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Mind-Controlled Computers: Researchers Take A First Step

Researchers have taken an important step toward a future in which we might interact with our computers without needing a mouse, keyboard, or even voice activation. Imagine if you could control your computer with your mind.
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Researchers at Royal Holloway, University of London, have made a major breakthrough in understanding brain signals that may eventually lead to breakthroughs in mind-controlled computers and prosthetics that function like real human limbs. For the first time, researchers were able to study neural signals of planned actions and predict a person's movement.

If you feel like you've heard of mind-controlled computers and prosthetics before, it is because you have. InformationWeek covered an interface that allowed a paralyzed man to walk by bypassing injured pathways in his nervous system. But there is a crucial difference in this latest study.

Those previous studies interpret motor signals, the signals the brain sends to the body to make it move. This new study interprets the signals in your brain that precede movement. 

The best scientific description I can find explaining the difference is from a 2014 study of these types of signals in monkeys. Basically, the 2014 study found that before we make the decision to move, we think about it. So, for instance, if you want to make a fist, your brain first thinks about whether it should make a fist, and then it sends the signals the body needs for making a fist.

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(Image: Henrik5000/iStockphoto)

Earlier studies were reading the brain's "make a fist" signal, while the Royal Holloway study focused on reading the brain's "I think I'll make a fist" signal.

[ See how we're faring on interfaces so far on IT Life Radio: Where Virtual Reality Falls Short. ]

This is important from a delay point of view. If you wait until the signal to move is sent, and then you have to process that signal, you've got at least three delays: The time it takes the signal to get to the computer; the time it takes the computer to process that signal; and the time it takes to send the new signal to the prosthetic or computer. We're talking fractions of a second, but they add up.

If we capture the intention to move, we're skipping steps and shortening the delay, making the response more natural.

The Royal Holloway researchers were able to read the signals and predict -- in the fraction of a second between intention and action -- one of three hand moves the subject would try. The study was conducted using a traditional functional MRI, which is big and bulky but not specialized equipment.

Obviously, we're still far away from a person being able to work with a computer at the speed of thought. But this is the crucial first step for getting there. If we can take the million more steps between, we could see a world where computers and people are linked and work seamlessly without the need for peripherals of any kind except the brain connection. Better yet, we may see a world where mobility issues are a thing of the past.