- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 30, 2003

I’m charmed. I think. How could anyone not be charmed by a thought-controlled wheelchair that seems to actually work?

To answer the obvious and reasonable question, no, I haven’t been smoking anything strange. The story comes from New Scientist, the British journal of technology. It’s about thought control of hardware.

Quadriplegics would obviously like to be able to drive their wheelchairs. But how? They can move almost no parts of themselves. How do they then push buttons?

Over the years I’ve seen various approaches: tillers moved by the chin, photocells that tried to detect blinking of the eyes and so on.

Difficult, tiring and not too functional.

A thought that occurred to many was to implant electrodes in the brain that detect electrical activity in motor centers. This is both an interesting and a very bad idea. No one wants wires implanted in his or her head. Aside from the unpleasantness of the idea, invasive techniques can cause horrific problems later.

Well, what if you taped electrodes to the patient’s skull to pick up electrical signals inside? These are just little metal gadgets attached to wires. They don’t penetrate the skin. (Actually in this case the electrodes are in a skull cap.)

A nice idea, but would it work? Apparently it does, thanks to a group of European researchers.

The basic idea is that when you think of turning right, your brain generates certain signals. When you think of turning left, it generates others. The computer attached to the pickups in the skull cap distinguishes between the two, and causes the wheelchair to turn in the proper direction. It’s a simple concept. It is also a difficult one to make work.

“Early trials using a steerable robot indicate that with just two days’ training, it is as easy to control the robot with the human mind as it is manually,” reports New Scientist.

Now that, sez me, is truly slick.

At this point, the test system works for left, right, and straight ahead. It has judgment built into it to keep it from turning until various sensors tell it that it is possible to turn.

Thus if it is moving along a wall when the user, anticipating, thinks about turning, it waits to get to the door instead of turning into the wall.

The interesting question is how far the idea of controlling machines by mind can go. Scientists detest having their ideas turned into science fiction by journalists, and tend to minimize their predictions to avoid going beyond their evidence. Fair enough. But the question is worth thinking about.

Years back I went to a neurophysiology symposium at the National Institutes of Health. One of the speakers talked about controlling machinery by the mind.

The first question, he said, was how uniquely an electrical state is associated with a specific thought. The second was how well electronics could distinguish between different thoughts.

That is, when you think about typing the letter A, is the resultant electrical activity distinguishable from that involved in typing B?

He didn’t know, and in those days the electronics were not good enough to do the job. But they seem to be now.

How wild is the idea of giving quadriplegics mechanical arms that they could control mentally with ease and precision? It hasn’t been done, but it could happen.

Mental states might be used for things far removed from everyday experience, like controlling radar without hundreds of buttons.

This is way beyond running a simple wheelchair, and may never happen. On the other hand, in 1910 anyone could have told you that men would never walk on the moon.

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