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Friday, September 15, 2017

Brain-Machine Interface Isn't Sci-Fi Anymore | WIRED - Backchannel

"Thomas Reardon puts a terrycloth stretch band with microchips and electrodes woven into the fabric—a steampunk version of jewelry—on each of his forearms. “This demo is a mind fuck,” says Reardon, who prefers to be called by his surname only" continues WIRED.

Thomas Reardon talks with his staff.
Photo: Alex Welsh

He sits down at a computer keyboard, fires up his monitor, and begins typing. After a few lines of text, he pushes the keyboard away, exposing the white surface of a conference table in the midtown Manhattan headquarters of his startup. He resumes typing. Only this time he is typing on…nothing. Just the flat tabletop. Yet the result is the same: The words he taps out appear on the monitor.

That’s cool, but what makes it more than a magic trick is how it’s happening. The text on the screen is being generated not by his fingertips, but rather by the signals his brain is sending to his fingers. The armband is intercepting those signals, interpreting them correctly, and relaying the output to the computer, just as a keyboard would have. Whether or not Reardon’s digits actually drum the table is irrelevant—whether he has a hand is irrelevant—it’s a loop of his brain to machine. What’s more, Reardon and his colleagues have found that the machine can pick up more subtle signals—like the twitches of a finger—rather than mimicking actual typing.

You could be blasting a hundred words a minute on your smart phone with your hands in your pockets. In fact, just before Reardon did his mind-fuck demo, I watched his cofounder, Patrick Kaifosh, play a game of Asteroids on his iPhone. He had one of those weird armbands sitting between his wrist and his elbows. On the screen you could see Asteroids as played by a decent gamer, with the tiny spaceship deftly avoiding big rocks and spinning around to blast them into little pixels. But the motions Kaifosh was making to control the game were barely perceptible: little palpitations of his fingers as his palm lay flat against the tabletop. It seemed like he was playing the game only with mind control. And he kind of was.

2017 has been a coming-out year for the Brain-Machine Interface (BMI), a technology that attempts to channel the mysterious contents of the two-and-a-half-pound glop inside our skulls to the machines that are increasingly central to our existence. The idea has been popped out of science fiction and into venture capital circles faster than the speed of a signal moving through a neuron. Facebook, Elon Musk, and other richly funded contenders, such as former Braintree founder Bryan Johnson, have talked seriously about silicon implants that would not only merge us with our computers, but also supercharge our intelligence. But CTRL-Labs, which comes with both tech bona fides and an all-star neuroscience advisory board, bypasses the incredibly complicated tangle of connections inside the cranium and dispenses with the necessity of breaking the skin or the skull to insert a chip—the Big Ask of BMI. Instead, the company is concentrating on the rich set of signals controlling movement that travel through the spinal column, which is the nervous system’s low-hanging fruit.

Source: WIRED

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