Japan’s Brainwave Initiative: Mind-Reading Bots by 2020
On April 22nd 2010, the U.S. press was fussing over the Tea Party, illegal aliens (not the outer space kind), and Earth Day. But in Japan, a short cryptic statement in the Nikkei, Japan’s largest business newspaper, made a startling announcement about a somewhat different vision of the future — a goal to make available commercial mind-reading devices and personal assistant bots within the next 10 years.
It’s not surprising that the Japanese government and private sector would collaborate on a new initiative to develop bots with AI capable of detecting when you’re hungry, cold, or in need of assistance, and electronics that can be controlled by thought alone. BMI (Brain-Machine Interface) technology typically involves an EEG sensor connected to a computer that can be controlled purely by thought (or, more accurately, brainwaves). Research and early prototypes include full helmets, headbands, and direct brain implants to capture and interpret brainwaves.
While the U.S. Army actively pursues “thought helmets” that might someday lead to secure mind-to-mind communication between soldiers, the Japanese are going after the consumer market. The aim is to produce BMI technology to change TV channels or to use mobile phones to send text messages composed by thought alone. Several years ago, Hitachi, a major Japanese TV manufacturer, announced the goal of a commercial BMI by 2011 — and they are actively pursuing thought-controlled TV. If you’ve experienced the new immersive 3D TV technology, it’s not hard to imagine a near out-of-body-experience with a thought-controlled game controller as you navigate through 3D virtual space and visit your Second Life and World of Warcraft (WoW) friends at remote locations.
The Nikkei article suggested that Honda and Toyota will also be involved in the Japanese brainwave initiative. This might include robots that know when an elderly or physically disabled person needs help carrying a heavy load. The Honda Asimo robot is already billed as the world’s most advanced humanoid commercial robot. Here’s a Honda commercial video touting the Asimo:
Of course, Toyota’s thought-controlled wheelchair with its stylish EEG cap system has already created quite a stir. Here’s a video showing researchers at the Brain Science Institute (BSI) – Toyota Collaboration Center:
The idea behind BMI is to control brainwaves and detected brain blood-flow patterns through ever more sophisticated and commercially available sensor-mounted headsets. Other applications mentioned in the Nikkei announcement include a car navigation system that searches for restaurants when the driver thinks of having a meal and air-conditioners that adjust the temperature when people in the room feel too warm or cold.
In addition to Hitachi, Honda, and Toyota, the Japanese National Institute of Information and Communications Technology, Osaka University and the Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International (ATR) will be directly involved in the brainwave initiative. It’s interesting to note that as of this writing none of these organizations has any press releases regarding the upcoming collaboration on their web sites. It seems to be off the record, on the QT, and very hush-hush, as Danny DeVito says in the movie L.A. Confidential….
Applications include a car navigation system that searches for restaurants when the driver thinks of having a meal.
The ATR Intelligent Robotics and Communication (IRC) lab is particularly interesting in their research focus… cool stuff which portends a future of networked Japanese social robots assisting old people in their thought-controlled Toyota wheelchairs (let’s hope the brake pedals work properly!). The lab is working on a measurement tool to easily locate people in the vicinity of a social robot in congested public spaces. When approaching a person, the robot first recognizes your face when you stand in front it. With a BMI interface, it will not be necessary to make a verbal request to the robot. The robot will guide you to the place you want to go.
A networked robot system can better provide information and guide people by coordinating a team of robots as well as Internet agents with other embedded devices such as cameras, electronic tags, and wearable sensors. The IRC lab envisions coordination between three different kinds of bots: “visible” (think Asimo), “virtual” (think Avatar), and “unconscious” (think embedded sensor), all in a cooperating system to provide a complete set of social services to both augmented and non-augmented humans in the urban environment. Such a networked robotic system would possess the intelligence to modify its communication techniques — including thought, speech, and gesture — to meet the needs of the current situation.
Ultimately, whether the BMI is a tiny wireless chip that has been surgically implanted or a less invasive EEG headband, it’s likely that the simple thought of logging onto the Internet will soon link you to your fellow humans and intelligent bots. Reading between the lines of the recent Nikkei announcement — and understanding the cultural milieu and social nature of robotics in Japan — it’s easy to see how Japan could easily emerge a leader in BMI consumer electronics in the early 2020s.