Friday, 22 March 2013

BCI: Just how far down the rabbit hole can we go?

 The most promising technology which has come into the picture recently, is that of Brain Computer Interfaces. In essence, it is a means of allowing the mind to affect changes in the external world without the need for any physical movement. For a long time the BCI technology was confined to labs for research to enable 'locked-in' patients to interact with the world, however, there are some products like Emotiv's EPOC headset, and NeuroSky headset  in the market which have started aiming at

the larger consumer base of able bodied people which may benefit from this exciting new possibility.
Apart from the infinite real-world applications and industries to which BCI's may be applied, the scope of this post is to discuss what such an interface means for cognitive sciences.

I think that BCI's, can be viewed as a way to add a tangible point of distinction between the mind and the body. Although it does not give us a direct look at what the mind is and how it works, it does provide us with a very real way to distinguish between intent, action and reaction. The technology works on the principle of Event related potentials(ERP) produced upon introduction of a particular stimulus and is detected by a Electroencephalogram (EEG). Of the many things that can be detected it can signal when you, 
  • realize you have made a mistake
  • recognize a face or object
  • are fascinated
  • grow weary
  • become bored
Notice how closely these detectable entities resemble the instantaneous gut feelings we have in different situations? It is this possibility to quantify what we deemed intangible that makes this technology stand out in relation to the cognitive sciences. Additionally, they are also capable of detecting the result of your intents. Thinking of pushing an object on the screen generates a particular pattern on the EEG, and a trained system can be recognize these patterns solely as a result of the intent and the system then simulates the pushing command on the object to produce the desired result.
I have discussed the current state of BCI research, but lets zoom out to the bigger picture. We know that work has been done on prosthetic limbs capable of accepting some motor signals. There have also been studies which allow information from the external world to be converted into brain understandable signals, like the case of the bionic eye. So it seems, we have the means to send information from the brain into artificial limbs, we also have a way to perceive the external environment by artificial means. There is a pattern here, we are steadily moving inwards from the body towards the mind by understanding and developing artificial means of doing what the body does. BCI's go in a step further by recognizing the reactions generated in the brain to different stimuli, and at the same time works as a means of capturing a tertiary result of an intention generated by the mind to produce an action. And with the pace at which this technology is evolving, it would seem that its only a matter of time before we reach all the way to wonderland.

1 comment:

  1. This topic is quite interesting. It made me read about an experiment involving 10 severely paralyzed patients done with EEG (i.e. Electroencephalography) by Niels Birbaumer where they were trained to self-regulate the slow cortical potentials in their EEG to such an extent that these signals could be used as a binary signal to control a computer cursor. It involved months of training, and after that the patients were able to write 100 characters in approximately 1 hour.
    Thank you for the reading.