Keyboards and mice are convenient and precise, but slow and especially difficult for people with some kinds of disabilities. Voice control of computers has advanced greatly in the last decade, but we’re still nowhere near the place where we can talk to Hal the way Dave did.
Most convenient of all would be if we can control computers with our thoughts, the same way we decide to reach out a hand or a foot and our bodies comply with our wishes. Control of our bodies is mediated by a network of nerves that connect our brains to the extremities and everywhere in between. Computers don’t have that kind of access to details of the neural activity in our brains. Most of us would rather not have electrodes implanted in our skulls. So work has proceeded on how to decode voltage signals on the scalp.
This has been surprisingly effective. The key to success has been that the brain is wired in a flexible way that facilitates learning. With feedback from the computer, people learn to create just the electric patterns that the computer is programmed to look for, and to control the computer with their thoughts.
This week there is a report of a more efficient control system that requires no training. A multinational team based in Japan has been working to get the computer trained how to read the human brain rather than having the human learn how to control the computer. Preliminary success is encouraging. The first applications will involve wheelchair control by quadriplegics.