reserve University, now working with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), developed the prosthetic, which can be seen in action here and was unveiled in May 2013. DARPA is a leader in the development of advanced prosthetics, in part because more than 2,000 U.S. Service members have undergone amputations since 2000.
Another DARPA-backed prosthetic arm flips this script by efficiently transmitting information from brain to arm, rather than vice versa, through a technique called targeted muscle re-innervation. The procedure rewires nerves from amputated limbs to enable more natural brain control of the prosthetic—and make possible some amazing abilities.
In this video taken at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, former Army Staff Sgt. Glen Lehman, who was wounded in Iraq, demonstrates his ability to manipulate the arm with his mind, drink coffee, and bounce a tennis ball with a prosthetic limb. In some cases, experts say, prosthetics can already offer more functionality than heavily damaged human limbs.