I Think, Therefore I Control

April 27, 2004
I'm a fairly fast typist (Thanks Mom for insisting that I take a typing back in 10th grade!), yet I'm able to think far faster than my fingers can keep up. I also know that my brain can take in information far faster than I can read (consider the vast amount of visual information you can glean from a split-second glimpse of an information-rich scene). Not to mention hand-eye coordination, physical response/time issues that plague fighter pilots, racecar drivers and normal people in emergency situations. Speeding up the I/O (Input/Output) interface would give any of us a competitive advantage, but aside from constant training, our technological gadgets aren't much help (yet).But for two monkeys in Dr. Miguel Nicolelis' Duke University laboratory, that's no longer a problem!According to a recent ABC News "Sci/Tech" article, an array of up to 320 hair-thin electrodes were implanted in the monkeys' brains. The electrodes communicated the electrical brain activity at each site to a computer, where a program analyzed the activity as the monkeys played a typical joystick-controlled computer game.Once the computer had correlated the brains' electrical activity to the arms' muscle movements, the input from the physical joystick was cut off while the computer replaced that signal with those "processed" signals emanating directly from the monkeys' brains. At that point, the monkeys' were playing the game totally by thought-control!"It's just never safe to say never,' or to assume that we'll always control things the way we do today."Perhaps most interesting is that after a while, the monkeys realized that they no longer had to move their arms at all! They let their arms hung quietly at their sides as they continued to play the video game! The potential for this technology, once it's mature, to help people who are paralyzed due to nerve damage is dramatic and obvious, and in my mind, almost a guarantee that this and similar research will continue and flourish. But there's much more generalized potential, as Steve Pitcher, a reader of The Harrow Technology Report, highlighted to me: "They're talking about helping the physically disabled, but heck, they're also talking about playing computer games. Forget the joystick! Just plug yourself in! I almost can't imagine this stuff NOT becoming the norm at some point , likely within our lifetimes. I've always viewed our current human interface technologies (keyboard, monitor, mouse) to be , adequate. But no more than that. This stuff holds the promise for much improved user interfaces. But still, more than a little scary."I agree with Pitcher on both the good and the bad potential of this line of development"and that it will almost surely happen, and quickly spread beyond its medical use.There's far too much potential competitive advantage in being able to dramatically minimize the hand-eye coordination time for fighter pilots and others in harm's way. The same is true for surgeons as well as others relying on fine motor skills or who must react quickly under pressure. Eventually, perhaps, such "direct I/O" technology will be used by businesspeople as their 'direct connection' lets them sift through and deal with data relevant to their jobs far-faster than their unconnected competitors. Over time, it will be the connected who get the promotions, which will lend additional legitimacy to the practice of "plugging-in," and encourage other competitive individuals to do so as well. The end result of this cycle could, eventually, make plugging-in a realistic and competitive necessity. Don't think so? How many business people do you know now use wireless network access to grab data and facts right in the midst of a business meeting, while their unconnected brethren have only their written notes to rely on? That's currently the norm, even though when I first began this practice a few years back, the mere act of typing in a meeting often earned me the evil eye.(Oh, and to Pitcher's point that "gamers" would flock to such an interface, and probably early-on, I must agree. Throughout the computer age it has been the gamers who have consistently pushed the frontiers of computing (graphics cards, color, sound, new I/O devices other specialized interfaces.)This same "necessity-spiral" around adopting new technology has already happened many times. Think of the advent of electricity, the telephone and more recently the cell phone. All were once rare, expensive and criticized"until they each became a competitive necessity. I anticipate that it will happen again, once humans can plug in to better control their environment"at least once the direct human-machine interface becomes non-invasive, unlike the monkeys' physical electrode arrays, or the even worse, the hard-wired jacks linking people to the virtual world "The Matrix." It's just never safe to say "never," or to assume that we'll always control things the way we do today ...Jeffrey R. Harrow is Principal, The Harrow Group, and is a former Digital and Compaq Fellow, who publishes one of the most recognized and well read technology e-zines, The Harrow Technology Report. Jeff can be reached at [email protected]

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