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   The Choice is Yours
 The Choice
 is Yours

Brain-Machine Interfaces -- An Update

by Gregor Wolbring

February 15, 2009

I covered brain machine interfaces for the first time in 2006. So what has happened since then?

In that column, I highlighted brain machine projects in Australia, the United States, Austria, Japan, Finland, Germany, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, China and Taiwan. Here, here, here, here, here, here, and here are some recent write-ups from 2008. There are still two main approaches. Some investigators use non-invasive procedures to advance brain machine interfaces -- in  Switzerland, Taiwan and Canada. Others plan to use highly invasive procedures including researchers from Osaka University (Japan)  who use open-skull surgery, placing electrode sheets directly on the surface of the brain to achieve real-time mind-controlled robotic limbs (here and here).

Some of the challenges for brain machine interfaces are “the development of biocompatible electrodes capable of long-term, stable recording of brain activity and implantable amplifiers and signal processors that are sufficiently resistant to noise and artifact to faithfully transmit recorded signals to the external environment.” However, a first-generation commercial brain-computer interface (BCI) was released by Emotiv System (see here and here) in December 2008.

Other gaming-related Brain Machine Interfaces are described here, here. A DNA switch 'nanoactuator' has been developed by Dr. Keith Firman at the University of Portsmouth and other European researchers, which can interface living organisms with computers.

The Audeo from Ambient is a human-computer interface developed in the United States in collaboration with the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and the University of Illinois, supported by the National Center for Supercomputing Applications and National Instruments. which is envisioned as a device to enable communication without the need for physical motor control or speech production.

As the webpage states: “Using signal processing, unpronounced speech representing the thought of the mind can be translated from intercepted neurological signals.” “The proposed solution is a featherweight wireless device resting over the vocal cords capable of transmitting neurological information from the brain." The webpage states “that the device has shown the ability to produce continuous speech with high accuracy from the neurological signals”, and wheelchair control was also achieved through this device.

The Audeo is envisioned by some as a sub-vocal chat device for gaming purposes. “Of course, videogame apps will be offered if there is sufficient interest and demand. Imagine a videogame adaptation of Ender’s Game where players navigate the interface sub-vocally … Or how about a game the speech impaired can play as well as others? Or how about a military immersion training that users control on several levels, including vocally, hand-eye, and sub-vocally? The possibilities are intriguing.”

The Choice is Yours

The field is moving more slowly than expected in some areas, but faster in others. Papers are now appearing that look at the ethics of brain machine interfaces -- see here, here, and here. As in 2006, however, there has not been much public discussion of the implications of brain machine interfaces; the amount of public R&D funding they receive; and control, and access to these devices. Also no discourse exist that thematizes for which purposes brain machine interfaces should and should not be used. The examples cited above go far beyond supporting the ‘disabled.’

Gregor Wolbring is an Assistant Professor at the University of Calgary. He is Affiliated Scholar, Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University, USA; Part Time Professor, Faculty of Law, University of Ottawa Canada; Adjunct Faculty Critical Disability Studies, York University, Canada. He is a science and technology governance scholar, a disability/vari-ability/ability studies scholar, and a health policy and science and technology studies researcher. He is a member of the Center for Nanotechnology and Society at Arizona State University. He is the Chair of the Bioethics Taskforce of Disabled People's International. He publishes the Bioethics, Culture and Disability website, authors a weblog on NBICS and its social implications and on  
Ableism and Ability Ethics and Governance  and contributes to the What Sorts of People blog.

© Gregor Wolbring, All Rights Reserved, 2009. Please contact the author for permission to reprint.


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