Brain-Machine Interface (BMI): Something to Think About

Today is the 206th birthday of Charles Darwin. To commemorate this Darwin Day, which also happens to fall on a (Throwback) Thursday, here is an article I wrote back in 2009 on a brain-machine interface, evolution, and the future of Homo Sapiens. Enjoy!

Brain-Machine Interface (BMI)Technology is doing more than changing the way we live. Technology is changing the way we are.

Earlier this month, I wrote about new, bi-directional, head’s up eyeglasses that could change the way we look at (and through) our computers. In that article, I mentioned that since my days of programming early microprocessors by loading machine code via toggle switches, I have joked that I wanted a DWIW opcode (Do What I Want).

Brain-machine Interface

Well, mind reading technology, known as a “brain-machine interface”, is a lot closer to reality than I had realized.

Yesterday, InformationWeek reported that,

“Toyota researchers in Japan have built a brain-machine interface (BMI) that has been demonstrated to control a wheelchair using a person’s thoughts.”

And Toyota is not the only player in the BMI space.  On March 31 of this year, Honda released a video demonstration of its BMI technology that allowed researchers to command a robot to do one of several commands simply by thinking about it.

This YouTube video shows a researcher demonstrating the use of the BMI-controlled wheelchair.

Researchers indicate that with this wheelchair application, they are able to attain a mind-recognition accuracy of about 95%.  This is already an improvement over Honda’s demonstration of 90% accuracy just three months ago.

Something to Think About

I’m 50 years old.  I started dabbling with analog electronics, soldering together discrete transistor (and even a few vacuum tube!) projects in the early ’70s.  By the mid-70’s I was into digital electronics and was dabbling with flip-flops, counters, gates, and the very new, and hyper-cool early microprocessor and memory chips.

In high school, I had access to Western Michigan University’s DEC-10 systems and I started learning about software.  And I started imagining what the world might be like in “the future” when I was “old” (like, say, 50) and CPUs were “thousands of times faster”, RAM and disk storage “thousands of times bigger.”  I remember many a conversation—with my dad, my friends, a few teachers—about how one day, computers will be everywhere doing amazing things for us like storing all of our music, books, photos, recipes, medical records, and doing amazing calculations for us like mapping routes between cities, forecasting the weather, generating 3-D graphics, etc.

In college, I studied all the usual computer engineering subjects—software architectures, compiler construction, computer graphics, etc.—but a few topics really resonated: artificial intelligence, robotics, and one that came as quite a surprise to me, an engineering philosophy course taught by Henryk Skolimowski.  Those got me to thinking about how all this technology is more than just gadgets and tools.  Technology shapes the way we live.

Technology not only shapes the way we live, it shapes the way we are.

Then sometime around 1982 or so, I read Douglas Hofstadter’s wonderful Gödel, Escher Back—A Metaphorical Fugue on Minds and Machines in the Spirit of Lewis Carroll. And shortly thereafter, Richard Dawkin’s The Selfish Gene.  Those authors got me thinking about how the line between minds and machines is very blurry.  Technology not only shapes the way we live, it shapes the way we are.

And by “the way we are,” I mean our very nature as human beings.  We have been evolving for millions of years—or billions of years depending on where you choose to start the clock.  But the point is, we’ve been evolving for a long time… slowly.  But we, as a species, are on the cusp of something very different.  We are in a position, for the first time in our history (and perhaps the first time in all history), to take conscious control of our own evolution.

Transcending Moore's Law To some degree, we have been doing this for a while.  For example, its no longer necessary to be born with a resistance to polio, or rubella, or pertussis in order to survive childhood.  We have engineered vaccines that allow us to work around those issues. It is no longer (absolutely) necessary to have good heart valves, or kidneys, to live a relatively long and happy life.  But today, our technologies are letting us manipulate ourselves at much more fundamental levels—DNA manipulation, nanotechnologies, and now, the brain-machine interface.  At the same time, we are Transcending Moore’s Law, driving computing power exponentially upward.

In this context, I recently finished reading Hofstadter’s latest book, I Am a Strange Loop, in which he refines and expands on the arguments he made in GEB, that the line between minds and machines is blurry because there may, in fact, be no line at all.

When I think of the changes we’ve seen just since I was 8 years old, it is pretty staggering.  But the rate of change has been, and is likely to remain, exponential.  My kids are 8 and 6 (and 6).  I wonder what (human) life will be like when they are 50.  I suspect it will be very, very different than today.  And when their kids are 50?  Radically different.

How radically different?  Possibly, different enough to merit a new name.  And that name has already been proposed: Homo Evolutis.  Crazy?  Maybe.  But watch the Juan Enriquez TED talk on mind-boggling science.  It’s pretty sane.

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