Advanced process control? "Think" it so!

Nov. 7, 2004
Humans replacing PLCs? This "special to the web" article for ponders the possibility of process operators controlling a myriad of automation control systems using only thought!


ur process control computers are VERY fast (at least from the perspective of the last several decades), yet the way in which we interact with them is directly descended from how we worked with mechanical typewriters. On the input side we tap on keys set in a layout intentionally designed to slow things down so that the mechanical hammers could keep up. For output, we read things off of a screen (page). Yet even the fastest typists often think far faster than they can type. And while the human eye can glean vast amounts of information from briefly looking at a scene (what Nature optimized it to do), reading paragraphs of text is a comparatively slow process, and reducing columns of data is onerous.

That's a current technology bottleneck, but the potential of effectively interfacing ourselves with machines is much greater. Imagine how many car accidents might be averted if we could dramatically reduce the eye-hand-foot coordination times required for an emergency maneuver. Imagine the "competitive advantages" that instant brain-machine connections could bring to a soldier or pilot. Or to a professionally-competitive "gamer." Or, even to a business person who could "read" documents ten or one hundred (or more) times faster than their competitors. How about a stock trader who could react faster than anyone else to an event that he noticed first? How about a process operator who can “be” the valve positioner or the reactor agitator? How about a quality control engineer who can spot patterns in tens of thousands of datapoints instantaneously?

True, some experiments, such as those by Duke University's Dr. Miguel Nicolelis ( have already yielded (early) brain-machine interfaces through implanting an array of 300+ electrodes in a monkey's brain -- the monkey could move a robotic arm in place of its physical arm by simply "thinking it so." It's certainly a start (especially for assisting people with many disabilities). The idea is unnerving. What would it be like to replace a PLC that controlled that robot arm with a human worker controlling it instead? Reprogram the robot? Just tell the worker what you want the arm to do instead.

But suppose that this area of research were to wildly succeed, providing a high-speed Input/Output channel for our senses? That happens to be one goal of Cyberkinetics' "BrainGate" system (

"The BrainGate System consists of a sensor implanted on the motor cortex of the brain, and a system that measures and interprets [its signals]. It is hoped that the BrainGate System might... allow people unable to use their hands to... communicate with a computer using their thoughts." Science fiction? In the 1970s it was, when author Larry Niven invented “wireheading.” Now it is what?

Even so, most (non-disabled) people might eschew a brain implant, considering that an array of 100 or so sharp electrodes are implanted on or within the brain and connected to an external computer via a cable. (This implant is currently offered to experimental neurobiologists by Cyberkinetics (

Also, check out and for a fascinating example of the first commercially available (in Portugal only) artificial vision system from "The Dobelle Institute" -- it's apparently so good that a newly un-blinded patient was able to drive a car around a parking lot!

Cutting The Cord
One of the fastest-growing technologies today is "wireless." The unregulated 802.11 (WiFi) spectrum of products (a grassroots movement that has grown into a rapidly-growing commercial implementation thanks to "users," rather than to the "carriers") has proven the demand for, and viability of, wireless data communications. And if Robert Burke, lead architect of Europe's MIT's Media Lab "MindGames" group, has his way, their prototype wireless, non-invasive headset ("Cerebus") might be just the interface key that helps free the brain from its organic peripherals' limitations!

At you'll see a working prototype that enables, literally, mind control of a videogame by wearing a cap without implanted electrodes! In this early demonstration the user has to "think" a character's balance as it crosses a 'high wire' without falling off. The helmet wirelessly communicates with the computer running the game via Bluetooth (an increasingly popular low-speed, limited-range wireless connection):

This videogame does seem a simplistic example, but -- it is a fascinating beginning! (After all, as the saying goes, it's not how WELL the pig sings, but that it can sing AT ALL.) And this IS just the beginning...

(You'll find a broad overview of this topic at

How would the world around us -- how we work, live, and play -- be affected if/when such brain-machine interconnections are paired with the Internet to allow at-a-distance remote control (as already demonstrated by Dr. Nicolelis' monkeys)? How will this impact the traditional "control" industry, as a myriad of control systems might be controlled by a casual thought?

I can foresee both good and cautionary results. But the magic is that here's another science fiction staple whose tendrils are now reaching towards reality -- a reality that one day might allow us to reach out and control and interact with the world around us -- VERY quickly.  Almost without thinking...

Don't Blink!

Jeffrey R. Harrow is Principal for The Harrow Group: He can be reached at the company web site,; or be e-mail at [email protected].

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