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View Brain-computer interfaces

A brain-computer interface (BCI), sometimes called a direct neural interface or a brain-machine interface, is a direct communication pathway between a brain and an external device. BCIs are aimed at assisting, augmenting or repairing human cognitive or sensory-motor functions.

Research on BCIs began in the 1970s under a grant from the National Science Foundation followed by contracting from DARPA. The field has since blossomed spectacularly, mostly toward neuroprosthetics applications that aim at restoring damaged hearing, sight, and movement. Following years of animal experimentation, the first neuroprosthetic devices implanted in humans appeared in the mid-nineties.

Monkeys have navigated computer cursors on screen and commanded robotic arms to perform simple tasks simply by thinking about the task and without any motor output. Tetraplegic Matt Nagle became the first human to control an artificial robotic hand in 2005, and his implant also allowed him to control a computer cursor, lights, and TV.

BCIs exist as invasive, partially invasive, and non-invasive devices. Electroencephalography (EEG), magnetoencephalography (MEG) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) have been used as non-invasive BCIs.

There are three main consumer-devices commercial-competitors BCIs which are going to launch such devices primarily for gaming and PC users:
* Neural Impulse Actuator
* Emotiv Systems (Summer, 2009)
* NeuroSky

Emotiv’s EPOC headset can detect emotions, expressions, certain thoughts, and track the player’s excitement level and allow manipulation of objects on the screen purely through thought.

The United States military has begun to explore possible applications of BCIs beginning in 2008 to enhance troop performance, as well as a possible development by adversaries.

Discussion about the ethical implications of BCIs has been relatively muted. This may be because the research holds great promise in the fight against disability and BCI researchers have yet to attract the attention of animal rights groups. It may also be because BCIs are being used to acquire signals to control devices rather than the other way around, although vision research is the exception to this.

This ethical debate is likely to intensify as BCIs become more technologically advanced and it becomes apparent that they may not just be used therapeutically but for human enhancement. Today’s brain pacemakers, which are already used to treat neurological conditions such as depression, could become a type of BCI and be used to modify other behaviors. Neurochips could also develop further, for example the artificial hippocampus, raising issues about what it actually means to be human.

Some of the ethical considerations that BCIs would raise under these circumstances are already being debated in relation to brain implants and the broader area of mind control.

In the future, BCIs will have many more applications. For instance, they could be used to record and share dreams. BCIs could greatly increase productivity or allow the manipulation of data by thought alone.


Sources:
Brain-Computer Interfaces for Manipulating Dreams
The Realities of Tomorrow (and today)
Wikipedia on Brain-computer interfaces

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