David and I are visiting a company called Emotiv. Emotiv wants to build technology that can channel our brain waves into real world commands. I think we’re on the cusp of a type of brain augmentation that will transform the way that we are as humans. Tan Le is the founder of Emotiv. And the way she describes her company’s goal is… kind of science fictiony. We’re applying science to make the F orce come alive. What Emotiv is doing is an extremely long way off from any of this stuff. But it’s the very beginning of something big, with the promise that one day, our thoughts could control the objects around us. Can I put it on your head? Yeah. Ok, here we go. So we can see here what parts of your brain are most excited, are most active. Emotiv’s headset works by first learning a pattern of your brain waves. Any pattern; you choose it. Next, I want you to think of a thought that you’re going to use to control this cube and push it away into the distance.
Is there a certain type of thought that… It can be any thought. Something that you think you can reimagine as accurately as possible later on on command.
Ready and go. The computer records his brain activity while he thinks that thought. How’d that go? Uh. I guess we’ll find out. Now, when the computer sees the same brain pattern, it will move the cube. Ohhhp, ohhhp. Ayyy! Ok whatever you did that time was definitely…. That’s weird. Huh? The weirdest thing is, to your suggestion, imagine yourself pushing the cube. So imagined a little me inside of this box pushing this cube, and now it’s just… So now we know what your brain looks like when you’re imagining a little you pushing a cube. Pushing this… The same process can be used to move basically anything. So we’re going to give it a try. Yeah. I think you can do it. Uh. Ok. There you go! Mini-you is doing well! Now I’ve lost control of it. Ok, there we go. There we go. Wow, ok, ok. Think of Emotiv’s technology like a simple yes/no or on/off switch you can program. Sort of like a universal remote control. Tan Le imagines a scenario where you could teach the headset to recognize several different brain patterns. There are really no limits to the kinds of things that we can control. We can do anything from turning on your TV, to program your TV channels, Netflix turning on and off the lights, and the most powerful thing is all you’re using is your brain. You can do all of that simply by thinking. Emotiv’s goal is a world where headsets like this are everywhere, maybe embedded in a hat or a pair of glasses. But it’s crucial to understand the limits of where this technology currently is. It’s not the Force.
Some of the claims are overblown. It’s different than the force, in that your brain thoughts by themselves are not causing a physical interaction with an object.
Virginia de Sa is a cognitive science professor at UC San Diego. She’s an expert in brain computer
interfaces. She says the technology is promising, but still in its infancy. What you can’t do right now is you can’t say, “I think I want light on,” and turn the light on, or think “I want the TV on” to turn the TV on. or think I want the dishwasher on and turn the dishwasher on. She also says the technology is easily overhyped. Last year Emotiv released a video of a paraplegic man driving a Formula 1 car, using just his brain and an Emotiv headset. The video went viral, partly because of how impressive it made the technology seem. But De Sa says we should be skeptical of what we’re seeing here. You can’t drive a car with your brain, and the driver in this video was probably only controlling certain elements.
Likely, In the case of the car, the car is taking care of maintaining speed, staying in the lane, avoiding hitting anything. And Emotiv’s headsets actually have a long way to go in just recording brain signals accurately. Think of how jerky the movement was when David tried to move that block. Specific brain signals can be really difficult to capture, and even with the latest EEG technology, we can’t see them quite clearly. It’s like looking at something through the shower glass where it’s frosted glass and it’s blurring everything out.
Still, the capabilities are enough that companies are developing systems to allow so-called Neurogamers to compete with their thoughts. And similar tech developed in other labs allows people to control artificial limbs with their minds. And maybe there’s more ahead. People like Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg and the entrepreneur Brian Johnson are developing brain control technology. Facebook is talking about a system where we will type with our thoughts. It sounds impossible, but it’s closer than you may realize. These are big names, with big money. But remember, right now, what the technology actually does is still pretty basic. Well, there you go! Still, the potential for harnessing the power of human thought is definitely exciting. And if the technology improves, one day, it could be big. I think that this moment, it’s an extremely exciting frontier that can truly transform our understanding of ourselves and also change the way we perceive our own limits as humans as well.