Saturday, November 21, 2009

Cyborgs on the horizon?

Intel scientists predict that chips in human brains will control computers by 2020. Computerworld reports:

Scientists at Intel's research lab in Pittsburgh are working to find ways to read and harness human brain waves so they can be used to operate computers, television sets and cell phones. The brain waves would be harnessed with Intel-developed sensors implanted in people's brains.

The scientists say the plan is not a scene from a sci-fi movie -- Big Brother won't be planting chips in your brain against your will. Researchers expect that consumers will want the freedom they will gain by using the implant.

"I think human beings are remarkable adaptive," said Andrew Chien, vice president of research and director of future technologies research at Intel Labs. "If you told people 20 years ago that they would be carrying computers all the time, they would have said, 'I don't want that. I don't need that.' Now you can't get them to stop [carrying devices]. There are a lot of things that have to be done first but I think [implanting chips into human brains] is well within the scope of possibility."

Intel research scientist Dean Pomerleau told Computerworld that users will soon tire of depending on a computer interface, and having to fish a device out of their pocket or bag to access it. He also predicted that users will tire of having to manipulate an interface with their fingers.

Instead, they'll simply manipulate their various devices with their brains.

"We're trying to prove you can do interesting things with brain waves," said Pomerleau. "Eventually people may be willing to be more committed ... to brain implants. Imagine being able to surf the Web with the power of your thoughts."

To get to that point Pomerleau and his research teammates from Intel, Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh, are currently working on decoding human brain activity.

Pomerleau said the team has used Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (FMRI) machines to determine that blood flow changes in specific areas of the brain based on what word or image someone is thinking of. People tend to show the same brain patterns for similar thoughts, he added.

For instance, if two people think of the image of a bear or hear the word bear or even hear a bear growl, a neuroimage would show similar brain activity. Basically, there are standard patterns that show up in the brain for different words or images.

Pomerleau said researchers are close to gaining the ability to build brain sensing technology into a head set that culd be used to manipulate a computer. The next step is development of a tiny, far less cumbersome sensor that could be implanted inside the brain.

Such brain research isn't limited to Intel and its university partners.

Almost two years ago, scientists in the U.S. and Japan announced that a monkey's brain was used to to control a humanoid robot. Miguel Nicolelis, a professor of neurobiology at Duke University and lead researcher on the project, said that researchers were hoping its work would help paralyzed people walk again.

And a month before that, a scientist at the University of Arizona reported that he had successfully built a robot that is guided by the brain and eyes of a moth. Charles Higgins, an associate professor at the university, predicted that in 10 to 15 years people will be using "hybrid" computers running a combination of technology and living organic tissue.

There's more at the link.

Quite frankly, that's a pretty horrible prospect to me. Sure, it'll revolutionize the human-computer interface, and probably make many routine, repetitive tasks much easier: but communication is two-way. If I open up my brain to be wired in order to communicate with a computer, what's the communication in the other direction going to be? And who's going to be in charge of it? Big Brother might be a much scarier sibling than we'd imagined . . .



Phillip said...

As a computer tech, my first thought about this type of thing is: "What about upgrades?" I wouldn't want to stick something in my head that has to be changed out every two to four years. Plus, there's malfunctions. Would you really want to go see a surgeon because you have a computer glitch?

Anonymous said...

I agree, no thanks.


Shrimp said...

On top of that, what happens if your wife runs the microwave while you're in the kitchen? Are you going to pee your pants and forget who you are for half an hour (Sorry, couldn't resist the line from "Christmas Vacation.")

What about X-rays, MRI's and EM interference? Not only do we have to worry about how it might interefere with the device, but will it damage/disable it, and possibly damage or hurt the person as well?

robnrun said...

no thanks! It also assumes that we all want to have a constant connection with the internet. I can think of plenty of things that I do routinely where inadvertently distracting myself by surfing the web would be irritating, counterproductive, and/or fatal.
Never mind the fact that if I am alone in the woods, I want to be alone!

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I've read/watched too much sci-fi where the Bad Guy takes over peoples' implants (Dr. Who's "new" cybermen) or a Good Guy does it to make people better/ more peaceful/smarter and Bad Things happen. Who will be responsible for things that go wrong, or if there turn out to be horrible side effects? I believe Mary Shelly addressed part of that question some time ago, in a way.

And what about employers who start saying, "We'd love to hire you, but you need a cyber-interface implant?"


Billll said...

You mean I'd never lose my car keys again? I'm in.

Imagine slipping one of those cards from your digital camera into the slot on the top of your head, where the interface could easily reach both brain hemispheres. Imagine having spell check, XL and a dictionary instantly available. My lord! this would make even recent high school grads employable.

bruce said...

"sorry Dave, I can't let you do that"

Stranger said...

My first thought was "Where will they get the spectrum" for an implanted controller.

It appears long term exposure to anything from 300 to 3,000 mHz is quite likely to result in cancer, with decreasing risk down to around 30 mHz and up to 12,000 mhz. Of course, the transmitter could be in the terahertz range - but that would be pretty fiddly.


Anonymous said...

My first thought was "cool", but on second thought, what about pop-up ads? Having one come up at an inopportune time time could be embarrassing at best and downright dangerous at worst.


Grace Bridges said...

Sounds a lot like a book I read recently - A Star Curiously Singing by Kerry Nietz. The guy had an implant, but it made him a slave. He wasn't allowed to think certain things, and was punished with pain when he did.

Now sure, that's sci-fi - but entirely possible if the wrong people got hold of the technology or the government changed after many people begin wearing these things...

Billll said...

Try "When Gravity Fails" by G.A. Effenger. It's about a detective who uses knowledge implants to assist him.

Noons said...

I can hear it already:
waking up to the clang of a Ctrl-Alt-Del...

No, thanks!