The most effective brain-computer interfaces (BCI) – like the kind used by Rhesus monkeys in the famous University of Pittsburgh experiments to feed themselves zucchini using a robot arm controlled by their thoughts – leave something to be desired, if we‘re going to, one day, use them for human enhancement. They involve microelectrodes embedded directly into the brain. The process of implanting them requires exploratory probing, which can burst blood vessels and cause stroke-like symptoms or other neurological problems. It‘s not a procedure you‘d want to undergo unless you were completely paralyzed and willing to risk your life for a chance at communicating with the outside world.
For those who don‘t like holes in their heads there is EEG (electroencephalography), which uses electrodes placed on the surface of the scalp to measure the brain‘s electrical activity. Until recently, it appeared as if the potential of EEG was limited as an advanced BCI technology. But with the introduction of faster computers and better machine-learning algorithms to eliminate noise and detect meaningful neural signals through the skull, researchers are again looking to EEG for advanced BCI.
In 2009, DARPA budgeted $4 million to investigate the possibility of “computer-mediated telepathy”: systems that read words in neural signals before they are even spoken.
Over the past few years, numerous proof-of-concept experiments have shown that people unable to move can use simple EEG-based BCI systems for point-and-click, robot control, and even spelling at rates as fast as 20 words per minute. An article titled “Bridging the Brain to the World: A Perspective on Neural Interface Systems,” by John P. Donoghue and published in Neuron, gives an overview of some of the most exciting recent developments in both EEG and more invasive systems. In 2009, DARPA budgeted $4 million to investigate the possibility of “computer-mediated telepathy”: systems that read words in neural signals before they are even spoken. If progress like this continues, keyboards could become as anachronistic as typewriters are today.