Thought control of computers; the Irish angle

Listen below to piece broadcast (in edited form) on Drivetime RTE Radio 1 on 23rd August ’17


Scientists are working on brain computer interfaces which can enable devices to be control by thoughts alone (Credit:

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.


Alan Smeaton, Caoilainn Doyle, Dublin City University

Liam Kilmartin, NUI Galway

Tomas Ward, Maynooth University



Why gossip is good; creative people more prone to mental illness; world’s first bio limb; and how eyes betray thoughts


Gossiping evolved in humans as a way to know who to trust [Credit;]

Gossip is a way for people to know who to trust, and whom not to trust, when living in large social groups, scientists say.

Studies have found that the single biggest factor in determining how long we’ll live is how big our social network is. That network is maintained by gossip.

A study of 86,000 Icelanders has found that creative people such as dancers, painters and writers have a 25 per cent higher chance of carrying genes associated with schizophrenia and bipolar disease.

The world’s first bio limb has been grown by scientists. The limb, a forearm was grown on a rat. The limb is ‘seeded’ with cells from the recipient that mean it is not regarded as ‘foreign’ by the body, and it looks more natural that bionic limbs that have been developed.

The way our eyes dilate, or move around, can determine what we are thinking, scientists have found. This can help predict when a person is unsure, and vulnerable to being sold on ideas or products. It can even be used to determine whether a person is going to chose a big or small number in a list of numbers, and influence their moral choices. To listen to a discussion on the above, on The Morning Show with Declan Meehan, click below.

This item was first broadcast on East Coast FM on the 11th June 2015

Too much running kills; chromosome caps hold secret to eternal life; e-cigarettes impair breathing and immune system; I.V.F. ethics

Trail Running Ireland

Running too fast, for too long and too regularly is dangerous for health according to a new Danish study. Picture Credit (

The news that excessive running, according to a large Danish study, is bad for people, and can even kill them will no doubt be greeted with gleeful delight by the couch potatoes of Ireland.

The study of more than 1,000 runners found that running too fast, defined as more than 5 miles per hour, for too long, and too regularly can cause premature death. It’s even worse for health that doing no exercise!

The Holy Grail of biological science is to enable people to live longer, healthier lives. The secret might be revealed in studies of the caps that protect the chromosome structures that protect our DNA, a study has found.

E-cigarettes contain far less concentrations of dangerous ‘free radicals’ that react in the body and cause damage, but in a mice study, it was found that they impair breathing, knock out the immune system and can cause death.

The science of I.V.F. and how assisted technology is producing babies is an ethical minefield. We talk about what’s happening and some of the ethical issues.

Click below to listen to science slot broadcast on The Morning Show with Declan Meehan, 5th February 2015



The 3-D Printing Revolution; DNA test kit reveals Alzheimer’s risk; 2 women give birth using mother’s womb

This perfectly customised arm cast was produced using a three-dimensional printer [Credit:]

The 3D printing revolution is here, with printers using wood, plastic, metal, concrete and even living tissue to make things as diverse as engine parts, replica guns or bionic ears.

Ireland is well placed to be at the forefront of this high-tech manufacturing technology.

The personal genomics industry is exploding. This is the business where DNA kits are sold, over the counter, or online, which use saliva samples to provide reports of risk of Alzheimer’s disease, hereditary cancers and more.

Two British women have given birth – last month – to baby boys with the help of wombs donated from their mothers. This world first took place in Sweden and plans are being made to make the procedure available in other countries.

Click below to hear the interview broadcast on The Morning Show with Declan Meehan on East Coast FM on 4th December 2014

What’s It All About? on RTE Radio 1, Life, Death & Beyond (Episode 3)


Seeing a bright light is commonly reported by survivors or near-death experiences [Credit:]

Click HERE to listen

Ever wonder whether science could shed light on so-called ‘near death experiences’ or what happens to us after we die? Ever wonder how long we might live? Or ponder whether we could we even life forever? What will be mankind’s ultimate future? Will we merge with machines?

These are some of the questions myself Sean Duke, and Colette Kinsella, explored here in episode e of the four part series What’s It All About?  for RTE Radio 1

The near-death experience

In 1968 Gillian MacKenzie had a near-death experience during a complicated pregnancy.

Gillian was prepared for an emergency Caesarian section, and while she was being wheeled towards the operating theatre she describes the feeling of leaving her body through her head. She says she then floated towards a pinprick of light and entered a tunnel, where she was surrounded by white light and experienced feelings of bliss.

While surrounded by the light Gillian heard a male voice proclaim, “you know who I am!”. The voice then introduced her to her dead grandfather, who  said she would have to put up a good case if she wanted to return. She told them that she had to go back as her husband Hamish “doesn’t know how to iron his shirts”.

She then remembers being up on the ceiling of the operating theatre looking down on herself haemorrhaging. She even saw the bags of blood being used for the blood transfusion.

Gillian has no explanation for her experience, which remains as vivid now as it was then. She is 80 years old and not religious but, she says, the experience has erased all fear of dying. “I’m travelling hopefully,” is how she describes her views of the afterlife.

How long can we live?

Nick Bostrom is a scientist, futurologist and philosopher and the Director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University.

Is it possible that technology will change human nature?  This is the type of question that Nick Bostrom considers on a daily basis in his work.

Technology, he believes, is changing human nature. Once we develop machines that surpass human intelligence – and he’s fully convinced this will happen– these machines may work out how to make humans  live forever.

Part of this process may include uploading an entire brain onto a machine; by  extracting and uploading the neuronic architecture of a person’s brain onto a hard drive, it will be possible to transfer a person’s memories, personality and consciousness into an engineered body.

For more on Nick Bostrom:

Can we defeat ageing?

Aubrey de Grey, 50, is the Chief Science Officer of the SENS Research Foundation, a biomedical charity research organization based in California that was set up to defeat ageing.

De Grey believes that the ageing process in humans is similar to how a machine, like a car, ages. There is an accumulation of wear and tear over time, and without regular maintenance the doors of the car might fall off. With maintenance, this can be postponed.

There are a number of biomedical reasons why we age, says Aubrey. He believes these these issues will be addressed in coming decades, so that anyone aged 50 or younger might stand to benefit.

De Grey believes ageing can be defeated and that this is the natural course of medical development. He argues that medicine has always sought to extend life, and that it will eventually become possible to extend human life indefinitely.

For more on Aubrey de Grey:

Can we stay active and healthy for longer?

Advances in the use of stem cell technology means we will soon be able to perform effective  repairs on various parts of our bodies.

This type of treatment is known as “regenerative medicine”, and it will be used to repair cells in arthritic bone, or even damaged heart or brain tissue.

Frank Barry is the Director of the REMEDI Institute at NUI Galway, and he explains what this technology can do now, and what it might be able to do in the future.

For more on Frank Barry:

Should science be striving for immortality?

Daniel Callahan, 83, is co-founder and President Emeritus of The Hastings Center, a leading bio-ethical research centre in the US.

Daniel believes that a lifespan of around 80 years is sufficient for a person to achieve what he or she needs to over the course of a lifetime.

And while life extension might be good for individuals, he feels it won’t be good for wider society as an increase in population will accelerate global warming and drain resources, among other things.

He also thinks most old people don’t want to live forever. It’s interesting to note, he says, that the research into life-extending technology is driven by people in their 40s or 50s who, perhaps, find it hard to imagine letting go of life.

For more on Daniel Callahan:

Are we merging with machines?

Futurologist are predicting that humans will eventually become cyborgs, i.e we will merge with machines. But many of us are on that path already: if you have a prosthetic joint or an artificial heart valve, you’re already partially bionic.

But advances in neuroscience and robotics are ushering in a new era of human-machine interactions where thought-controlled artificial limbs are now a reality.

One of the leading labs spearheading thought-control research is that of John Donoghue, Brown University, in the US, who we talk to here.

John explains how his researchers learned how to translate thoughts into electrical signals that allow an amputee to control an artificial limb.

For more on John Donoghue:

Liam Geraghty talks to Danish man Dennis Sorenson, 36, who earlier this year received the world’s first bionic hand that provides its user with sensory feedback. Dennis lost his hand and most of his arm during an accident with a firecracker several years ago.

The economics of the afterlife

Millica Bookman is the author of Do They Take Credit Cards in Heaven? This book looks at cultural views of the afterlife from the perspective of economics.

Take “outsourcing”, for example. Millica describes how “sin eaters” in 17th-century England were paid to take away the sins of the dead by eating bread left on the chest of the deceased.

She also describes how the ancient Greeks believed they had to pay to enter the afterlife, which is why a coin was placed in the mouth of the deceased before burial.

Unusual traditions have sprung up in modern times too. In China, for example, people often place Viagra in coffins, while in the West people are often laid to rest with things like a bottle of wine or reading glasses for company.

Does consciousness survive after the brain dies?

Peter Fenwick is a consultant neuro-psychiatrist at the Institute of Psychiatry in London. He has researched near-death experiences over many decades, as well as the science of what happens when we die.

Peter’s research led him to question the nature of human consciousness, and his results point towards the idea that consciousness continues in some form after the brain dies.

Steven Laureys is a Belgian neuroscientist and leader of the Coma Science Group at the Liège University Hospital in Belgium.

Steven studies near-death experiences in coma patients, and he believes that the near death-experiences of bliss, being out of body, and seeing a tunnel can all be re-created by stimulating the brain in particular ways.

For more on Peter Fenwick view interview below:

For more on Stephen Laureys:

Trinity ‘SMART Arm’ gives stroke survivors hope

As many as 10,000 Irish people each year have a stroke, and the vast majority of that number cannot currently gain benefit from rehabilitation programmes since they don’t have enough movement left in their damaged arm.

SMART Arm, a device invented by Richard Carson, Professor at the Institute of Neuroscience at TCD, and colleagues in Australia, takes the small remaining movement left in the damaged arm of even the most severely affected stroke survivors and enhances that movement electrically. This opens up the possibility of rehab for all stroke survivors.

The article below was published in The Sunday Times on 29-04-2012

‘Ambient assisted living’ research at CLARITY can improve life for the elderly

There are a number of ways that devices connected to the web can help improve the quality of life and health of the elderly. This picture depicts a 2012 trial of ‘ambient assisted technology’ by Siemens in the homes of people aged 50 or over in Potsdam, Germany (credit: Siemens)

Technology connected to the web can help improve the quality of life of older people and also act as an important monitor on their health.

That’s according to Professor Gregory O’Hare, based at UCD’s CLARITY: Centre for Sensor Web Technologies.

Ambient assisted living is the term giving to the linking of web-enabled devices that can do everything from sending out a warning to a GP, if an older person hasn’t moved, to reminding them that it’s time to watch their favourite TV show.

LISTEN: Interview with Prof Gregory O’Hare

Broadcast on Science Spinning on 103.2 Dublin City FM on 19-04-2012

Eye gaze technology helps disabled speak & write

The use of eye gaze technology is helping people that have lost the use of the limbs following spinal injury, or a range of degenerative disorders, to speak and write again, and achieve greater control over their lives in general.

LISTEN: Interview with Dr Mick Donegan

This interview was broadcast on the weekly Science Spinning show on 103.2 Dublin City FM on 12-04-2012

READ: The article below was published in The Sunday Times, Irish edition on 08-04-2012