5 more tech breakthroughs: Innovations in access, power and control

Nanogenerators, self-healing batteries and brain-computing interfaces may sound like science fiction, but they're not.

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Neural computer control: Thoughtful computing

Despite losing to IBM's Watson computer on Jeopardy, the human brain remains the most powerful, flexible and complex information processor on Earth. But it has to interact with computers through our error-prone bodies. Click on the wrong icon or hit the wrong key and work can grind to a halt -- or worse, an afternoon of effort can be lost.

That's why scientists and other visionaries have long dreamed of interacting with computers through pure thought, using the brain to directly input, edit and manipulate ideas.

Like a scenario straight out of science fiction, using the brain as a computer interface is easily the weirdest and most speculative idea of the 10 breakthroughs we've covered in this two-part series. The reward is potentially huge, however. This capability could free us from the most inefficient part of the computing chain: the interface.

"It sounds crazy," says Dean Pomerleau, an Intel Labs researcher in Pittsburgh, "but you'd put on a cap that scans your brain and sit in front of your computer screen to check your calendar, reply to annoying emails and work on that big spreadsheet from work -- all without typing or moving a mouse."

Starting at the University of California, Los Angeles, in the 1970s, a long line of researchers around the world has experimented with brain-computer interfaces (BCI), first using animals and later humans as well. Many of these efforts have involved implanting electrodes inside the brain or on its surface. One problem with that approach is that scar tissue tends to develop around such implants and it interferes with the signal. Other projects have attached electrodes to the subject's scalp, but the skull can block or distort the brain's signals.

NeuroSys demo
A NeuroSys demo shows subjects' neural activity patterns.

Despite these limitations, scientists continue to move BCIs forward. Pomerleau, for example, is working with researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University on a project known as NeuroSys.

For this group, efforts to turn thought into computing action began with observations of people's brains using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine. Subjects were told to think about specific words like "search" or "dog," and the machine created an image of the neural activity, lighting up the areas of the brain that were creating the thought.

Working with many test subjects (English speakers only for now), the NeuroSys researchers started with nouns and moved on to verbs, amassing brain scans and noting similarities among them until clear patterns emerged. All this data has been incorporated into a computer program that can translate neural activity patterns to words.

Carnegie Mellon professors Marcel Just and Tom Mitchell demonstrate a computer's recognition of fMRI-captured thought patterns.

The program has built up a vocabulary of 1,000 words and can parse simple sentences from subjects' brain patterns. Of course, the project needs to deal with the frustrating nuances and ambiguities of language, but it's been surprisingly successful. So far, the program is 90% accurate in predicting what subjects are thinking, according to Pomerleau.

Intel Labs' Dean Pomerleau
Intel Labs' Dean Pomerleau: "A big leap is needed in the sensing technology, to a point where it can be miniaturized."

The problem is that there are few computer users who have the desire, or the financial wherewithal, to sit in a $2 million brain scanner to compose a memo to the boss about a new marketing campaign. "A big leap is needed in the sensing technology, to a point where it can be miniaturized," says Pomerleau.

That leap may be at hand. Small electroencephalograph (EEG) sensors that track and interpret brain activity can be built into a headset or cap and may prove be a good stand-in for interpreting fMRI readings.

Primarily used in medical research, such devices are also appearing in everything from "neuromarketing" aids (wireless headsets that register test subjects' responses to marketing and branding) to crude toys that, for instance, let you pretend you're a Jedi knight by controlling a ball's height with mental power. Recently, a group of German engineers operated a specially modified car with one.

[ Related reading with cool videos: A mind-blowing look at today's mind-controlled, mind-reading technologies ]

On the computer interface front, Austria-based G.tec showed its Intendix system at this year's CeBit show in Germany. It uses an EEG cap studded with electrodes in conjunction with software you load on a Windows PC. The interface is laid out like a typical qwerty keyboard, with a few additional symbols for things like printing and sending email. After training the system, all you do is stare at the Intendix screen and think about the letters, numbers or symbols to spell out your message.

Intendix system
G.tec's Intendix system uses EEG sensors to help you type out messages without a mouse or keyboard.

At the moment, the system can recognize about five characters a minute -- not exactly speed typing, but it's a start. Because of the system's $12,000 price tag, brain-powered computing will probably first be used for people with limited voluntary muscular control or "locked-in syndrome" diseases including amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a.k.a. Lou Gehrig's disease.

A neural interface would open a new world for them, and eventually for the rest of us. But it could be decades before the technologies become advanced enough -- and inexpensive enough -- to make sophisticated brain-computer interfaces mainstream.

"The payoff here could be huge," says Supratik Guha, director of the physical sciences department at IBM. "But there's a lot of work that needs to be done to make this type of interface work."

Read Part 1 of this series: 5 tech breakthroughs: Chip-level advances that may change computing

Brian Nadel is a frequent contributor to Computerworld and the former editor in chief of Mobile Computing & Communications magazine.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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