Brain-computer interface

A brain-computer interface (BCI) or direct neural interface is literally a direct technological interface between a brain and a computer not requiring any motor output from the user. That is, neural impulses in the brain are intercepted and used to control an electronic device. This is a rather broad, ill-defined term used to describe many versions of conventional and theoretical interfaces. For purposes of this term, the word 'brain' is understood to imply the physical brain of an organic life form and 'computer' is understood to imply a mechanical/technological processing/computational device. These semantic notations are crucial in the contemplation of a direct brain-computer interface, as there is great debate in the philosophy of mind regarding the reduction of consciousness and mind to the physical qualities of the brain.


BCI foundations

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Example of a BCI

Many versions of brain-computer interfaces already exist, with a great deal of neuroscience, robotics, and computer science research currently dedicated to furthering these technologies. Recent achievements demonstrate that it is currently possible to implement crude brain-computer interfaces (brain dishes) that allow in vitro neuronal clusters to directly control computers. Miguel Nicolelis has also used the vector sum of motor cortical neuron spiking - recorded directly from the cortex of monkeys - as a BCI. This design allowed a monkey to navigate a computer cursor on screen simply by thinking about moving the cursor, without any motor output from the monkey.

Human BCI research

There have also been experiments in humans utilizing modern invasive and non-invasive brain imaging technologies as interfaces. The most commonly studied potential interface for humans has been electroencephalography (EEG), mainly due to its fine temporal resolution, ease of use, portability, and cost of set-up. However practical use of EEG as a BCI requires a great deal of user training and is highly susceptible to noise. Magnetoencephalography (MEG) and even functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) have both been used successfully as rudimentary BCIs, in the latter case allowing two users being scanned in real-time to play Pong against one another by altering their haemodynamic response through various biofeedback techniques.

Practical BCIs

There has been great success in using cochlear implants in humans as a treatment for non-congenital deafness. There is also promising research in vision science indicating retinal implants may some day prove to be similarly successful in treating non-congenital blindness. Outside the realm of treatment, there has also been success in reconstructing an individual's view of a visual scene from the electrical impulses recorded from that person's visual cortex.

Theme in fiction

Direct neural interface devices were the prominent feature of the popular Matrix film series, wherein humanity was enslaved by artificially intelligent robots in a virtual world piped directly into people's brains. These interfaces are an extremely common element of cyberpunk fiction, often characterised as "control of hardware at speed of thought". In the meme wars novels of John Barnes, direct mind-computer interface permits the emergence of a hegemonic collective mind called One True.

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