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The Future Technology of Smart: from Our Phones to Our Brains

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The Future Technology of Smart: from Our Phones to Our Brains

Everyone is walking around with smart gadgets — phones and tablets and watches. We are constantly engaged with these mini computers. They’re in our pockets, purses and palms of our hands, whether we’re 25 or 65.

It wasn’t so long ago when “I’m on my phone” actually meant having a verbal conversation with someone.

Nowadays, we use smartphones for everything from email to social media to workout tracking and health monitoring.

Phones have become smart, and it looks like your brain is next.

As our phones become more high-tech, we’re on the cusp of another smart revolution. With the increased adoption of wearable tech that’s linked to our smartphones, such as the Apple Watch, Nike+ FuelBand and FitBit monitors, we’re edging closer and closer to a seamless link between human and computer interfaces: our brains and our gadgets.

Phones have become smart, and it looks like your brain is next.

Current Smart-Brain Breakthroughs

Most of our current interactions with technology are classified as human-to-computer interfaces (HCI). Our intentions from the brain are sent to the computer (or smart device) through our fingers, voice, via camera or some other input. No matter how smart our phones get, you still have to touch, speak or gesture for it to understand your intentions.

The most direct form of HCI would involve the ability of computers and devices to read our brain signals directly, interpret them correctly and act on them. While this seems like something from the realm of science fiction or fantasy, it’s actually not as far-fetched as you might think.

EEG (2)

Our brain signals are easily detected using a technique known as electroencephalography (EEG). Scientists at Princeton University demonstrated that when two people speaking understood each other, their EEG signals began to synchronise. They were literally on the same wavelength!

Scientists are already exploring ways to capture, measure and transmit these signals.

In a recent experiment at the University of Washington, a researcher successfully controlled the hand movements of his colleague by sending EEG signals over the Internet. Studies published last year have also reported direct transmission of brain activity between two humans using prototype human/computer interfaces.

The dream of one day being able to telepathically tell someone exactly what you’re thinking certainly seems less far-fetched now.

In one of these experiments, conducted in conjunction with Harvard Medical School, a person in India said “hola” and “ciao” to three other people in France by communicating solely through brain signals.

Putting aside the issue of language translations when communicating in brain signals, the dream of one day being able to telepathically tell someone exactly what you’re thinking certainly seems less far-fetched now.

With human-computer interaction becoming more frequent, Budget Direct’s survey participants said the ability to download information directly to the brain is the most interesting use of this technology.

What the Future Holds

The most important technology breakthroughs are ones that make a positive impact on our health and wellbeing. Think of the millions of lives that have been saved with penicillin or pasteurised milk, for example. Here are some ways that experts think advanced brain-machine interfacing could help shape health care in the not-too-distant future.

Communication Without Speech: For those with loved ones unable to speak because of stroke, paralysis or motor neurone disease, enhanced brain-machine interfacing could one day provide a new communication pathway. Patients previously unable to talk would have an unprecedented window of opportunity to share their thoughts.

Forget SMS: there could be instant messaging happening from brain to brain.

Virtual-Digital Brains: One day it may be possible for your mind to live forever. By mastering brain-machine interfacing, researchers will learn how the brain works and how its behaviours could be imitated electronically. These components could be replaced and upgraded to restore, or even extend the brain’s natural capabilities.

The potential applications are numerous: brains integrated with advanced circuitry could control prosthetics, treat ADHD and combat the effects of memory loss and Alzheimer’s.

Senior woman portrait

Learning New Skills: “I know kung-fu.” The ability to download a skill directly into our brains like Neo in the “Matrix” is still a long way off, but developments in human-computer interfacing may eventually lead to this on-screen fantasy becoming a reality.

A study published in Science Magazine showed that tweaking a subject’s brain waves to a previously determined target state could be used to insert knowledge directly into a subject’s brain through the visual cortex.

For patients who need to learn more basic skills like how to walk, chew or swallow following an injury, computer-brain interactions could be a real life-changer.

The ultimate goal of removing the computer middleman from brain-to-brain signalling will take decades to perfect, and will require major advances in sensory, signalling and receiving technologies.

Technological Challenges

So what’s stopping us from using telepathic communications and getting cyborg-type brain upgrades now? First, the technology behind these skills is still in proof-of-concept stage.

Remember the research team that successfully engineered brain-to-brain communication? For it to work, they had to use a pretty drawn out process of translating letters into binary-code equivalents (for example, “H” was “0-0-1-1-1”). It took over an hour to relay each message.

The ultimate goal of removing the computer middleman from brain-to-brain signalling will take decades to perfect, and will require major advances in sensory, signalling and receiving technologies.

3D X-Ray of head with gears in brain

So while the future looks bright, it’ll probably be decades before Apple or Samsung announce a brain-to-brain device in their latest product line-up.

A Brave New World

Outside the world of health and medicine, there’s potential for a range of other applications for brain-to-brain communication. Sports teams, soldiers and law enforcement agencies could use it to communicate more freely as a unit.

At the same time, technology can be a double-edged sword.

Sports teams, soldiers and law enforcement agencies could use it to communicate more freely as a unit.

The ethics of sending unwanted thoughts to others needs to be carefully considered.

Invasion of privacy, already a hotly debated issue, would be even more contested when brain signalling is thrown into the mix. In addition, society’s perception of someone with a digital brain will no doubt be controversial.

The world still has a few years to figure all this out.

In the meantime, as scientists continue working towards the walkie-talkie of the future, enjoy the relative simplicity of life where the only thing on you that’s sending and receiving signals is your smartphone.

 

Sources

http://reports.weforum.org/outlook-global-agenda-2015/future-agenda/emerging-issues-brain-computer-interaction/
http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0105225
http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0111332
http://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/scientists-prove-that-telepathic-communication-is-within-reach-180952868/?no-ist
http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?org=NSF&cntn_id=122523&preview=false

Survey Stats: Survey was conducted by Budget Direct in the month of April 2015 with a random selection of 1,000 people.

William Chong

William Chong

William Chong has been writing for a living since 2008. When he’s not explaining the latest trends in health and medicine to doctors and patients or tinkering with HTML and CSS, he’s usually thinking about the next fun word to teach his daughters (like Constantinople and Timbuktu). William is currently based in Auckland, New Zealand — city of beaches, volcanoes and orcs.