WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
As we continue to unravel the mysteries of our brain and how it operates we will inevitably be able to harness it and use it to communicate, control and interact directly with the people and things around us, and in us.
Earlier this week a pilot – an extremely lucky pilot called Jack Stewart got to fly above the clouds, but this flight was different. This flight was a first. Because he used nothing more than his brainwaves to control the aircraft.
The weather above Washington State was ideal, a clear afternoon with a few scattered clouds dotting the sky and low wind speeds. Jack’s instructor for the day was a chap called Mike Dubbury, one of Honeywell’s senior test pilots and the plane in question was a Beechcraft King Air C90. In his own words Jack says that he found it hard to relax – not just because he’d never flown a plane before, which makes this feat even more remarkable, but because he was going to be flying the plane without touching the controls, by thought alone.
Santosh Mathan, a neurotechnology researcher at Honeywell Aerospace, who invented the system wired him Jack up, putting a blue BCI skull cap on his head – the kind you see littering most Universities these days – and threading 32 electrodes through the cap directly onto Jacks scalp. The cap, and all of the cables attached to it communicates directly with a Honeywell brain computer interface system that’s built into the plane, and despite its potential complexity Honeywell appear to have done a fantastic job of simplifying it. The system, which took twelve years to create, interprets patterns of electrical activity in the brain, watching for certain signals or patterns that almost anyone can produce with a few minutes of training and then translates those patterns into commands to climb or bank left or drop a few thousand feet.
It’s like watching Atari in the 1980’s
This is one of the key reasons why Jack, an untrained pilot could use the system in the first place.
“We saw control of an aircraft as a nice target in order to develop, refine, and test our neurotechnology,” says Mathan.
As the plane taxi’s along the runway Mathan gives Jack the instruction to climb. The key to getting this technology to work is focus, which is sometimes easier said than done, but in this case Jack was given a screen which had arrows for up, down, left, and right, and a level flight indicator in the center. As Jack focused on a specific “direction” a green box flashed around the command and the plane responded accordingly.
The gallery was not found!
When the box surrounds the command in question, Jacks’ brain created an electrical signal called an event-related potential, minuscule 10 microvolt cues that aren’t easy to spot but when the computer has registered several in a row, which can take up to 10 seconds to achieve, it responds accordingly, swooping through clouds, climbing, diving, flying in circles, all at his whim.
Brain computer interfaces have come along leaps and bounds recently, while they’ve been able to control cursors on screens for years they’re increasing being used to control in vitro drug delivery nanobots, help us communicate with each other via telepathy, help quadriplegics communicate and help paralysed people feel but they’re by no means perfect yet and certainly not ready for prime time.
“I wouldn’t depend on this to fly a plane in a fast-paced scenario where you’re trying to dodge cliffs or other planes, but it’s definitely an interesting example – how often will it do the right thing within a reasonable amount of time?” said neuroscientist Beata Jarosiewicz, who’d worked on the project at Brown University and Stanford University.
Even implantable sensors don’t match up to the accuracy and speed of natural human movement. Not yet, anyway. Darpa keeps a close eye on this space, and Jarosiewicz says that yes, someday, people might control electronics as naturally as their own muscles.
Still, the pilots of the future will not fly by thought – as cool as that would be, we’re already moving beyond that point. It’s a high-risk, low-return use for the technology. The planes of tomorrow will fly themselves, without plugs connected to human heads, although that said while this superb system allowed Jack, an untrained pilot to fly the aircraft in the future, as scientists have already demonstrated, he’ll just be able to upload the knowledge of how to fly up into his brain, and voila.
Have fun when that happens…