The cognitive - mechanical barrier has broken
Occassionaly reality can be much stranger than fiction. Science fiction in particular is often the herald of real scientific and technogical breakthroughs. Whether that is a result of a prediction or whether science fiction essentially inspires scientists to fulfil what the writers have imagined remains an open question. I incline towards the latter for I do not believe in predictions. They are just cloaked prophecies. And prophecies invariably spawn, create rather than predict, future events.
In a recent piece in New York Times online magazine, futurist and film consultant reports his involvement in the Steven Spielberg's 2002 film Minority Report : "In “Minority Report,” Tom Cruise gets into a car that drives itself. We considered giving him neural control of that car, but we deliberately held back on how far biology could go. It would have overwhelmed the story. And here we are today with real neurological control of machines. It’s transformative technology. In 50 years, you’ll be able to drive cars with your mind." He may be bit conservative with this estimate, since there are already sold real commercial devices you can use for certain activities. If I did not hate predictions I would rather dare an estimate of 20 years, since there is already a self-driving car by Google, that just passed its driver's license test in Nevada - to the best of my knowledge the first such licence provided worldwide.
While it has been reported that Brain-Computer Interfaces were initially developed for the physically disabled -particularly quadriplegics- the funding of at least the simulation and prototypes stage was provided by DARPA, id est the American taxpayers. The image on the top is of an early experimental concept, intending to move the hands of quadriplegic patients with mind commands. The Pentagon obviously has little to no interest for the physically disabled, so you do not need to be a conspiracy theorist to assume that their ultimate goal is various military applications, possibly even aircraft navigation. Whether this way of device control in the military is more practical or efficient than using hands, legs and voice, might be a closely guarded secret, disclosed only to a few boasting sky high clearance.
In 2010 the first commercial devices were introduced. Two startups, Emotiv and Neurosky, started selling devices for wirelessly controlling certain games and applications. At first both companies sold exclusively in the United States, yet later they expanded.
Emotiv's first unit was Epoc (pictured). This was not designed for patients but for gamers. Specific games could be controlled with thought alone without using a mouse, keyboard or joystick. Its wireless side is as simple as using a Bluetooth hands free unit. Along with the headset a special USB dongle was provided, that you plug in your PC and the pair communicates wirelessly.
Neurosky's break into this market was with Mindsky. While Epoc bore 14 sensors Mindsky (pictured below) bore just one. It was essentially a pair of not too bulky headphones with a sole sensor resting on your forehead. The setup also included a microphone. It is a quite smart design, since with Epoc you also had to use a separate mic and headphones to play games that required both, while Mindsky was an all-in-1 package. Both Mindsky and Epoc used Bluetooth for the wireless link with the PC.
Emotiv and Neurosky both started with DARPA funds. If you click their links you will see that this year's designs are even more compact and stylish. Their possible aplications have also greatly expanded, many more games are supported and not a few applications are already coded with thought commands in mind.
It is absolutely exciting isn't it? We have not yet mastered machine translation -not by a long shot-, we are not even close to speech recognition, yet we already have the first form of biomechanical interfaces we can access by thought alone. Just a decade ago, when Minority Report was released, this was considered impossible, belonging solely in the sci-fi realm. The devices above are still niche, confined to a limited industry and there are many more bugs to squat. Yet the breakthough it this : for the very first time it was made possible to literally achieve "thought over matter" with technology. To use our thoughts alone, by scanning our brain waves, to influence and specifically use a machine. The cognitive - silicone barrier has broken. This is the technology that one day will lead to have even our dreams recorded and reproduced for viewing on Youtube (or its successor), as depicted in the beautiful 2001 film FF : The Spirits Within The barrier has broken. Now the flood will not take long.
(Partially inspired by the Technology Review 2009 article "The Best Computer Interfaces: Past, Present, and Future")