Listen below to piece broadcast (in edited form) on Drivetime RTE Radio 1 on 23rd August ’17
The power to read thoughts has long been a favourite topic of science fiction writers, but researchers in Ireland and around the world are now working on systems, called brain-computer interfaces, where human thoughts – in the form of electrical signals – can be read and understood by computers, and acted upon.
If this sounds far-fetched, then consider the fact that Facebook revealed in April that it has 60 engineers working on thought reading technology that scans a human brain 100 times per second to pick up the silent internal conversation in our head and translate it into text.
Or that superhero of the US scientific entrepreneurial community, Elon Musk, the man behind Tesla electric cars, the SpaceX rocket systems, and much else, in March, launched a new venture called neuralink, which aims to create devices that can be implanted in the human brain to allow for direct thought-based communication with computing devices.
The applications for BCIs have been, up to now, aimed at helping people that have are unable to communicate with the outside world such as those with ALS, or locked in syndrome, or someone that has had a severe stroke.
But, there is also another strand of research emerging, where BCIs are being developed to augment, or improve, human abilities. That might be to help a person with hearing difficulties better focus on whom they want to listen to in a crowded room, or to help elite athletes tune into their brain activity which reflects when they are performing best at their chosen event.
The BCIs are either wearable, where a user must wear a cap with many electrodes, or where a device is implanted into the person’s brain.
It’s clear that we are all going to have to get used to the idea that our private thoughts, or headspace, may not, in future be so private after all. Many of us will no doubt baulk at the idea of anyone getting access inside our heads.
Yet many others will welcome the ability to communicate, move and better perform various tasks that his powerful new technology can provide.
Liam Kilmartin, NUI Galway
Tomas Ward, Maynooth University