Right now, at this very moment, machines exist that can respond to your thoughts, and I don’t mean those dinky “practice telepathy” Skymall toys. Using electrodes implanted in the brain or even just sensors outside the head, we can now get machines you can move as naturally as moving your own arm, with a little practice. The technology that makes this possible is called a brain-machine interface, (or sometimes a brain-computer interface, or direct neural interfaces) and it just means something that lets a machine receive signals from the brain.
Such machines may seem like a pointless extravagance, but the truth is that they’re changing the lives of the paralyzed and severely disabled. For example, watch this incredible video to see a paralyzed woman pick up and drink a bottle of water on her own for the first time in 11 years – and this happened way back in 2012!
Nowadays we have prosthetic limbs that you can feel moving like a natural limb, and implants that let those who can’t move control off-the-shelf tablet computers entirely with their minds – sending emails and shopping on Amazon. Slowly but surely, brain-machine interfaces are changing the world. World-famous entrepreneur Elon Musk himself has gotten in on the action with his new company Neuralink, which is dedicated entirely to developing brain-machine interfaces.
Neuralink and other companies like it are currently focused on helping the disabled, but futurists predict this technology could eventually prove useful to most everyone. In a recent paper, from February 2018, scientists were able to reconstruct images people were seeing using only an fMRI machine (a big medical sensor) and an artificial neural network. The results are fuzzy but still represent an incredible breakthrough. Technology like this could be used to capture memories for storage in a new way, bypassing the need for cameras. Imagine sharing an image from your imagination that you can never seem to describe quite right – or presenting the police with the image of your mugger.
It’ll probably be a long while yet before brain-machine interfaces become anything like a consumer product, but they do exist, and they’re changing the way people can interact with the world. For those who can’t easily move about, they can open up possibilities that had seemed lost forever. Hopefully, they’ll eventually open up new worlds for all of us.