Thought Computing – Guest Post by Areade Dare

Editor’s Note: This post, Thought Computing, is by Areade Dare,  a Research Analyst at Financial Derivatives Company Limited. You can follow him on Facebook and LinkedIn.  You can also check out his blog. Enjoy the piece.

At first glance, the thought of thought computing sounds like the figment of the imagination of a science fiction writer; maybe a Phillip K. Dick or an H.G. Wells. Nonetheless, in today’s world it’s slowly becoming a reality. Remember in the movie – The Matrix, where the hacker Neo, a.k.a. The One has to get ‘plugged’ into the simulated world to fight Agent Smith and the other well-dressed agents; well that’s not thought computing.

The idea is similar though i.e. the human brain and computer interact with one another, but the similarities end there. Luckily for us current thought computing technologies don’t involve any cerebral implants akin to the ones used on the ‘Nebakanezer’ – Morphesus’ ship, those giant hospital needles from hell. Then again these technologies don’t come with Carrie-Ann Moss either. This is regrettable but I digress.

Thought computing is an interesting technological trend still very much in its infancy stage, unlike its older sibling mobile computing. The latter has altered our social behavior and consumer patterns with smart phones and tablets, compelling network carriers (some more than others *cough* MTN *cough*) to upgrade their network infrastructure to cope with the surge in data consumption by their subscribers.

Thought computing is not at that stage yet. However it has the potential to rewrite the script on how we control and interact with computers. It’s still has a looong [sic] way to go but the prospect of being able to manipulate a computer without the use of a keyboard, mouse or a touch screen (capacitive or resistive) is something that merits excitement.

Thought computing devices are classified as Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) devices. What does that mean in English? Well, a BCI device acts as a direct communication platform between the brain and itself. Most are peripheral devices that are able to read your mind (brain waves) through an electroencephalograph (EEG). You might wonder how your brain emits these waves in the first place. It’s pretty simple.

Your brain contains a really, really large number of neurons, which are extremely interconnected, and in close proximity of one another. When your neurons fire hundreds of thousands of electrical discharges, the rapid fluctuations of these electrical impulses are read by the BCI. These fluctuations in electrical activity constitute your “brainwaves”. They can provide a hint about your current mental state, whether you’re sleeping, concentrating etc. Once the BCI device reads the brainwave, it’s converted from analog format to digital, filtered for noise and separated by frequency into alpha, beta, delta and theta waves.

Brainwave Frequency State
Beta (?) (12.0 – 30.0)Hz A state of concentration
Alpha (?) (8.0 – 12.0) Hz A mental state of relaxation
Theta (?) (5.0 – 8.0)Hz Daydreaming, prone to flow of ideas
Delta (?) (1.5 – 4.0)Hz Dreaming/deep dreamless sleep

Note: A frequency of 0Hz implies the individual is brain dead

As far as transcribing discrete thoughts from your mind goes, you might want to rein in your expectations on that one. The BCI can’t read your actual thoughts. For now it is only able to read the overall pattern of your brain activity such as the different thoughts (brain states) and emotions resulting from the different patterns of neural interactions with your brain. These patterns are sent wirelessly to a computer. In time, you can learn to manipulate your brain wave activity to utilize the BCI device.

Presently quite a number of thought computing applications serve as digital interfaces ranging from video games to interaction with objects in virtual environment. One particular application that I find interesting is the Necomimi headband, which possesses motorized cat ears that are programmed to show how interested or relaxed the wearer is. If the wearer is interested the ears shoot up, when relaxed the ears droop down. The ears also wiggle back and forth if the wearer is highly focused or highly relaxed. The headband responds to the wearer’s mood. I hear it’s a big hit in Japan with the anime and costume communities. I’m thinking about getting a pair, you know…. for the sake of science.

Other really cool applications include some of the work done by Canadian company InteraXon which can be seen below:

InteraXon & SecretExit – Brainwave-Enabled ZenBound 2

What I find quite intriguing is that San Jose-based NeuroSky seems to supply most of the BCI technology for many of these thought computing products including the Necomimi headband. It is evident that the company’s primary strategy is to be a chip developer and manufacturer for many of these products. This is despite the fact that the company also makes its own consumer products e.g. the MindWave headset. They collaborate with other companies who incorporate their BCI technology into their products and supply them with the specialized hardware required to do so.

However, what makes NeuroSky unique in the BCI industry is that it is the only company to develop non-contact EEG sensors. They are dry sensors that read the wearer’s brainwaves millimeters from the head. This is an important technological advance because older generation EEGs required the application of a conductive gel between the sensors and the head. I can say from experience you wouldn’t like to use the older EEGs, it felt really weird and sticky on your head. In addition, you would have to place over thirty sensors on your scalp. It’s a certified mess.

Recently NeuroSky faces opposition from Emotiv Systems, a San Francisco-based start-up, which manufactures a multi-sensor headset called EPOC. The headset currently retails for $300, which is a little pricey compared to NeuroSky’s MindWave headset ($99.95). Additionally Emotiv also designs and sells software packages tailored to enable players of popular games, like “World Of Warcraft” and “Call Of Duty”, to control their computer with their thoughts; as an alternative to a mouse or keyboard. Yet seeing how the technology mostly tracks your ability to concentrate and relax, I don’t think it’ll be replacing your joystick anytime soon. Then again, who knows what the future holds.

In the face of its current limitations, I think thought computing is one trend to watch out for.  As technology continues to advance, I see thought computing slowly integrating into the human/machine interaction. It’ll be interesting to how it progresses in the coming years. In my opinion, it is one of the next numerous steps in the advancement of computing.

Technology is moving in a direction where we are becoming more and more dependent on it for our daily and social activities. Devices like your smart phone are relatively close to you all of the time. We are so attached to them; they might as well be an extension of an appendage on our bodies. With any luck in the future, you’ll be controlling it with your mind as well. Maybe then they can be considered a part of you.