Controlling the Body and Mind with Brain-Computer Interfaces

By Wesley Fenlon

Would you take over someone else's body with a brain-computer interface?

Brain-computer interfaces are inspiring. They're an incredible showcase of technology, displaying more understanding of the brain than we had a decade ago. They allow us to overcome adversity by augmenting our own bodies with machines. And they allow us to control machines, which we always enjoy. But what if we were controlling other people with them, instead? Bye bye inspiring, hello, creepy.

Turns out such a thing is possible. In a recent Nautilus article on brain-computer interfaces, author Richard Martin writes "BCI’s capability of mentally powering another object also has potential for technology that intrudes on individual freedom. This was confirmed in late August, when [professor Rajesh] Rao used a BCI to control one person’s hand with another’s mind. Wearing a cap that was studded with electrodes and an electroencephalography (EEG) reader, Rao imagined himself moving his right hand to fire a weapon in a video game on his screen. Across campus, the right hand of his colleague, wearing a similar array and connected via the Internet, moved. It was just a finger-twitch, but it portended much more."

Photo credit: University of Washington

Your worst sci-fi fears flashing before your eyes? It's definitely eerie to think about brain-computer interfaces controlling us and not the other way around, but thankfully the technology is still primarily being put to good use. Brain-computer interfaces present some ethical conundrums, but we're also discovering new and exciting ways to use them.

Martin mentions another study using brain-computer interfaces on rats which improved their long-term memory. Scientists at the University of Southern California implanted chips into memory-impaired rats, then "could retrieve memories with the help of a BCI that “downloads” the previously recorded neural firing pattern associated with a specific memory—such as pulling the correct lever to obtain a piece of food. Essentially, Berger has given the animals an artificial hippocampus, laying the groundwork for creating technology that downloads false memories."

There's also no need to worry about brain-computer interfaces reading our actual thoughts, at least anytime soon. Picking up on neural impulses is possible, but interpreting and recreating thoughts, feelings, memories, is not. Check out the full Nautilus article for more on the current progress of BCI.