Texting Without Typing

Two years ago, I was dating a lovely young lady working her way toward medical school. She was working part-time in a lab, assisting a post-doc with research in electroencephalography, measuring and analyzing brain waves. One day, I was invited to tour the lab and experience some of their work first-hand. I say “experience” instead of “see” or “observe” because it was very much a hands-on experience, and a fascinating one at that. She sat me down in a chair in front of a computer with a grid of letters on it and showed me what looked like a lunch lady hair net designed by a steampunk technophile.

“This is what we’ll use to read your mind”, she said. “Just kidding. It can’t do that quite yet.”

It had a bunch of electrodes woven into it, each of which had a wire attached to it. The wires bundled together at the back, like a ponytail, and snaked away to a data acquisition unit with what looked like at least 64 channels. Once the hair net was strapped on, she started squirting electrolytic gel into each electrode. They use the same gel used by ultrasound technicians, so anyone who’s ever had an ultrasound knows a little about what I’m talking about here. It’s cold, slippery, and slightly sticky. It has special electrical properties to help reduce noise in the signals.

“Ok, now stare at the grid of letters. When we start, you’ll see cursors advancing through the grid. Just focus on one letter at a time and be patient,” she said. “Here we go.”

I watched as two cursors stepped quickly through the grid. I thought of the letter D. After about ten seconds, the test completed, and the letter D displayed in the output field.

“Oh, that’s fucking badass,” I said. We continued.

As the tests proceeded, the scientist part of me wanted to start performing experiments and try to find the weaknesses in the current system. It wasn’t flawless, but I was amazed at its ability to guess correctly most of the time. Guess is the wrong word. The machine was interpreting electrical activity in my brain and using that information to determine, with impressive accuracy, something that seems impossible – my thoughts.

“Now for the fun part,” she said, as she switched from one app to another on the laptop. “This one lets you free-form the letters. We needed to calibrate it for your brain with the other one. Try to spell a sentence.”

A few minutes later, I had spelled “this is cool” on the display, without touching the keyboard or saying anything out loud. With nothing but this strange looking hair net, stuck to my scalp with cold sticky gel, I had written a sentence.

Fast forward to today. Since that experience, someone has used similar technology to draft a tweet. It won’t be long before researchers find a way to interact with the brain without the sticky hair net wired to a laptop. Eventually, we’ll be able to message each other with a thought. To me, this represents an enormous challenge to the tool makers. Someone will be given the herculean task of designing a tool that allows people to share thoughts with others, message each other, and (most importantly) filter out the garbage. If you think Twitter or Facebook have a low signal-to-noise ratio now, imagine how much worse that would be when it’s downloaded right into your brain. The current privacy filters Facebook has integrated will not be sufficient to control this level of connectedness.

I don’t fully believe we can imagine a system that will be able to manage these issues. Mostly, I believe this is an emergent behavior, not something designed by a master architect. This is the realm of tools catching up to the creativity and innovation of average citizens, some of whom randomly start trends like the retweet, the mention, the hashtag, the overheard, and other yet-undiscovered trends. This is also a social construct, governed by rules that transcend technology. Social pressures will undoubtedly weigh heavily in the decisions of the collective minds of the community. Drunk tweeting evolves into drunk electrotelepathy, but both are equally embarrassing. As Hollywood has shown us time and time again, though, your brain is a very intimate place, and it’s very easy to see how something like this could cross the boundary from harassment into something that has no name yet, but could be described as the virtual extension of rape.

As this technology evolves, we must be vigilant in our protections of individual rights and the philosophy of “just because we can doesn’t mean we should.” After all, what does it say of us when we develop technology to allow a man to ask his wife with his mind to grab him a beer instead of promoting that the man simply get off his lazy ass and get his own damn beer? Still, my creative mind races with potentially beneficial uses for this tech, but that is a story for another time.