Have you seen the scary movies that predict human downfall to the computers? Are you holding your breath, waiting for Skynet to become self-aware? Then we have something new for you to worry about- mind reading computers.
To be clear- the current goals and applications for this technology are for medical care and nerve disorders- but that won’t stop some of us from worrying!
Whether the concept of artificial intelligence being able to read your mind scares your pants off, or seems like an amazing breakthrough, read on to see just how close we are to this becoming a reality.
What’s Been Going on at Ohio State
In 2014, researchers at Ohio State began a project in collaboration with Battelle- an applied science company. This project had two goals: first, to teach machines how to interact successfully with people, and secondly, to ultimately read their minds.
The project started slowly, as the process of teaching machines about people is deeply complex. The calibrations and then re-calibrations on each computer system took thousands of hours. This, the scientists discovered, was what it took to teach a machine how to think on its own, without needing reminders on how to think. This was the process of teaching the computer system to think on its own.
In 2016, the Ohio State/Battelle team had a breakthrough: their software system worked to replace the damaged nervous system of a quadriplegic. The volunteer, Ian Burkhart, was an Ohio man who had been paralyzed in a diving accident at the age of 19. At the age of 24, he remained paralyzed from the chest down with no use of his arms, hands or legs.
The Ohio State/Battelle team, using a pea-sized (4×4 mm) chip in Burkharts’ brain, were able to use their software to read Burkhart’s electrical brain signals, and then send them to a computer. The computer deciphers them using the Battelle/OSU software. The computer then communicates what his brain wanted to do to his right hand. In an exciting moment, Burkhart was able to stir a cup of coffee.
The system uses the brain implant and an electrode sleeve worn on his right arm to communicate the brain’s signals.
After his original coffee-stir breakthrough, Burkhart has progressed to being able to swipe a credit card, pick up a spoon, hold a phone to his ear and play chords on Guitar Hero. Burkhart reports that “It’s kind of like it was before I had my injury….I just think about what I want to do, and now I can do it.”
These are small movements and small steps, but are monumental for someone who was paralyzed for five years. Researchers feel confident that as the tech progresses, it will allow paralyzed people to feed and dress themselves.
What Do We Know About the Technology?
Much of the software and hardware is, of course, proprietary, and the team isn’t going to tell us too much about how it works.
What we do know is that the device is called NeuroLife, and it works by rerouting messages from the brain to the muscles, bypassing the spinal cord. In a way, this means that NeuroLife is the first artificial spinal cord!
Burkhardt has a microchip implanted in his brain’s motor cortex area, the part of the brain that controls movement. That chip decodes his brain’s messages to open, clench or pinch, using the muscles in his hand and arm.
The system currently uses wires to connect the chip and the sleeve, and is a bit cumbersome. Researchers feel confident, however, that in a few years, they will have a wireless system that allows patients to use their limbs without the wires. Early predictions hold that this may even then run through a patient’s cell phone.
What Are the Future Possibilities?
This particular project has focussed on medical technology and the “holy grail” of allowing quadriplegics to regain control of their limbs. There are other potential applications of this technology, however.
The way that the machine could pair up with a human counterpart, and “read his mind” opens up a wide array of possibilities for future technology. External robotic exoskeletons (like the ones seen in Aliens), drone technology that would allow pilots to control the planes with their minds, and other types of tools and weapons now seem less like science fiction and more like a real possibility.
So the answer to the question at the beginning of the article, “When will computers be able to read our minds?” is….. THEY ALREADY CAN.
The tech will just advance from here and this is only the beginning of what we will be able to do with a brain/computer interface.