Externally worn Brain Machine Interfaces (BMI) are becoming less invasive and more accurate, enabling more effective decoding of brain signals and therefore better ‘control’ mechanisms, which in turn enable new applications (as we discussed in The power of thought in September 2011). Recent research may take the capabilities of Brain Machine Interfaces to new levels which could alter not only neuroscience research, but enable radically new ways to develop products – possibly even enable us to cooperate using telepathy, in the very long term future?
In the short to medium term, the product development cycle could become even shorter, with professional design teams facing competition from anyone and everyone. Product customisation and personalisation may also be about to take off to a whole new level.
What is changing?
A Chilean company is developing a 3D printer with a direct Brain Machine Interface. Users are shown a design and the headset monitors their reactions, in response to which the machine adapts and develops the design, in line with the users’ own thoughts – till it resembles ‘what they had in mind’. Removing the headset triggers printing. A project backed by the Chilean government has taken the machine into schools to give children an experience of cutting edge technology. The children have designed and made various monsters, which are going into an exhibition.
Research involving mice has recently demonstrated technology enabled ‘telepathy’. Mice with tiny arrays of micro-electrodes implanted in their brains were able to learn from each other, remotely. The first rat was trained to perform tasks and in return for a sip water, during which its brain activity was recorded. These signals were then sent to the second rat, which was able to perform tasks better. After a second set of tasks the second mouse’s brain created a ‘map’ of the sensory inputs from the other mouse, alongside its own sensory map. The two mice were even able to cooperate from different continents.
Meanwhile, a theoretical paper is taking such research even further, suggesting the potential of ‘neural dust’ implants for humans. There would be three ‘components’. The particles would be nano-scale – about 100 micrometres – sensors able to measure neural activity and encased in piezoelectric material capable of converting the information using ultrasound. The second, a tiny transceiver just below the outer layer of the brain would power the neural dust and receive the signals. The third component is a tiny battery powered transceiver on the outside of the skull which sends the data to an external memory. Such a technology could provide huge insight into the real time working of the brain, as well as pave the way for more effective control of prostheses or even remote control of other devices.
Why is this important?
In the near term, the use of a BMI on a 3D printer could perhaps have the greatest impact. If the headset’s capabilities increase, it could herald radically new approaches to new product design with designers able to input thoughts directly for design prototypes. Potentially the same might apply to visual arts or film animation. It could also extend product customisation if consumers were able to adapt and personalise products directly, by seeing and reacting to what they did or did not want – a whole new meaning to that is not quite what I had in mind! Consumer research already draws on neuroscience to try to understand our purchasing decisions; perhaps the next stage is to test and amend product designs more directly. Such a BMI enabled 3D printing system could also have applications in criminal investigations – enabling new approaches to visualising what people had seen, but did not fully remember; or new approaches to photofit images of suspects using 3D replicas instead.
The longer term implications of the research on mice and the theoretical paper demonstrate the extent to which the functioning of the brain will not only increasingly be understood, but could be enhanced. It could bring, not only an ability to overcome disability or injury, but possibly to develop new approaches to capturing memories, collaborating with colleagues, or controlling our surroundings. At this stage there are many technical obstacles, and quite possibly ethical ones too, but theory has a habit of becoming practice after a while.