With all the recent policy that seems to be taking us backwards, it's kind of comforting to know that science still speeds forward. For instance, humans can now control machines with their thoughts.
A scholarly report published this week describes how, in recent clinical trials, three participants—two with Lou Gehrig's Disease, one with a spinal cord injury—were able, with the help of a small device implanted in their brain and an external computer console, to "type faster using the brain-computer interface than anyone with paralysis has ever managed before." The participants are "pointing and clicking by thinking about the movement of their own hand," the neurologist and neuroscientist directing the clinical trial, Leigh Hochberg, tells me.
For the the non-neuroscientists: How is this awe-inspiring development possible?
In this case, the "brain-computer interface" (BCI) is a silicon electrode smaller than a pencil eraser that's surgically implanted in the portion of the participant's brain that controls limb movement. The sensor reads and records the electrical activity in that brain region (the motor cortex), sends it through a cord to a computer which uses a specially engineered algorithm to translate the incoming signals into commands for the cursor on screen. Yup. Go ahead and reread that.
In a video released by Stanford University (one of many institutions involved in the research), Krishna Shenoy, professor of engineering, describes the process as "eavesdrop[ping] in on electrical activity" taking place in the brain. The results are visible in videos embedded in the scholarly article: Wheelchair-bound participants, with wires affixed to their skull via a soapbox-sized metal device, use their minds to type answers questions, copy phrases, and complete visual video-game-like tasks on nearby screens. This isn't science fiction; it's just science.
The research is part of an ongoing collaboration called BrainGate that involves engineers, computer scientists, neurologists, mathematicians, and other smartypants at three universities (Stanford, Case Western, and Brown), Massachusetts General Hospital, and the Providence, Rhode Island V.A. Medical Center. Launching its first clinical trials in 2004, and currently funded by federal grants and private philanthropy, BrainGate has produced astonishing findings before.
One example: In 2012, a team published a report titled "Reach and Grasp by People with Tetraplegia Using a Neurally Controlled Robotic Arm" accompanied by footage of a paralyzed participant named Cathy using her mind to command a robotic arm to reach out, grab a bottle of coffee, and lift it to her mouth so she could take a sip through a straw. (Technology aside, the video is worth watching for the joy on Cathy's face when the task is completed.)
Researchers involved in the latest report emphasize that these are still early-stage findings. But the implications are potentially wide-reaching. Hochberg says research (on non-human primates at this point) is underway to produce similar wireless mind-controlled devices. And in the Stanford video, Shenoy says, "You could imagine also interfacing with your home, wirelessly sending signals to your thermostat [or to] open and close doors remotely."
Hochberg says that when he observes the recent research, he doesn't see a clunky prototype. He says the speed with which participants were thought-typing—approaching eight words per minute, in some cases—has already begun "to feel like a real communication device, one that someone would be able to use comfortably and productively in order to communicate with their family and their friends and their caregivers."
Step away from politics for a moment and the future isn't so terrifying after all.