By the year 2020, you won't need a keyboard and mouse to control your computer, say Intel Corp. researchers. Instead, users will open documents and surf the Web using nothing more than their brain waves.
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.
Today, Intel's Pomerleau said various research facilities are developing technologies to sense activity from inside the skull.
"If we can get to the point where we can accurately detect specific words, you could mentally type," he added. "You could compose characters or words by thinking about letters flashing on the screen or typing whole words rather than their individual characters."
Pomerleau also noted that the more scientists figure out about the brain, it will help them design better microprocessors. He said, "If we can see how the brain does it, then we could build smarter computers."