How Computers Could Soon Interface With Your Brain

Type or play by thinking

Key Takeaways

  • You may be able to type one day using only the power of your thoughts, experts say. 
  • Facebook recently said its new augmented reality interface would use wristbands that use electromyography (EMG) to translate neural signals into actions. 
  • One company is selling a $399 kit that translates brain signals into digital commands.
An artificial intelligence, indicated by a brain, with information in dots and dashes flowing toward it.
MR.Cole_Photographer / Getty Images

Computers could one day read your brain to allow you to do everything from typing to playing games without moving a finger. 

Facebook recently said its new augmented reality interface would use wristbands that translate neural signals into actions. It’s part of a growing number of attempts to allow computers to understand the brain, experts say. 

"The most exciting applications, in my opinion, are for the medical field and space exploration," Jose Morey, a former advisor to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said in an email interview.

"Utilizing this type of technology for patients that have lost the use of an extremity or post-amputation for a biomechatronic restoration. For space exploration utilizing this technology for humanoid robotic control either for deep space and off-world exploration."

Think to Type

One day, brain-reading wristbands could help users navigate computers, Facebook Reality Labs (FRL) said in a recent blog post. The bands could understand basic gestures Facebook calls "clicks," designed to be easy to perform. Facebook also envisions the bands allowing you to type on a virtual keyboard by reading brain signals. 

"The goal of neural interfaces is to upset this long history of human-computer interaction and start to make it so that humans now have more control over machines than they have over us," Thomas Reardon, FRL's director of neuromotor interfaces, wrote in the blog post.

"We want computing experiences where the human is the absolute center of the entire experience."

Someone connected by neurological wires to a machine while a scientist looks on.
janiecbros / Getty Images

Facebook isn’t the only one thinking up ways to fuse the brain and a computer. Another company working on a neural interface is Elon Musk’s Neuralink

"Right now, they are still in development and animal testing, but they have been making some impressive progress," Morey said of Neuralink. 

One company, NextMind, claims you can build your own computer that can read your brain. The company is selling a development kit that purportedly can translate brain signals into digital commands, allowing you to control computers, AR/VR headsets, and IoT devices. 

Helping the Paralyzed

Neural interfaces also are showing promise for medical uses. A tiny device implanted in the brain recently was shown to help patients with upper limb paralysis to text, email, and even shop online.

According to researchers at the University of Melbourne, the device was implanted in two paralyzed patients, and was able to wirelessly restore the transmission of brain impulses out of the body. 

"Observing the participants use the system to communicate and control a computer with their minds, independently and at home, is truly amazing," Nicholas Opie, a professor involved in the research, said in a news release

To fully link man and machine, scientists are trying to understand what the brain is thinking. Existing brain-machine interfaces allow a paralyzed person to move a robotic arm. The device interprets the person's neural activity and intentions and moves the robotic arm correspondingly.

“We want computing experiences where the human is the absolute center of the entire experience.”

But a significant limitation for the development of brain interfaces is that the devices require invasive brain surgery to read neural activity. 

Researchers recently announced they have developed a new way to read brain activity that corresponds to movement planning. Using ultrasound technology, the technique can map brain activity from specific regions deep within the brain. 

"Only a small, ultrasound-transparent window needs to be implanted in the skull; this surgery is significantly less invasive than that required for implanting electrodes," said Caltech professor Richard Andersen in a news release

Although neural links that can do more than control basic movements are a long way off, some experts say it’s not too late to start thinking about the technology’s privacy issues.

"There is a very real danger that these technologies will know what you are thinking," digital privacy expert Ray Walsh of the website ProPrivacy said in an email interview. "They will be able to leverage that data to make secondary inferences or marketing decisions about you."

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