Brain-machine interface connects disabled to computers

September 03 2008 / by futuretalk / In association with Future
Category: Other   Year: General   Rating: 5 Hot

By Dick Pelletier

Cyberkinetics of Foxborough Massachusetts has begun FDA-approved clinical trials with BrainGate, a device that enables paralyzed people to control computers directly with their brains – and eventually could help them regain complete mobility.

Most handicapped people are satisfied if they can get a rudimentary connection to the outside world. BrainGate enables them to achieve far more than that. By controlling the computer cursor, patients can access Internet information, TV entertainment, and control lights and appliances – with just their thoughts.

And as this amazing technology advances, researchers believe it could enable brain signals to bypass damaged nerve tissues and restore mobility to paralyzed limbs. “The goal of BrainGate is to develop a fast, reliable, and unobtrusive connection between the brain of a severely disabled person and a personal computer” said Cyberkinetics President Tim Surgenor.

BrainGate may sound like science fiction, but its not. The device is smaller than a dime and contains 100 wires thinner than human hairs which connect with the portion of the brain that controls motor activity. The wires detect when neurons are fired and sends those signals through a tiny connector mounted on the skull to a computer.

Implanted into the brains of five handicapped patients, the device is already showing great promise. A 25-year-old quadriplegic has successfully been able to switch on lights, adjust the volume on a TV, change channels, and read e-mail using only his thoughts. And he was able to do these tasks while carrying on a conversation and moving his head at the same time.

Although this technology may not equal the hype of stem cell and genetic engineering miracles that promise, within the next decade, to re-build damaged brains, spinal cords, and other organs, cell by cell; BrainGate is available now and can provide much needed help for the 200,000 paralyzed Americans who are suffering today.

Eligibility to participate in BrainGate clinical trials is tough. Applicants must be unable to use their hands due to a spinal cord injury, stroke, or muscular dystrophy, and must also be permanent residents in the greater Boston/Providence area. Additional sites may open in other states soon. For more information on costs and availability and other products, visit

Cyberkinetics hopes to refine BrainGate to develop a completely implantable wireless device making it safer and less visible. And as research from places like the Allen Brain Project and Howard Hughes Institute’s Janelia Farm Research Campus begins to produce brain mapping and other crucial neuronal developments, there is a potential for a host of other applications.

Future developments of brain-chip implants, researchers believe, will involve mind-boggling capabilities. Within 10 years, it will be possible to “download” memory implants for skill enhancement, which would allow actions to be performed that have not been learned directly. Imagine learning a new subject or mastering a foreign language – without studying.

And non-verbal communication systems will be developed from this wild technology too. “Chipped” people will communicate with each other, using just their thoughts – from anywhere on Earth. This portion of the road towards our “magical future” is unfolding today. Get ready to enjoy. Comments welcome.

What do you think might be possible by 2020 with this technology?

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Comment Thread (10 Responses)

  1. I find that human-to-human thought (telepathy) won’t be available by 2020. That’s a little too soon, even for me. However, I guess if they can just imbed a cell phone in your brain, we would be able to call people by thought alone. That I can see in the short-term.

    Downloading memory skills is something from the Matrix. I would love to be able to learn a new skill on-the-fly. That is very handy.

    Posted by: Covus   September 03, 2008
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  2. “Researchers” who claim that will be able to download skills within 10 years are not researchers. They obviously don’t even have a clue how brain works. Oh wait… nobody really does at this point.

    Posted by: johnfrink   September 03, 2008
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  3. I don’t know how crackpots like FutureTalk get people to listen to his baseless preaching. It’s all a pile of nonsense.

    Posted by: adbatstone80   September 03, 2008
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  4. Ray “my graphs are infallible” Kurzweil is not a valid thinker in the slightest. He’s only making this codswallop of “accelerating returns” up to peddle his books.

    Thankfully the a great deal of the scientific/skeptical community (Douglas Hofstadter, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Rodney Brooks, Michio Kaku, Steven Pinker, Ilkka Tuomi, Ted Modis, Jaron Lanier, Roger Penrose, Ramez Naam, Aubrey De Grey, Jay Olshansky, Peter Thiel) all disagree with his bullshit.

    Posted by: adbatstone80   September 03, 2008
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  5. I find it strange that you attack “accelerating returns” as codswallop. While Kurzweil does himself no favours by repeating his poor explanation over and over like a broken record, he is not wrong. Acceleration is a natural product of human invention. Can you see why?

    We use each tool we invent to create the next generation of tool or device. We use the previous generation of knowledge to create the next generation. This does not even take into account synergy between the disciplines – DNA sequencing technology was really enabled by developments in physics. Everything just speeds up, not because we say so – but because it’s natural.

    In addition, I take issue with your list of “naysayers”. Many on that list are persuasive technological optimists. Aubrey de Gray is very enthusiastic about the progress that will be made in gerontology with the proper support. Michio Kaku speaks excitedly about how we are passing from the age of discovery into the age of mastery, and he is one of the greatest minds in theoretical physics. Stephen Pinker recognises the great reduction in violence (percentage wise) in the 20th century as meaning we are headed somewhere interesting.

    Whether they take issue with Kurzweil’s particular graphs is irrelevant. Acceleration would exist in a Kurzweil-free world, whether you like it or not. The charge “he is not a valid thinker” only applies to people like johnfrink who claim we know “nothing” about the brain (do you really believe that? Go buy a neurobiology book, and do it fast before you further embarrass yourself).

    Neither are you, adbatstone80, a valid thinker, if you are thoroughly blind to the quickly compressing timescales in human history. Contrary to the popular myth, Kurzweil is not the only one to have recognised this. Kaku is fascinated by the fact that by 2020 a current Intel processor will cost a penny – the price of a piece of paper you throw away. This fact will change the world, he recognises that anf yet – you list him as a naysayer. It just illustrates how ill informed you are – which explains a lot.

    Posted by: CptSunbeam   September 03, 2008
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  6. Researchers at the Allen Institute for Brain Science have successfully mapped the genome of a mouse spinal cord and made the data freely available to scientists around the world.

    Howard Hughes Medical Institute created the Janelia Farm Research Campus which will eventually be staffed by 300 of the world’s top neuroscientists with goals to unravel the mysteries of the human brain. One of their projects includes observing neuronal activity at the moment thoughts are created and record those details. Some say this could one day lead to the transfer of human consciousness (mid-2030s or so).

    And IBM is involved in a massive multi-national effort to reverse-engineer the human brain.

    These three efforts and many other projects around the world is expected to, some say by 2020, understand the complications of consciousness, which could lead to, by 2030 or so, programming consciousness into an artificial intelligence unit for easier study of what makes us human.

    I see nothing that will prevent the events mentioned in this article from happening in the timely manner suggested.

    Comments welcome.

    Posted by: futuretalk   September 03, 2008
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  7. Abadstone80 seems to have a visceral response to Kurzweil that is more prejudice than actual rational thought. I am not delusional and understand that it may not happen within 10 years.

    However, I am not close minded and I have been watching technology very closely and believe that what futuretalk has posited is a rational conclusion to the miniaturization of our cellphones and computer chips. It is completely insane not to see where and what scientists are going towards.

    Posted by: Covus   September 03, 2008
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  8. The only thing to question is the rate of acceleration, not its existence, which means that something weird will happen eventually (call it the singularity, or call it the royal flush if you like). This curious turning point will happen eventually, whether it is 2050 or 2150.

    By taking their pessimism too far, johnfrink and adbatstone80 just come across as dumb. We’re all quite aware that our knowledge is incomplete, but our knowledge is growing so fast that the first year of any technical degree is now out of date. In fact, we will never know everything about everything but that is irrelevant. We don’t need to.

    Posted by: CptSunbeam   September 03, 2008
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  9. CptSunbeam,

    So… By doubting that we’ll be downloading kungfu into our brains within 10 years we come across as dumb… I see.. OK then… Sorry, I didn’t know it was that kind of blog. (Slowly backs away from the keyboard).

    Posted by: johnfrink   September 03, 2008
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  10. Unfortunately, Johnfrink, your comments are not limited to questioning the timescale. Whenever an acceleration or nanotech themed post is written, it is very predictable that either you or adbatstone80 will respond with a knee-jerk dig.

    You attack every ounce of technological optimism you detect. Don’t believe me? Go check all your past posts. It is this dull-brained, ill-thought-out “not in my lifetime” which is dumb.

    Posted by: CptSunbeam   September 04, 2008
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