Brain-computer interface

Mind to machine: A dream of hands-free writing

By Steve Outing

A wonderful humor essay appeared recently in the New Yorker: “A SHORT STORY WRITTEN WITH THOUGHT-TO-TEXT TECHNOLOGY,” by Jesse Eisenberg. It’s a fun read, so check it out, then come back here.

Actually, what’s fascinating about this essay is that its premise — a device or system that can transfer your thoughts to text on a computer screen — is not pure fantasy. Eisenberg’s literary joke is based on future technology. … When I’m old and gray(er), if my fingers don’t type well any more and my voice were to fail me for writing with voice-recognition, the technology could be available to use my mind to continue writing. That assumes that the old brain is still in good shape.

I’ve been thinking a lot about future technologies that are likely to be on the market when I’m in my 80s, which is another 25 years. As an old codger by then, I might be unsafe to drive a car; but it’s not hard to imagine that Google’s current experimental driverless cars will be available to ferry me around town in my geezer years. That technology will advance a long way in 25 years.

Look at the state of mind-to-computer technology today (Gray Scott has a nice report at the World Future Society website), and add 25 years (maybe less), and we human lifeforms probably will be controlling some of our machines with our targeted thoughts. TV remote control? Old school! Select a program from your TiVo Model 30.0 and adjust the volume with your headband or cap remote that performs your commands via scanning selected brainwaves. Or watch a movie on your virtual-reality headset, which reacts to thought commands and/or eye movements.

Why is this kind of thing possible within my lifetime? Because successful experiments already have been conducted in labs — the early stage of mind-to-machine technology. There’s the Mindwalker Project, an “exoskeleton” worn by a disabled person to “walk” under the device’s power by thinking about walking, just as a non-disabled person does when he/she wishes to walk, minus the hardware. The exoskeleton user wears an EEG (electroencephalogram) cap which captures the brain waves from the part of the brain that controls walking.

Researchers at the University of Minnesota have already developed a brain-computer interface that enables a person to fly a small drone via thought alone. See it in action in the UM video below:

Perhaps you’d like to try thought-control today? Amazon will sell you EEG brain-controlled cat ears (a toy and/or party gag) for $62.

It’s early days, but this is pretty exciting stuff. It’s my work to think about how emerging and future technologies will fit into news and media. I suspect that when I do reach my 80s, whippersnapper young journalists will be well equipped with useful technology to aid their reporting. An (inconspicuous) EEG hat might allow a reporter to use thoughts to take a photo, or start recording an interview, or pull up Google’s profile of an interview subject — or check a fact — with a thought command, then have the information displayed on whatever a Google Glass eyewear piece looks like in 25 years.

Alas, I’m probably too old already to take advantage of this magical technology when it evolves to the point of turning my thoughts into letters on a screen. I’ll stick with my trusty keyboard, thank you. Even using today’s voice-recognition software for writing, my literary quality sucks compared to the act of typing it. I fear that writing by thought only would produce prose that would make you laugh louder than reading Jessie Eisenberg’s charming essay. Perhaps it will work better for future whippersnappers.

Author: Steve Outing Steve Outing is a Boulder, Colorado-based media futurist, digital-news innovator, consultant, journalist, and educator. ... Need assistance with media-company future strategy? Get in touch with Steve!