It’s known as Mind-Machine-Interface, the ability to interface and control machines using only your mind. And thanks to a number of dedicated researchers in various fields, it’s no longer the stuff of science fiction. With mind-controlled prosthetics, bionic limbs, and the growing field of machine-enabled telepathy, the day may soon come when people can interface, access and control machinery with just a few thoughts.
But of course, that raises all kinds of concerns about invasive procedures, whether surgery will be needed in order to implant devices into the human brain that can translate brainwaves into commands. Alternately, where non-invasive means are involved, it can take some time to calibrate the machinery to respond to the user’s nerve impulses. As those awful infomercials say, “there has be a better way!”
As it turns out, electrical engineer Todd Coleman and his team at the University of California at San Diego has been working on a way to use wireless flexible electronics that one can apply on the forehead just like temporary tattoos. Building on the emerging field of biomedical electronics, these tattoos will be able to read brainwaves and allow a person to control electronic devices without the need for surgery or permanent implants.
The devices are less than 100 microns thick, the average diameter of a human hair, and consist of circuitry embedded in a layer or rubbery polyester that allow them to stretch, bend and wrinkle. The devices can detect electrical signals linked with brain waves and incorporate solar cells for power and antennas that allow them to communicate wirelessly or receive energy.
Of course, other elements can be added as well, like thermal sensors to monitor skin temperature and light detectors to analyze blood oxygen levels, making it both a health monitoring patch and a fully-integrated control device. Combined with health patches that are being developed for use internally, an entire health network can be created that allows for every aspect of a patients health to monitored in real-time, anticipating and predicting health problems before they flare up.
Currently, Coleman and his colleagues are pursuing the application of using these patches to monitor premature babies to detect the onset of seizures that can lead to epilepsy or brain development problems. The devices are also being commercialized for use as consumer, digital health, and medical device. But the potential for their use is staggering, even alarming.
For example, these devices can also be put on other parts of the body, such as the throat. When people think about talking, their throat muscles move even if they do not speak, a phenomenon known as subvocalization. Electronic tattoos placed on the throat could therefore behave as subvocal microphones through which people could communicate silently and wirelessly to each other.
However, a more alarming application is in the industrial and defense field, which is being pursued by the startup MC10 in Cambridge, Mass. In the course of their research, Coleman and his colleagues found that individuals who were hooked up to a computer through large caps studded with electrodes were able to remotely control airplanes and a UAV over cornfields in Illinois. Such is not possible with these tattoos at present, but Coleman admits that he and his colleagues are “working on it”.
But even more alarming than this is the long term implications of what this could mean for us as a species, which is that electronics could one-day enable wireless peer-to-peer brain communication – aka. machine-enabled telepathy. With devices that can read and transmit brainwaves and vocal information, it would no longer be necessary for people to use radios, phones, email, or any other means of communication to talk to one another.
Simply tune in, subvocalize or think what you want to convey – and boom! instant messaging and perfected! Lord knows the art of diplomacy might suffer, and we can forget about sarcasm, tact, or shades of meaning. Society may very well breakdown or people will just have to grow thicker skin as everyone is forced to communicate what they really think to each other!