Science: Triumph of mind over matter

Now that science has enabled a man to control a computer by thought alone, where do we go from here?

Since the first computers were developed in the 1940s, the trend has been more powerful, cheaper and smaller machines. Computers which once took up whole rooms can now fit in a jacket pocket. Advances in microprocessors and better engineering techniques mean that faster and cheaper computers continue their rapid development. Computers any smaller, though, are harder to achieve.

This is not because scientists are unable to shrink the electronics, but because of the way users communicate with the machine. To work with a human, a computer needs a screen and some kind of mouse, keyboard or pen for putting in and manipulating information. These devices take up space. A computer which could take signals from the brain - rather than from brain, to hand, to keyboard, and to chip - has to be truly miniature. It also has to be far faster and easier to use. Mental, not physical, dexterity would be all that is required.

That sort of computer might not be fantasy. Researchers in the United States claim to have developed a device which lets severely disabled people control a computer cursor by thought alone. The researchers, led by Professor Roy Bakay, of the department of neurology at Emory University in Atlanta, have developed tiny implants that are put in patients' brains. The implants, small glass cones with a miniature electrode, are placed inside the motor cortex, the area of the brain which governs movement. In time, the patient's own nerves grow inside the cones, encouraged by chemicals the team extract from the knees.

Once the nerves have grown, they connect to the electrodes inside the cones, allowing the computer to detect brain signals via a small transmitter located just inside the patient's skull. The American team implanted the cones in two patients, one a 57-year-old stroke victim and the other, a woman suffering from a degenerative neurological disease. The woman has since died from her condition, but the man is now able to use the system to control a computer cursor to pick phrases on a screen, and communicate with the outside world.

The patient had to learn how to control the cursor by thinking about moving a part of his body. At the moment, the computer is limited to only very simple commands - the cones can only detect thoughts to move the cursor up and down, left or right. Even so, the benefits to a man who is almost totally paralysed and had no other way of communicating, cannot be underestimated.

The Emory research is one of a growing number of projects which are looking for alternative ways for humans to communicate with computers. Much of it, like Professor Bakay's project, is aimed at helping the disabled. Other, better known applications, such as handwriting or speech recognition, are available on personal computers and other electronic devices already.

"What it means is that you have another channel to communicate with computers," explains Dr Peter Robinson, a scientist who researches the way computer applications can help disabled people, at Cambridge University's computing laboratory. The problem is that the channel has a very limited "bandwidth": it only carries small amounts of information. "The challenge is to make the best use of this limited bandwidth," he says. The capacity of implants in the brain, though, is far greater than a more common solution to the problem: electrodes attached to the skin. "If you can go down to the cortex, the signals will be 100,000 to a million times stronger than signals you can pick up on someone's head," says Dr Stephen Roberts, at the department of electrical and electronic engineering at Imperial College in London.

Most research into controlling computers uses non-invasive techniques such as pads on a person's skull or on an arm or leg. Computer scientists and engineers are simply not permitted to work inside the human body. There are ethical and medical questions surrounding implants which mean it is unlikely that they would be allowed, let alone acceptable, for able- bodied people.

Instead, the Imperial researchers are working with mathematics to decode poor quality signals. "The other way is to tease information out of tiny signals," says Dr Roberts. "We work with dirty signals, but we are doing advanced computer analysis." He believes that joining his research on signals with the American work on implants could bring even greater progress. "The future lies in coupling the two together," he says. "At the moment, the kind of performance they [the American team] are getting is about the same as we get with electrodes on people's heads." The medical applications for computers in the body are extensive. As well as controlling computers, researchers have used computer signals to bridge damage to patients' spinal cords; they cannot walk, but they do regain some sensation. Researchers at Dundee University are working on computers which recognise gestures and sign language as well as speech. Other scientists have developed electronic cornea implants, and computer-assisted hearing. Even a decade ago, these advances would have sounded as far-fetched - and unpalatable - as brain implants do today.

Computing experts believe that demand from the public will eventually overcome squeamishness about integrating electronics within the human body. "It would be foolish indeed to say we would never get full interactivity through an implanted chip," explains Professor Peter Cochrane, head of BT's research labs at Martlesham in Suffolk. "We will accept this technology by default, because it is attractive."

Uses for PCs in or on the body extend from business to entertainment and defence. At Imperial, Dr Roberts points to devices which control computers through the electrical conductivity of the skin. This changes depending on whether we are tense or relaxed - the theory behind the lie detector. According to Dr Roberts, games manufacturers are interested in bio-feedback, as are the military, who could use it to allow pilots to control aircraft, or to fire weapons, under extreme "G" force conditions.

More peacefully, the computing giant IBM has developed a technology known as the personal area network (PAN), as well as a wearable computer. The PAN uses the human body to conduct signals between computers. This means that we could exchange details with each other with a simple handshake: a true electronic business card.

Smart phones could be built which recognise the user and can download their phone book into the telephone's memory, or use computer code for security when making calls to, say, a bank. In time, linking electronics to the body will change the way we think about computers. "The reason the wearable PC is attracting interest is because we want the advantages of the technology but don't want to do things differently," explains Vincent Smith, who is programmes manager at IBM's personal systems group in the UK. "We want information to be available in a natural and intuitive way."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform