by Brendan Allison, Ph.D., and Bruce Kasanoff
In a segment broadcast on November 2, 2008, CBS 60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley put on a cap embedded with small white disks. He was about to use his brain in a brand new way.
Staring at a screen on which the letters of the alphabet popped up in turn, Pelley thought “That’s the one!” every time the letter he was thinking about appeared on the screen. In this manner, on his first try, he spelled the word “THOUGHT” with just his brain waves.
The hard-nosed CBS reporter was so amazed, he all but giggled.
Pelley was wearing a brain-computer interface, or BCI. The white disks are electrodes that pick up the weak electrical signals generated by our brains. BCIs have long been used in research labs to study brain activity. Many researchers feel they can help “locked-in” humans – who have a fully functioning brain trapped inside a non- functioning body – regain the ability to communicate, and also help other people operate prosthetics.
When personal computers were first proposed, many experts wondered what anyone could possibly do with a PC at home, or even on their desk at work. In recent years, a similar debate has sprung up concerning BCIs. Why would a healthy person want to use a BCI?
We have a number of answers for you.
There are numerous situations in which your brain generates a recognizable change in activity. To name a few, when you:
• realize you have made a mistake
• recognize a face or object
• are fascinated
• grow weary
• become bored
Let’s start with these, which represent a tiny portion of your possible reactions.
A little “oops” goes a long way…
As you realize you just hit the wrong letter on a keyboard, your brain sort of goes “oops.” Your brain waves change. If your typing program knows exactly when you thought “oops,” it can highlight the letter you typed just before your brain went “oops.” Then, it can show you some likely replacements. When you see the right letter, you simply think, “That’s it.” The program fixes your error.
Congratulations. You just corrected a typo with your thoughts.
While it isn’t faster to type with your thoughts than your fingers, it may be faster – or at least easier – to fix typos with your thoughts than your fingers. This is especially true if your keyboard is very small, such as the ones on most of our mobile phones.
A BCI could also help you teach your word processor new words. Imagine you type an acronym the program has never seen before. The program highlights the “error,” but then does not detect any indication that you made a mistake. In other words, it “senses” that you are confident this word is correct. So the program eliminates the error message, saving you the time of manually adding the word to your dictionary.
The tactic of error detection has numerous possibilities. Imagine that a professional football player has sensors inside his helmet that records each “oops” moment and synchronizes it to video footage of the game. The athlete and his coach can then review a short collection of these “learning opportunities” rather than a long, boring replay of the entire sporting event.
Sometimes we are too tough on ourselves. We think we made a mistake, but we did not. In business or in sports, having a record of the moments when we perceived making a mistake could demonstrate that we are more capable than we believed. Likewise, we may be able to realize that a small number of tiny mistakes – each easily corrected once recognized – had been causing a succession of poor performances.
Just as Scott Pelley thought, “That’s it!” each time he saw the right letter, a person wearing a BCI could use his or her brain to select the right answer. This would be especially useful in situations when it is difficult to use your hands. Walking, running and driving are three such situations; just try text messaging while walking down a crowded city street.
Here are some questions – posed by a software program – you could answer in this manner:
“Would you prefer the heat to be higher, lower, or off?
“Do you want to call your husband at home, at work, or on his cell?
“Would you like to listen to the news, jazz, rock, classical, or talk radio?”
“Would you like me to repeat the question, or not?”
To date, researchers have looked at BCIs and concluded that they are frustrating to use when the number of possible choices is large. A keyboard, for example, includes about 99 choices when you include numbers, capitalization and punctuation. But many of the daily decisions we make are far simpler and thus can be expressed in simple questions like the ones above; any automated interface could pose such questions.
Double-top secret control
A BCI has the potential to recognize when your tension level increases – perhaps because someone starts yelling at you in a meeting or because you start running to catch a train – and immediately give you the option to go into “hands-free” command mode. Bear in mind that you could specify a set of instructions before each meeting.
Here is one way a BCI might help you in a particularly stressful meeting, using the same question and answer approach we just described. To make this clearer, we will bold the choices you make in this example:
“Do you want me to go into hands-free mode, or remain silent?”
“Do you need access to important facts, or would you like a colleague to join you?
“Do you need budget estimates or opinions from outside experts?” “Do you want sales for this quarter, next quarter, or the entire year?”
“Sales for this quarter are projected to be $3.4 million, breaking down as follows. The Northeast will generate $750,000, which is a rise of 7%…”
In the scenario above, there are countless options you might have set in advance. You could have chosen to invite a colleague into the room, asked to have a video cued up and ready to run, or even instructed your assistant to pull you out of the room with a phony excuse.
Although this might seem like magic or science fiction, it actually involves a remarkably simple process based solely on your brain’s ability to answer a single question “loudly” enough for a BCI to “hear” the answer.
Total and complete privacy
A BCI is the only device of which we are aware that offers complete and total privacy to its user.
You could sit across from a person at a table, give instructions to your BCI, and the other person would have no idea. You could remain motionless and silent, but your instructions could put actions in motion far outside the room in which you are sitting.
With (a little) practice, you could learn to activate your BCI at will. If you are having coffee with a good friend who is going on and on, you could cancel your next appointment without interrupting your friend, or even revealing that any such conflict exists.
A BCI could also add another level of challenge to head to head gaming. In a competitive boxing or basketball game, opponents know when to duck or block just by watching you to see when you wiggle a joystick. If you use a BCI, your opponent will have no external cues whatsoever. Of course, neither will you!
As BCIs become more integrated with existing databases and technologies, you will enjoy a growing ability to access information without others being aware that you are doing so. Imagine a teacher looking out at a roomful of 100 students; she could access a student’s name, grade, and background merely by thinking “That’s it” when she looked at the student in seat number 67.
Such a use would enable far richer and more informed interactions. It is far better for a teacher to realize this student included a great example in his paper when that example could best help the class, than to have the teacher simply be overwhelmed by trying to manage 100 students in a single room.
Not too easy, not too hard
Let’s think from a student’s perspective for a moment. You don’t learn much when a lesson gets too easy or too hard. Bored students end up daydreaming. Overwhelmed students end up completely lost.
But a BCI could indicate whether you are inattentive, ideally engaged, or completely confused. Combine this sort of feedback with any sort of individualized teaching approach – an interactive online lesson, for example – and you end up with a far more productive learning environment.
We recognize that there are many possible approaches to engage a bored student. In some – but not all – cases, increasing the difficulty of the lesson will capture the student’s attention. Sometimes a more effective strategy will be to recognize the student prefers a different learning approach. One student may prefer flashcards to learn a language while another prefers a conversational back and forth approach.
A BCI gives educators the ability to “sense and respond” to the student’s state. When attention wavers, try another approach. If the new approach doesn’t work, try a third.
Keep adapting until the student gets back in the ideal zone. If this never happens, “flag” the situation and have an experienced educator intervene.
What do you really think?
A similar approach could be taken to better understand what people dislike or like about certain politicians, or which products produce the strongest reactions among potential consumers. Merely asking your opinion often does not work. For reasons of ego, politeness and expediency – among others – people often fail to tell the whole truth when they participate in surveys.
During the last United States Presidential election, CNN showed two graph lines under the screen during the three debates. The lines showed what male and female undecided voters felt about whatever the candidate was saying at the moment. If the line went up, that indicated positive feelings; if it went down, that was negative. A dial each voter held in his or her hands controlled the lines.
This is a clumsy and inaccurate way to judge what often are emotional, gut level reactions. Participants have to make a conscious decision to move the dial. A better approach might be to let participants wear a BCI as they watch the debate, or view an assortment of products, or listen to any sort of information being presented. In this scenario, the BCI requires absolutely no effort from the participants. Most will forget they have it on. Researchers get all the same information available from conventional sources – such as dials, interviews, or questionnaires – plus a goldmine from brain and facial activity measurable within fractions of seconds. This will reveal precisely when people were bored, frustrated, frowning, smiling, or engaged.
While a BCI is not capable of reading your thoughts, it is able to recognize when something causes your brain waves to spike. This will allow researchers to learn the specific words and images that cause particularly strong reactions. Researchers, managers, and developers could later evaluate BCI information to determine the most effective software, sounds or videos, character or product designs, or learning approaches.
Many of our reactions occur at a subconscious level. When you see a new car and instantly hate it, your reaction is at a subconscious level. Likewise, when you come face to face with someone you find unbelievably attractive, that attraction is at a gut level.
A side benefit of participating in such a study might be to gain insights concerning how you truly feel. Many of us are out of touch with our feelings and perceptions; it could be interesting to learn what provoked your most significant reactions, especially if you were not previously aware of the intensity of your feelings.
The developmental challenges with BCIs are pretty much the same challenges that faced personal computers, PDAs, GPS devices and cell phones. They need to be cheaper, smaller, more powerful, and easier to use.
The most sensitive BCIs are goofy looking devices with many dozens of wires attached to many dozens of electrodes. Ideally, a special gel is applied where each electrode touches your scalp. The consumer market for such devices is probably in the low hundreds.
Newer BCIs are coming to market that do not require any gel, and that include as few as a single sensor. It takes just a few seconds to put the device on your head. It is still unclear how well these devices work, or what they measure.
Of course, the larger the market, the faster prices will come down as capabilities rise. As more companies become aware of the type of applications we have described here, numerous markets will become obvious.
Paradoxically, the emergence of huge business and consumer markets for BCIs may help accelerate access to BCIs among the people who need them the most: locked-in patients and others who lack capabilities others of us take for granted. They, too, will benefit as Moore’s Law kicks in and BCI devices show up everywhere.
People argue over who first wrote, “If I had more time, this would have been a shorter letter.” In the case of this article, that’s not true. The potential uses of BCIs are nearly countless, and if we had more space, this article would have been a great deal longer.