So many traffic accidents are the result of a driver’s cognitive state: Are we distracted? Texting? Shaving? Putting makeup on? New to the road? Have we drunk one too many? Are we enraged? Dead tired?
What if driving became a more sophisticated technological experience, so that instead of relying on just the motorist, the car itself would be behind the wheel?
Recent advances in brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) are slowly turning this into a real possibility. BCIs enable direct communication between the brain and a computer, and thus, any external device. This is done using mechanisms that monitor our brain activity and translate this into language that computers can read.
As part of the organizing committee of Israel’s first ever International Brain Technology Conference, BrainTech Israel 2013, we are shining a spotlight on the wealth of opportunities that BCIs will introduce to the consumer and the way they will radically alter our world.
For now, most of the advances in BCI have been confined to the medical domain. For example, BCIs are typically used to assist people suffering from paralysis by reading their brain signals and translating them into actions carried out by external devices such as mechanical limbs. In other words, people can now control bionic arms and legs through thought alone.
But lately, BCIs are being developed into non-medical, consumer-facing products in which cognitive and emotional states are used as a source of data.
If we take the example of driving, the car could become the external device connected to a BCI. In other words, cars would be directly connected to our state of mind.
There are plenty of things that cars don’t currently know about drivers that they could know by using BCIs, and there seem to be plenty of ways this could improve the driving experience. It might be useful for a car to know that its driver is drowsy, for example. Attention levels, cognitive overload, and mood would also be very valuable for a car to monitor. Imagine if your car “knew” you were tired and automatically issued a loud warning, turned up the radio, rolled down the window and even pulled over if you failed to perk up. Imagine if the vehicle could sense your aggravation and adjusted your speed and other risk factors accordingly. The potential is endless, but first and foremost, BCIs could vastly impact the arena of safety systems, making cars exponentially safer.
Consumer-based BCIs are already being used in other fields, such as gaming. For example, a company called Emotiv makes joysticks and keyboards a thing of the past by creating “neuroheadsets” using the “telepathy” of BCIs to control computer games and other apps. These types of BCI headsets can also be used to create custom cognitive workouts to improve concentration and attention.
BCIs can also have a huge impact on Internet use and revolutionize social media. Soon enough we will be able to use BCIs to filter Picassa and Flickr so that we are only presented with photos that we are in the mood for at any given moment.
BCIs could also be used to filter Facebook posts according to our mood, so that we could, for instance, screen out bad news when we just don’t have the patience, allowing only niceties like cute cat videos to be posted on our walls. Directly transmitted status notifications about our moods are also not so farfetched. Neither are suites of emoticon-like icons that convey our brain-state or mood directly via BCI to our social media sites.
Another project involves the “neuro-tagging” of locations on a map, which in turn registers how people “feel” in different places, giving a whole new layer of meaning to the spots being tagged.
Search engine ranking systems will take on a whole new meaning as well. Whereas traditional search algorithms now include data about keywords, search patterns, semantic nets, website content and even website-related quality rankings such as dwell times, integrating BCIs would mean that data could now include the searcher’s mood, attention level, fatigue levels, and so on. Consequently, search results would be filtered to a greater degree of predicted relevancy to the user, and the content of those results – websites, information, facts, and images – would be better attuned to the cognitive state of the person searching. This would take relevancy to a whole new level.
Increases in technological development and an influx of investment in the field means that we can expect the use of consumer-facing BCI devices to become more dominant across a greater number of domains, such as electronic appliances, aviation, marketing, and retail. Since the personal data produced by BCIs will be far more accurate than any existing systems, expect these burgeoning brain-machine interfaces to be directly integrated into every endeavor known to humankind, as well as yet unexplored domains.
Dr. Amir Konigsberg is on the leadership team of Israel Brain Technologies, organizers of BrainTech Israel 2013.