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The next interface is your brain

Never mind your Amazon Echo and your Google Home, brain-computer interfaces are here.

Reading people’s minds? I know what you’re thinking…. it perhaps sounds like something from a sci-fi-fi movie or a magic show, but in fact it is increasingly possible through technology such as brain-computer interfaces. And that’s what I was talking about this week with Aaron Heslehurst on BBC Worldwide’s Talking Business. When you think, electric signals are sent between cells in your brain, and these signals can be read, interpreted and used to control other things: from wheelchairs to computers, TVs to toasters, to pretty much anything. Finally the Jedi mind powers we have been dreaming of!

Well, perhaps it’s a bit early to promise that, but certainly this technology has already performed miracles. In 2014 at the Football World Cup in Brazil, a paraplegic kicked a ball by controlling an exoskeleton by thought. And more recently, a quadriplegic has been enabled to play a guitar with his actual arm by using a brain-computer interface to bypass his damaged spinal cord. But it’s not just the medical field that is using these technologies. Through the use of EEGs (electroencephalograms) in the form of easily wearable head gear - as opposed to embedding electrodes directly into the brain - a whole range of different uses of brain-computer interfaces are being made which will transform the way we interact with the world around us. Like Alexa on speed.

For instance, I personally have three such EEGs: one with which I can play computer games with thought; a headband which helps me effectively meditate by reading how calm my mind is; and a Mindflex which is a child’s game made by Mattel with which I can control the height of a ball and get it to navigate obstacle courses (although this latter one is more a simulation than the reality). And these sorts of EEGs are being put to other uses: there are now EEGs which can test a person’s response to advertising messages. This use is particularly interesting to businesses that want to research creative ideas before spending a lot of money on ad production and placement. This would have been very useful technology for Dove before it ran their recently withdrawn campaign as it could have revealed the general revulsion it was going to cause before it was too late.

These are in many ways ‘little experiments’ that only hint at the full possibilities of these brain-computer interfaces. For instance, as part of the Internet of Things with sensors embedded in numerous objects, the world could begin to shape around us in response to what we are thinking and how we are feeling. So, for instance, the Internet of Things could enable the following scenario: you are walking down a street on a hot day and your wearable wristband uses its biometric measure to sense that your sweat content is rather salty and you are dehydrated; so it sends a message to a drinks dispenser and a drink with the perfect mineral content is poured ready and waiting for you. You have not had to order it or choose it, or press buttons on a smartphone, it has just happened. With technology that can also read your brain’s emotional response as well as physical needs, you could not only get that drink with the right mineral content, but also one that gives you a hit of dopamine pleasure to brighten your day.

No wonder big brands that rely on advertising are looking at this sort of technology. Facebook is used to reading the world’s written thoughts, but now it wants to read the world’s thoughts too. Facebook revealed it has a team of 60 engineers working on building a brain-computer interface that will let you type with just your mind . Their stated goal is to eventually allow people to type at 100 words per minute - five times faster than typing on a phone - with just your mind. But this throws up some important questions about how this potentially powerful technology could or should be used. I find the idea of fast typing potentially useful for writing such articles as these - although my mind does seem to have a tendency to wander a bit. But what I find potentially worrying is what else a primarily ad funded business might want to read my thoughts for. And not just ad funded businesses but governments or criminals even. It all begins to sound a bit Orwellian. We are already inviting companies into our homes, via TVs and personal assistants like Amazons Echo and Google Home, that listen to what we say. Do we also want them to listen to what we think?

As with a lot of the powerful new technologies that are emerging, from artificial intelligence to virtual reality, they offer great benefits but also great risks. It is important that we use emotional intelligence as well as artificial intelligence in considering how we deploy these. So I believe as many people as possible should gain fluency in these sorts of technologies, exercise curiosity about how they could affect their lives and businesses and try some agile experiments to truly understand the implications. This technology is rapidly developing and will, in the not to distant future, be part of our everyday lives. So what do you have in mind? If only I could read your thoughts…

Martin Talks


Keynote speaker, consultant and organiser of Technology Safaris.