The new brave world of Technology. We may soon be able to control distant objects by thought

By James Geary


TimemagIn the South Korean city of Taejon, people are learning a very similar trick-though they need a computer between themselves and the cutlery. Here’s how the experimental software works. You don an electrode-studded cap that monitors brain waves and sends data to a computer that displays a virtual spoon. Different types of mental activity produce distinct signals in the brain, and the computer can discern, in a crude way, what’s going on inside your head. To make the spoon bend, you have to relax. When the computer detects signals from a calm brain, the spoon begins to wilt.

What’s going on in Taejon, at the Korea Research institute, is a very basic example of what could be the most interactive technology of the future: brain-computer interfaces.
Early computers were controlled by cardboard punch cards; the first PCs demanded typed DOS commands; the mouse gave us a graphic interface. Wifi we one day be able to enter the world of computing with no external mechanical intermediary whatsoever-in other words, just by thinking? Researchers around the globe are working on the problem. The Joint Research Centre of the European Commission, for example, has developed the Adaptive Brain Interl~ee, a helmet and software program (like the one in Korea) intended to allow disabled people to operate appliances using thought commands. At the British government’s Defense Evaluation and Research Agency, in Farnborough, the same techniques are helping fighter pilots fly jets with their minds. But the place where brains and computers are truly coming together is in the lab of Miguel Nicolelis, associate professor of neurobiology at the Duke University

Medical Center in North Carolina. He has trained two owl monkeys to control a robotic arm via brain signals-giving glimpses of how the virtual and physical worlds may merge.
brainpowerWorking with colleagues at Duke, M.I.T.’s Laboratory for Human and Machine Haptics (also known as the Touch Lab) and the State University of New York Health Science Center, Nicolelis implanted electrodes into the sections of the monkeys’ brains in which the planning and execution of arm movements takes place. When the brain instructs the body to make a motion, it fires off electric signals well before any action actually takes place; in other words, the body lags slightly behind the brain’s intention to act. In effect, the brain warms up for an impending movement by directing specific clusters of neurons to fire, just as you might warm up your car’s engine by pumping the gas pedal.
Nicolelis and his colleagues monitored the monkeys’ brain signals as they warmed up for various tasks, like reaching for food, and isolated the signals that preceded the movements. Then they routed the monkeys’ brain


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