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Scientists Demonstrate Thought-Controlled Computer 172

Posted by Zonk
from the a-little-crude-for-decking dept.
Da Massive writes with a link to ComputerWorld coverage of a unique gadget shown at this past week's CeBit show. The company g.tec was showing off a brain/computer interface (BCI) in one corner of the trade hall. The rig, once placed on your head, detects the brain's voltage fluctuations and can respond appropriately. This requires training, where "the subject responds to commands on a computer screen, thinking 'left' and 'right' when they are instructed to do so ... Another test involves looking at a series of blinking letters, and thinking of a letter when it appears." Once the system is trained, you can think letters at the machine and 'type' via your thoughts. Likewise, by thinking directions you can move objects around onscreen. The article provides some background on the history of g.tec's BCI, and suggests possible uses for the technology in the near future.
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Scientists Demonstrate Thought-Controlled Computer

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  • by cyberbob2351 (1075435) on Sunday March 18, 2007 @02:52PM (#18395479) Homepage
    Now when you think about composing a nasty hate letter to your evil ex-girlfriend, it actually happens!
  • Type thoughts? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by vertinox (846076) on Sunday March 18, 2007 @02:56PM (#18395501)
    Once the system is trained, you can think letters at the machine and 'type' via your thoughts.

    That sounds rather cool, but wouldn't thinking words be faster?

    When I think when I type I think the entire words and my hands type them without spelling the words out. (Kind of like playing the piano)

    Of course I suppose this requires training the computer for several thousands words, but it would be having to think the actual spelling out of words at least speed wise.
    • Exactly, human beings don't think in letters. We think words, concepts, even ideas at a time. Just imagine sounding out words letters at a time. It would have taken me three times as long to write this, but I guess we can look forward to a world where people are better at spelling.... or maybe just one where AOLer speak reigns supreme. Lol.
      • I was just thinking in this same vein. It would be nice for it to learn words as well as letters. Then phrases etc etc etc.

        But will it need to be trained on everyone? That could be a limiting factor. If you've got to train this thing for everyone then it's like the speech to text stuff (i'm thinking 'dragon speaking' software here). That would be a pain to train, but worth it when you've done the training...

        if it can learn words, numbers and phrases as well as just letters.

        HOWEVER: the way they've descr
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by CastrTroy (595695)
          Wouldn't it make a lot of sense if you could just train it once, and then take your profile with you on a USB key? That way you wouldn't have to train the work computer, the home computer, the new laptop, the computer in the internet cafe, or any of the other computers you deal with on a daily basis.
          • Even better, just make a USB doohickey that appears to computers as a USB keyboard, which would have a standard adapter you could plug the electrodes into. The device could also train through that interface: you open up a text editor and put it in training mode, and it would type out any prompts it needs to give you. The only real problem is if the process is too CPU- or memory-intensive to run on a cheap embedded device.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by dosquatch (924618)

        Exactly, human beings don't think in letters. We think words, concepts, even ideas at a time.

        That may be, but I have some serious misgivings about my computer having unrestricted access to my mind. Oh, sure, it sounds great at first, but the first time it catches me daydreaming about the printer in the field from Office Space, and suddenly my resume' would start listing my real hobbies...

    • It might work better if it were based on phoneme [wikipedia.org] recognition.

      That way, you might find a nice balance between the size of the training set and the speed in which words can be written.
      • Re:Type thoughts? (Score:5, Informative)

        by linguizic (806996) on Sunday March 18, 2007 @03:17PM (#18395655)
        If we knew where each phoneme was stored in the brain and we could stimulate the computer via activity in this area all we would have to do is think about speaking the word. But things like allophones and the ranges of phonemes in different dialects would throw this off. No matter how dumb people may think southern speech is, it is actually hardwired into their nervous system via language acquisition and would have to be accounted for physiologically. It would probably be easier to have the nodes hooked up to the part of our brains that's responsible for controlling our fingers when we type, the amount of variability found in dialects gets reduced quite a bit just by removing the vocal element of language, even if you're Cletus.
        • by Flendon (857337)

          No matter how dumb people may think southern speech is, it is actually hardwired into their nervous system via language acquisition and would have to be accounted for physiologically.

          That is why each new user has to train the device all over again. Even if you think in a different dialect it doesn't matter. The computer learns the patterns produced by each individual brain as they think of whatever letter, and in the future word or phoneme, they are being prompted for.

          • by linguizic (806996)
            I think you're giving the software too much credit. All-in-all going the phoneme route requires too much work when we already have a system that minimizes regional language variation.
            • by kdemetter (965669)
              the problem with thinking words is that you may end up thinking about something related , so you would get a lot of garbage in the text .

              for example : you may think "food" and immediately imagine a pizza so you would get "food pizza" instead of just "food" .

              Or does it filter this out somehow ?

              now if i can just find my tinfoil hat .
              • by zsau (266209)
                for example : you may think "food" and immediately imagine a pizza so you would get "food pizza" instead of just "food" .

                Or does it filter this out somehow ?


                I assume we're looking at the parts of the brain responsible for producing speech/handwriting/touchtyping. So probably we're not going to get any more misspeaks than you would when talking to a friend anyway...

                But there is a book by Michael(?) Brin about an anthropogenic blackhole in the Earth's centre that has similar computers with exactly the problem
        • by zsau (266209)
          If we knew where each phoneme was stored in the brain and we could stimulate the computer via activity in this area all we would have to do is think about speaking the word. But things like allophones and the ranges of phonemes in different dialects would throw this off.

          Where a phoneme is stored in the brain probably has nothing to do with allophones. Although that's relatively irrelevant because phonemes probably aren't stored in the brain anywhere. Certainly there's no indication that phonemes are a nativ
          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by linguizic (806996)

            Inter-dialectal differences probably pale in comparison to interpersonal differences.

            If we are looking at the phones themselves then this can't be the case. The phones are where dialectical differences are at their greatest. With the exception of people who have had damage done to their brains, the "neurogeography" of the brain is pretty uniform.

            In this context I believe there are two ways we can speak of phonemes. There is the linguistic unit in whatever metaphysical incarnation whatever the dominan

            • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

              by zsau (266209)
              If we are looking at the phones themselves then this can't be the case.

              Um... I know that most parts are in the same general area between people, but I was of the impression that there are still differences: The parts of my brain which are responsible for control of my left hand/tongue/etc will be in basically the same place, but might be relatively larger/smaller than for you. Am I wrong on this? Otherwise surely we'd need to have brains that are exactly the same.

              there is the conscious knowledge of the sou
    • Well, since you think the words as you type, what would stop a computer being trained by getting you to type out a few thousand words of prose? It would just have to match up your brain activity with typing a particular word.

    • by kickdown (824054)
      The training for entire words could be quite effective if the subject you want to think/type about has a controlled, small vocabulary to keep the training base small.
      Obvious application: coding - the number of reserved words in programming languages is small enough. Plus, using a good IDE that proposes you words, a simple thinking of "3" to select the third choice in the combo seems quite an attractive coding model to me
    • Re:Type thoughts? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Amonnil (874821) on Sunday March 18, 2007 @03:11PM (#18395611)
      I think it would take a whole lot longer to train the system to respond to the hundreds of thousands of words you might want to use, instead of the few dozen characters to spell everything out. It would probably be more likely to get words confused, as well. That being said, this technology is new, as it develops, I'm sure ways will be found to speed up communication. Things like the word-completion used in phones for texting would be an obvious start. For now, I'm impressed that it's possible to hunt-and-peck with a mental keyboard.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by c_fel (927677)
        I think it would take a whole lot longer to train the system to respond to the hundreds of thousands of words you might want to use, instead of the few dozen characters to spell everything out.

        Moreover, this system surely use some type of neural network to identify a character from the actual voltage signals. As these signal are very noisy and have a relatively high frequency range, it must take a quite big network to obtain something good from it.
        Now, if you want to discriminate hundreds of thousands o
      • by yulek (202118)
        "I think it would take a whole lot longer to train the system to respond to the hundreds of thousands of words you might want to use"

        You don't need 100s of thousands of words. For example, Basic English [wikipedia.org] only needs 850 words to express The Bible [o-bible.com] (minus names, of course).

        In fact I've read somewhere (can't find the link) that we can communicate quite easily in english using only a 200 word vocabulary.
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by blank axolotl (917736)
      The signal is too weak to be able to differentialte between 1,000s of possible word 'brain patterns'.
      It can differentiate the 26 letter 'brain patterns' with effort:

      The system today is also quite slow -- even a trained system can "read" only 18 characters per minute, or three or four words.

      What I think might be cool to try is placing a pack of electrodes in a nerve leading to a non-essential muscle somewhere. I would guess you can get a much more reliable signal that way (if you set it up right), and maybe
    • What blank axolotl said. This is a new technology. It can only handle a limited set of signals, since it only reads from a small number of inputs. Give it time, and miniaturization will allow it to handle more and eventually be faster than typing.

      Your question is kind of like asking the people working on ENIAC, hey, wouldn't it be a lot easier just to train a computer to find the right panel on a multiplication table?
    • Not Quite.... (Score:5, Informative)

      by ThePopeLayton (868042) on Sunday March 18, 2007 @06:12PM (#18396815)
      I saw this exact device in action at the Annual Society for Neuroscience meeting last October in Atlanta Georgia. I spent about an hour talking to the group that were displaying the device. It uses EEG technology to detect voltage potentials across the skin (caused by inputs into layer 4 of the cortex). The tech who explained the device to me told me that current EEG analysis is not good enough to detect what a person is thinking about, rather it can detect IF a person is thinking.

      The device does not recognize thoughts about specific letters, rather it recognizes general thought. The person has a grid of electrodes on the scalp that are measuring the voltage. The person then looks at a computer screen that displays groups of letters.

      A band like "A D T E R K" is displayed and the person is instructed to count every band that appears that contains the desired letter. So if the person wants to type an "S" then upon seeing the band "S T V W K N" they would register having seen the S and the process of counting produces a large enough EEG signal that it is logged by the computer. The computer then displays separate bands that contain no more then one letter from the first band. Bands like " T D E I M" or "S B C X Z" might appear and as the second band contains an S the person would count it and produce the EEG signal. The computer then looks for the common elements between the bands and as S is the only common element the letter S is typed.

      So again the computer isn't reading specific thoughts, rather just general thinking. The subject doesn't think "K" and then K is typed rather the computer displays a K and the person confirms the choice by thinking.

      This display process is very fast (about 1 band a second) but it is rather a slow process to write. It takes around 5 or 6 minutes to write a sentence. It isn't as great as the article makes it seem, but it certainly is a step in the right direction.
    • by h2g2bob (948006)

      Once the system is trained, you can think letters at the machine and 'type' via your thoughts.
      I think therefore I IM.
    • by shaitand (626655)
      'When I think when I type I think the entire words and my hands type them without spelling the words out. (Kind of like playing the piano)'

      Keyboards don't contain words. Keyboards contain letters. When you learn to type you learn the commands that make your fingers move to and press the key in question and then return to home row. When you are first learning to type you are very aware of all of those movements. As you become more familiar you no longer have to think about the movements but you still think t
    • by gstoddart (321705)

      "Once the system is trained, you can think letters at the machine and 'type' via your thoughts."

      That sounds rather cool, but wouldn't thinking words be faster?

      Wow, just no pleasing people on slashdotters, is there?

      Scientist: Hey, I've managed to levitate a car 6 inches
      Slashdotter: Well, it would be much cooler if it could fly and reach LEO on 0.5L of fuel

      Has it occured to you that they only have the technology to do it with letters at this point? I mean, sure, we all want the uber system which can read o

  • by BitterOak (537666) on Sunday March 18, 2007 @02:58PM (#18395507)
    How long before someone patents the idea of using this for a video game controller? Imagine how cool it would be for your kids and their friends to sit in front of the TV wearing helmets and playing a video game without using their hands!
  • But... (Score:5, Funny)

    by rbochan (827946) on Sunday March 18, 2007 @02:58PM (#18395509) Homepage
    Do you have to think in Russian?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday March 18, 2007 @03:02PM (#18395529)
    Starting at 26,000 US, this might appeal to PS3 buyers, but most will find this too pricey.
  • by SmlFreshwaterBuffalo (608664) on Sunday March 18, 2007 @03:05PM (#18395551)
    I SEX typed SEX this SEX using SEX my SEX own SEX BCI-controlled SEX computer. SEX It SEX really SEX works SEX great!
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward
      You're totally a woman, aren't you?
      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by Lordpidey (942444)
        No, but CHEATER, I am, YOU LOOKED AT HER, its quite I'M JEALOUS the interesting YOU MUST BE CHEATING technology. I'm sure DOES THIS MAKE ME LOOK FAT that this will transform the world.
  • by dduardo (592868) on Sunday March 18, 2007 @03:10PM (#18395603)
    *Fred temporarily switches to root in order to edit an /etc file. John comes by to talk.

    John: Hey Fred, have you heard that new indie band called R.M. SPACE STAR ENTER?
    Fred: What? No! Why did you make me think that?! Now all my files are being deleted!
    • Re:Minor Problem (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Loconut1389 (455297) on Sunday March 18, 2007 @03:28PM (#18395739)
      funny joke aside- when you're not typing and someone talks to you, do you accidentally type what you're saying/thinking? That's not to say we don't accidentally type things we're saying if we're already typing-- but I think the way this works is, it would be a separate 'extension' of ourselves- just like we 'think' about moving our fingers to type- this would be thinking the letters into the computer.
    • by loconet (415875) on Sunday March 18, 2007 @04:26PM (#18396145) Homepage
      Or better yet.. Fred's terminal beeps to the sound of ..

      Fred@mindreader:/etc$ viAh shit, here comes that idiot John. What the fuck does he want again, I really don't care about his disturbing fascination with obscure indie bands, why don't they transfer his pompous ass to accounting.....ah crap
      bash: viAh: command not found
      Fred@mindreader:/etc$
      John: What is that on your screen? ...
    • by atamyrat (980611)
      Oh I was about to configure settings when I read your joke!

      Why did you tell me that?! Now all my files are being deleted!!!!

      p.s. format c: enter y enter

  • by sugapablo (600023) on Sunday March 18, 2007 @03:10PM (#18395607) Homepage
    Stephen Hawking will now take over the world!

    Beware those of you who dared park in handicap spaces!
  • Dear aunt, let's set so double the killer delete select all.
  • Really, doing anything at all just by thinking it would be very, very cool, but it would be even better to use it to control some large machinery. Maybe a car, or a backhoe. Imagine reaching out with the backhoe and lifting a boulder!
  • So what happens if someone with ADHD tries to program in C with this? Can you enter the result in the Obfuscated C Code Contest [ioccc.org]?
    • It has to run correctly for IOCCC. Sure, enter it, but it won't win. A lot of IOCCC entries take a lot of thought to do. Take burley(a poker program) for instance. The main loop is very simple but it requires a lot of abstraction before it becomes understandable.
  • Miniluv anyone? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by logixoul (1046000)
    /tinfoil hat on
    Now that a machine can translate thoughts into words, how long before it's used in interrogations? What about sensitivity becoming good enough to work from a few meters? Inconspicuous guy passes by. Next thing you know, you love big brother.
    • Inconspicuous guy passes by. Next thing you know, you love big brother..

      More likely, he now knows you like underage women.
      • by logixoul (1046000)
        Of course I do, I'm 17 ;)
        Seriously, connect the dots:
        1. passer by is a law enforcer;
        2. thoughts display treason, which needs to be cured;
        3. profit!!
    • by feepness (543479)
      Now that a machine can translate thoughts into words, how long before it's used in interrogations?

      Think of the FIRST letter of your contact's name?!!! Ok, now think of the SECOND letter of your contact's name!!!??

      Seriously though, this a thought-controlled computer, not a thought-control computer. I think it would be better than torture.
  • A computer to control our thoughts.
  • Could some informed person tell me why they forced people to move objects by thinking "left" and "right" rather than reading the neural impulse to move your hand or something?

    Is it more difficult than reading words? Do disabled people forget the neural impulses needed to move their limbs?
    • I didn't RTFA, but I'm guessing people born disabled never acquired the impulses needed to move their limbs.
  • If that technology gets on a super-exo-suit, warfare as we know would change drastically.
  • What? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Bwana Geek (1033040) on Sunday March 18, 2007 @03:41PM (#18395813) Journal
    This is in no way new technology. Neurofeedback has been studied since the twenties. I studied this about 10 years ago, and my professor was active in the field, so I got to learn about all kinds of cool stuff they were doing. Basically (probably starting around the 70s or 80s), researchers could wire you up to an EEG biofeedback machine and put you in front of a monitor with several bars or other graphics on it. They would then tell you something like, "Make the third bar grow higher." This would be done by, for example, increasing your brain's beta waves, but you had to figure out on your own how to do that by concentrating until the screen did what you wanted it to do. For children, they made it into a game: A plane is flying along the horizon and you need to make it rise and fall to avoid obstacles. Some very cool stuff with fantastic real world applications: Teaching epileptics how to alter teir brain wave patterns to stop a seizure before it starts, methods of fighting depression without drugs, etc. the list goes on.

    It's fascinating stuff, and definitely recommended reading if you can find any material on it.
    • Neurofeedback has been studied since the twenties.

      Yes, and other than the sort of biofeedback applications mentioned by the parent,
      very little usable progress has been made since then, for some very obvious reasons. If you're not talking about an invasive system, in which you have electrodes surgically implanted into your brain, then you're limited to relying on electric currents that are detectable on the skin surface. But guess what, your thought processes are not actually visible from outside your skul

  • If it's as accurate I can't wait to fly in a plane that's controlled this way. I am extremely skeptical of getting any accuracy from this setup. The state-of-the-art in speech recognition software is about the same as it was a decade ago, and machines are 50 times as fast with 8 times as much memory. Yet, quality has failed to improve measurably, and by "measurably" I mean the amount of time I have to spend cleaning up the text in a word processor after the speech has been "recognized". For that matter,
  • Why? (Score:3, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday March 18, 2007 @03:59PM (#18395909)
    Why is my screen blank?
  • by BRUTICUS (325520)
    Is there some kind of cosmic constant that depicts if ever there is anything interesting in the news no photograph or video of the subject should be made viewable?

    Serioously.. WHERES THE VIDEO?

    While you're at it I want the pictures of the frozen Mammoth and the gigantic Ape creature too.

    Thanxabunch
  • by Jartan (219704)
    This is very old tech. A lot of people have tried to use this sort of thing to control a cursor or whatever. It's hard to make the idea really work though. You could be trying to learn to control it but instead all you learn to do is move your scalp muscles and the resulting signals would make the cursor move. Cool but not sustainable since the muscles would tire out.

    I hope some day they get it working (minus the brain reading parts) but this article doesn't talk about whether or not these guys have don
  • If they can get the "typing" speed up to something reasonable, this system could allow for those who've suffered from tendonitis or carpal-tunnel syndrome to keep working.

    A friend of mine is on disability and working only part time due to severe tendonitis caused by typing, and I know he'd jump at the chance to use this if it meant that he could go back to working full time. (Getting disability payments in California is like pulling teeth every month, and you definately have to "lawyer-up" to get them.)
  • Brain wave sensor (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Sanat (702)
    A few years ago I attended a party that someone had brought a brain wave scanner. The device attached to the head via some suction cups as I recall. The box measured the frequencies of the mind for both the left side and the right side and indicated the relative strength on a scale of 0-10 (using Leds) for each frequency band (about 20 bands).

    We had a lot of fun playing with it. For instance, when meditating... decreases in the Beta ranges and increases the Alpha ranges would occur and that kind of thing. E
    • ..also have a guy bring a toy that would make a women's clothes jump five feet to the right? you know, with a warm cup of coffee?

      you go, you!
      • by Sanat (702)
        It wasn't a toy, it was the real thing... a Bottle of Tequila and with or without the coffee...

        It didn't make the clothes jump to the right 5 feet, but did make the clothes jump right off.

        Sigh, that was a good party.

        It hell getting older.
  • by HuguesT (84078) on Sunday March 18, 2007 @05:06PM (#18396399)
    Current research papers put a EEG-based BCI throughput limit at about 30bpm. This is bits per minute. 18bpm has actually been achieved. This is because it is rather hard to alter one's beta waves : one need to concentrate for about 2s or more to make a change (flip a bit) reliably. EEG is what the linked article talks about.

    With this kind of throughput one can compose no more than a couple of sentences a day. Clearly this is not going to replace typing for most people anytime soon. Even if one is severely impaired by some brain damage (e.g. a stroke) even a little bit of retained mobility is better. There was for instance this man who manage to write a whole book (the diving bell and the butterfly [doyletics.com]) through his fluttering eyelid.

    However different techniques are being developed. The best in terms of throughput and quality of data make use of f-MRI and other advanced techniques, or are very invasive (actual electrodes in the brain), and clearly this is not going to be possible as a usable tool for most people anytime soon either.

    Check back in a few years. Right now BCI is definitely pie-in-the-sky, although it does sound cool.
  • Medical purposes (Score:3, Interesting)

    by sabernet (751826) on Sunday March 18, 2007 @05:13PM (#18396441) Homepage
    Very awesome news for quadriplegics or those suffering full blown paralysis.
  • Bad bad bad... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by confused one (671304) on Sunday March 18, 2007 @07:26PM (#18397181)
    I don't get it... Why do people keep trying to do this!?

    Isn't it obvious that once a computer can read our minds, and see how messy it really is up there, they'll have all the they need to justify taking over "to protect us from ourselves"

  • by Trogre (513942)
    If one can be trained to type using this method, with connections being made between the language center and the part of the brain that controls this, this could lead to some interesting research. I wonder if this process would become automatic, not requiring conscious thought to route language to the new location.

    If so, what would we see by putting one of these devices on a trained subject who was asleep? Might one be able to read what text is occuring in their dreams? This could open up a whole new fie
  • wake me up when it's nanodots injected into my skull. This is early 90's tech, and you've been able to buy it off-the-shelf for a couple thousand dollars for years.

    http://www.ibva.com/ [ibva.com]

    IBVA brain-scan images featured in Macross Plus and available to power your MIDI synthesizer now.

    Josh
  • The most obvious use would seem to be to supply one to Stephen Hawking. He's slowing down on the clicker he's used with the two fingers that still work (and boy must those fingers be magic, he managed to divorce and re-marry), all a device like this would have to do is let him "click" without having to move. Everything else is set up for him already, though there will probably be room for improvement over the existing system. Still, I bet even a return to "as good as it used to be" would be a real boon for
  • FROM THE ARTICLE 'Five years ago the system was too bulky to be transported easily, and now the various parts can fit in a shoebox. In 10 years it could be fast and accurate enough to commercialize in home PCs or games consoles, according to Guber'

    This is not new. This company has had it for five years. It is inaccurate and can only parse 18 characters a minute, that's not quite 4/wpm. I don't know about you but in without thought typing I type at about 60/wpm. He hopes it will be good enough to use in home
  • A better way to control my armored battle suit...

    Every try using a mouse inside one of those things? I thought not.

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