h+ Magazine

Summer 2009

Issue link: http://cp.revolio.com/i/1161

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AI BIO eNHANCeD NANO NeurO HumOr FOreVer YOuNG 16 summer 2009 BIO eNHANCeD NANO NeurO HumOr FOreVer YOuNG AI Brain-Computer interfaCing: From Prosthetic Limbs to Telepathy Chips D irect brain-computer interfacing (BCI) may sound fanciful, but it's already a reality — and in coming decades it will almost surely advance dramatically. Neuroscientists are gradually understanding the electrochemical signals by which our brains encode thoughts and feelings; statistical and AI tools are getting better and better at interpreting complex data. The image at left shows one aspect of the state of the art. In an experiment by a group of researchers from the university of Pittsburgh published in a 2008 issue of Nature, a monkey used signals read directly from its motor cortex to control a multiple-jointed gripper with numerous degrees of freedom — causing the gripper to deliver food into its mouth. T o d a y BCI research is largely driven by the desire to help the handicapped via cochlear implants, prosthetic limbs and the like — but the scope of potential applications is far broader than this laudable but limited market. The entertainment industry is already getting into the picture; there are currently at least two companies (emotiv systems and Neural Impulse Activator) marketing BCI devices for video game control. As BCI technology develops, we can expect it to increasingly serve the function of cognitive enhancement. I'm reasonably good at mental arithmetic and algebra, but I'd take an onboard calculator and computer algebra program any day. A neural interface to Google, Wikipedia and other online resources would be nice, too. And I wouldn't mind an expanded short-term memory: no more repeating a phone number over and over until I find a place to write it down! Learning a foreign language? Forget the tedium of memorizing vocabulary, verb conjugations and so forth; just plug some flash memory into your cortex and the knowledge is right there. There seems no fundamental reason all this and more can't occur in the next few decades. The majority of today's BCI research involves the connection of various electromechanical devices to the peripheral nervous system, as we've seen with cochlear and retinal implants, and artificial arms and legs; or else the readout of a small set of brain-wave-based control signals, as in the emotiv game controller (covered in h+ issue #1). Only a handful of maverick researchers now explicitly pursue advanced forms of BCI that seek to read more abstract thoughts from the brain. The main bottleneck slowing this research is the lack of adequately accurate devices for measuring and stimulating the brain. In this regard, one critical research direction is the development of safe ways to implant more advanced BCI devices inside the skull. It will probably continue to be easier to read the brain state from within than without, though a breakthrough in "brain imaging from the outside" can't be ruled out. scientists are exploring multiple radical brain imaging technologies, including devices involving carbon nanotubes and other nanotech-based materials, which seem to play more nicely with brain cells than conventional materials. BeN GOerTzeL Photos courtesy of Motorlab, U. Pitt. School of Medicine

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