By placing electrode grids inside patients' skulls, researchers at the Mayo Clinic have created a way for people to type words using only their brainwaves. It's a major breakthrough for brain-computer interface research.
The experiments were undertaken on patients who already had electrodes in their brain to monitor epilepsy. Readings were taken via electrocorticography (ECoG), as the subjects were shown a grid of letters and numbers. As each symbol was illuminated, the patient was told to focus on the letter or number, and data was recorded. Once this calibration data was taken, the patients would think of a letter or number, and their brain waves would be appropriately translated to the screen. The theory is that this technique will allow people to communicate and type far more easily when they suffer from Lou Gehrig's disease, MS, or paralysis.
The lead scientist on the project, Dr. Jerry Shih, says the program is able to perform near or at 100% accuracy for the patients. While this isn't far from the results from studies using non-invasive EEG, Shih believes that ECoG has advantages, as the scalp and skull distort the information coming from the brain, which means that ECoG has potential to be faster and more accurate. Shih also said that with EEG, "the accuracy isn't terribly great, and it takes a long time for the computer system to learn an individual's brain signals and to correctly interpret."
It is early days yet, and there are still numerous hurdles for the research. The initial study was only with two patients, but they're now on to the sixth, with plans for a wider study, to ensure that this technique is universally applicable. Shih's system does require a craniotomy, which is not a surgery to be taken on a whim; and an interpreter device is required, which must be tuned to an individual user. There is also the fact that EEG based interfaces don't require the invasive surgery, and are similarly accurate, even if they are slower and not quite as precise. So in terms of market adoption, the implant is at a disadvantage. Most people would be willing to deal with the speed loss to avoid dangerous procedures.
Shih is currently working on ensuring the method's effectiveness. He believes it could be used for controlling prosthetics as well as typing. It could also possibly be trained with images instead of letters. Imagine an item, and an image or word for it would appear on your screen.
The device could be available in as little as 5-10 years.
It's just a matter of time before this technology filters down from medical to elective, and we can all live out our cyberpunk dreams of plugging our brains directly into a computer.