Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
Arthur C. Clarke, from his Three Laws of Prediction
If you are a tech-geek as I am, you might have heard about the hype that went on last week around a tiny helicopter, one of these toy-like machines almost all of us had the chance to remote control when we were children. But it was something special about this particular one. You wouldn't have to push any buttons to make it go up, or to manipulate a joystick to make it turn. With this helicopter, you just had to think about it going up for the thing to actually start flying, and to think about it going right to make it turn. It was mind-controlled by a student of the University of Minnesota, who only had to sat on a chair wearing a funny looking hat to make it go high (and go viral).
We, humans, have been fantasizing with the idea of being able to control machines with our thoughts since the beginnings of mankind (to be fair, we've fantasized about being able to control people's thoughts even more) Hans Berger's discovery of the electrical activity of the human brain and the development of electroencephalography (EEG) was the first hint we got on turning an impossible dream into an unlikely reality. The idea of waves spurting out from your brain and reflecting its activity allowed scientist to grasp thinking as a physiological activity, rather than a mystical one. If thoughts produce tangible outputs which are measurable and identifiable, the door is open for a future in which these thoughts, now electrical waves, are understood and acted upon by machines.
In the last 40 years, technology for brain-machine interfaces has been greatly developed. Basically, this is a type of interface capable of reading the electrical waves produced by your brain and interpret them in order to control an external device. The most common example until now is neuroprosthetics: artificial devices that replace the connection function of the brain with a part of the body when it is impaired - cochlear implants, for instance, helping to hear more than 220.000 to date. Neuromarketing, a blooming field of research that studies consumers' brain responses to marketing stimuli, is another area that is pushing the development of brain-machine interfaces. In this case, not only brain commands are read and translated, but also emotional reactions such as affection, excitement or disgust.
But a whole future in which you can think your things on instead of turning them on might not be so far away. There are a few examples already of companies developing commercial brain-machine interfaces with a very successful growth rate. Neurosky, for example, a company founded in 2004 at the heart of Silicon Valley and one of the main manufactures of brain-computer interfaces, has a compelling brand motto: "Brainwave sensors for everybody" (and the same conception of technology such as that of Clarke). Besides primarily selling the headsets, they've partnered with a couple of other companies to produce mainly games: the most successful, the Star Wars Force Trainer launched in Christmas 2009. Emotiv, on the other hand, has only two headsets currently on sale: Emotiv EPOC, a peripheral for gaming on Windows PCs, and the Emotiv EEG neuroheadset, sold with “translation" software allowing any other third-party applications to be hooked up into. Interestingly, Emotiv divides the output of the headset into three categories: cognitive, affective and expressive. That is to say, possible outputs to control machines or other products are based respectively on conscious thoughts to express control and direction, emotions to express mood states, and facial expressions, which will give a blend of the two. This opens very much the scope of what we can control or “think on", from just conscious orders to intuitive emotion detection.
What is more, there are some recent breakthroughs that extend the possibility of these technologies. The Polytechnic School of Lausanne is working on the possibility of mind-controlling machines remotely - that is to say, over Wi-Fi - as they show in their talk here. And people at the University Of Pittsburgh School Of Medicine have experimented in mind-controlling technologies for monkeys, opening up the possibilities for understanding brain diseases such as Alzheimer and Parkinson. So far, its headsets look clunky and uncomfortable for now, and the scope of what is controlled, limited, but in terms of technology, we already know it doesn't take long in these fast-paced times to evolve such things.
Now that we see that the technology is there, and available, what can we do with it? Can we really picture a homely routine in which we open the curtains, turn on the coffee machine, and drive our car with just thinking about it? I think so - and actually, it might not be as far as we thought. Researchers around the world are doing incredible things with their mind power, besides the helicopter example discussed at the beginning of this thread. Ok, you get a lot of stuff out there which is rather frivolous or cool at best, such as gimmicky mind games or cat ears you can move to mimic feline's expressions. But other directions are incredibly powerful and have a great potential to help thousands of people, the most touching example of it being all the initiatives dealing with mind-controlled prosthetics. Brain-controlled wheelchairs or robotics arms that bridge the alienation, both physical and psychological, that patients suffer with these kinds of devices. After all, controlling a prosthetic limb with your mind is as close you can get to control your own arm until tissue cultivation and growth allows us to regrow amputated parts of our body. And for paralized people, a mind-thought exoskeleton gives them the chance of having a body again.
Indeed, there are many concerns that will arise from the development of this technology. We could be facing a futuristic version of George Orwell's 1984 state in which people's mind are read on a regular basis by the government to ensure no thoughts contrary to the system arise. Or hackers that can break even into our interfaces and gain access to our head. The mind has always been the ultimate stronghold of freedom for mankind in a world in which physical power often manages to enslave many, the essence of liberty and as that, the core value of humanity. Anything dealing with it has to be ethically addressed, and we know that is not an easy thing to do. But that's often the case with technologies - they are never good or bad per se; it is just what we humans do with them that is good or bad. Technology is just a means to an end, and is up to us, societies, companies, governments, citizens, to make sure that end is fair, ethical and respectable.
However, there is so much potential in this technology that it makes it worth the effort. What mind-controlled machines give us is the promise of ultimate intuitiveness. The ultimate bridge between the digital and the physical, a world in which our interactions with objects will never feel alienating again. In sum, a place in which our thoughts can be immediately expressed, without limitations in our body getting in the way of the most beautiful thing us, humans, have: our mind.