There’s a lot of acronyms in tech today.
AI, AR, BTC, VR, IOT.
All of these are promising upcoming technologies. Companies are investing billions in the hope that they will be the next big thing.
However, there is one acronym that isn’t getting that much attention. Yet, it has the potential to transform our lives as much as the other ones.
It’s BCI, which stands for Brain-Computer Interface.
Connecting our Brain to Computers
4 years ago, I had my first experience with BCI at the CHI conference. I flew a drone with my mind.
“How do you fly a drone with your mind?”
First, you need to connect your brain to a computer. There are a few ways to do it. The simplest one, which I did, is by wearing an EEG headset.
EEG stands for electroencephalography. It’s a complicated word that means reading the electric signals from your brain.
The process goes like this:
- You wear the headset, which is connected to a computer.
- You think about your hands. The headset captures that signal.
- You think about your feet. The headset captures that signal too.
Then, the computer maps these signals to the drone’s controller.
This is similar to how you would map a game controller’s buttons to in-game actions. Except the buttons are your thoughts, and the actions control the drone.
Hands map to “take off,” feet map to “fly forward,” and when you stop thinking, the drone lands down.
Then you sit down, think about your hands, and voilà! The drone flies up.
This was 4 years ago. It was an early-stage prototype and I had a hard time controlling the drone. Yet, it was a mind-blowing experience. I’ve been keeping track of BCI ever since.
Science — Not Magic.
The human brain is made of cells called neurons. Just like a computer, neurons use electrical signals to communicate with each other. Everything you ever experienced — your thoughts, feelings, emotions — come from these signals.
With the right sensors, we can detect those signals and use them to communicate with computers.
Current & Future Use Cases
Right now, BCI is mostly used for research and medical purposes.
It’s helping disabled people regain control of their bodies. It has enabled people to type using their thoughts, to regain control over their hands, and even to kick the ball at the 2014 soccer World Cup. The technology also promises to help people with neurological diseases, such as Alzheimer and Parkinson.
This is fantastic. If it was just that, it would be one of the most interesting fields in tech today.
But it’s not. We can also use BCI to augment functioning bodies.
The predictions on the future of this technology sound like science fiction:
- Have infinite cloud storage for your memories.
- Have instant access to Wikipedia and Google search with your mind.
- Record your dreams and watch them as a movie in the morning.
- Learn new skills by downloading them — Matrix-style.
- Merge with AI — preventing us from being replaced by it and becoming a unified, universal, and immortal superintelligent being along the way. Or something along those lines.
I try not to get too excited about these ideas. I don’t think we’ll see them in our lifetime.
Now consider how this will combine with the Internet of Things. Imagine a world where every appliance is connected and can be controlled with your thoughts. The implications for society are fascinating.
Just like many people in tech, I grew up as a huge Star Wars fan. Back when I was a kid, I could only dream of being able to use the force. I went out around the house, trying to move objects with my mind, without any success.
Looking back, controlling that drone with my mind felt like using the force. It was a childhood dream made true. It felt like magic. The last time I felt this was when I used an iPhone for the first time. Speaking of which…
The Apple of BCI?
Back in the 70s, computers were big, ugly and expensive. They were extremely difficult to use. They were only used by scientists and researchers.
Apple changed all of that with the Personal Computer. They brought this incredibly powerful technology to everyone. It changed the world.
Today, BCI headsets are big, ugly and expensive. They are extremely difficult to use. They are mostly used by scientists researchers.
I’m looking forward to the company who will do with BCI what Apple did with the PC. The company that will make this technology easy to use for the mass market. It will change the world.
Things are in motion. Last month, Elon Musk’s Neuralink announced impressive progress in their mission to make a quantum leap in BCI. Facebook is set to demo their own headset by the end of 2019.
Companies like Emotiv have been selling such headsets for years now. For a few hundred bucks, you can buy one if you want and try it out yourself!
I can guarantee you that Google, Microsoft, and Apple are working on their own version of that.
The Neural Generation
Back in 2015, I had a hard time flying that drone. The whole idea of thinking about my hands was confusing.
How the hell do you think about your hands anyway?
What does that even mean? Do you close your eyes and visualize them? No, you have to keep your eyes open. Do you move your hands? No, your hands should stay still. The whole experience was uncanny. I never really got the hang of it.
My struggle reminded me of the struggle my grandparents have with tablets and computers.
I grew up with computers, smartphones, and the Internet. They are second nature to me. However, for people from the previous generations, simply turning a computer on can be a struggle.
I believe BCI is where the next generational tech gap will happen.
Back in 2015, I couldn’t get the drone to fly for a few seconds. I believe children who grow up with this tech will have no problem doing it.
I can already picture my kids, coming home, using their mind to turn on the lights and the TV. They will sit down on the couch, play games, and chat with their friends from all around the world, with their thoughts.
Meanwhile, I’ll be the old one yelling:
I can’t wait for this.