Brain Hacking

I just saw this article about the potential to involuntarily extract information from someone’s brain using an off-the-shelf brain-computer interface (BCI) such as the systems that we’ve previously blogged about and decided to take a quick side track from our Interface/Off series to address it. The idea is to use an electroencephalograph (aka EEG) headset and process the measurements when the subject thinks about various subjects to extract meaningful data. In the study referenced in the article, which was performed by researchers from UC Berkeley, Oxford and the University of Geneva, the data that was extracted included ATM PIN numbers and home addresses.

I find these results to be fascinating, exciting and a little bit disconcerting. Despite the imperfect success rate of this initial study (10-40% chance of obtaining useful information), it is clear that the potential exists to cross a threshold of human privacy that has never been violated – the sanctity of private thought. Obviously, this has the potential to change the world in fairly fundamental ways. I don’t actually think that we are on the cusp of a time in which your thoughts can be plucked out of your head right and left (if nothing else, I believe the necessity of the subject wearing an EEG headset is a limitation that is unlikely to be surmounted any time soon), but these results bring up a really interesting discussion about the ethics of progress.

This is not a new debate – people have been arguing over the benefits and drawbacks of scientific and technological development for centuries, in contexts from economic (robots will steal our jobs!) to medical (cloning, gene therapy, etc.) to apocalyptic (nuclear, biological and chemical weapons). However, a significant difference in this version of the debate is the ubiquity of this technology. I frequently write on this blog about how exciting and powerful I find it that the tools and materials to develop smart products and mechatronic systems are so accessible and inexpensive but this can be a double-edged sword when the resulting technology has the potential for misuse or abuse. For example, the Emotiv and Neurosky BCIs cost around $200-300, including access to their APIs.

I think this post is already long enough, so instead of getting into a detailed look at the philosophy and ethics of science and engineering, I’ll just give my two cents on the big picture and leave it there for now. I think that it is impossible and usually counter-productive to try to restrict development of science or technology, all the more so when there are not natural barriers (such as enormous capital requirements). I also believe that there is inherent good in the pursuit and acquisition of knowledge. However, I think that as a scientist or a developer / engineer, we have a responsibility to let our work be guided by our personal morals and ethics. Hopefully this is enough to ensure that none of us have to worry about stolen thoughts any time soon.

Interface/Off (Part 2): Touch-Based Systems

In my last post, I set the stage for a multi-post look at the future of smart product interfaces. To recap briefly, I believe that interface technology is at a really interesting point, where older approaches such as the keyboard and mouse are being superseded by new possibilities. However, there are lots of options and I thought it would be worth looking at some of the major contenders to understand the pros and cons of each and see if any look particularly well-suited to become as ubiquitous as keyboards were. In today’s post, I look at the simplest class: touch-based systems.

Physical Buttons
The simplest touch-based interface is a physical button, whether used as an on/off switch, a part of a keyboard, or otherwise. They are simple, cheap, reliable and well-understood, both by users and system designers. However, they are static and immutable – you can’t make them disappear when you don’t need them and you can’t really change how they look or what they do. They offer very limited versatility and are often not the cleanest or most elegant solution.

Touch Sensors
At the next level up in sophistication are discrete touch sensors (usually capacitive) – picture a lamp with no switch that you can touch anywhere to actuate. The use of capacitive and other types of touch sensors can liberate designers from some button-placement restrictions but that is about the extent of the benefits. Most of these sensors are binary (either on or off; no other states) and again offer limited versatility as their function cannot easily be changed during operation.

Touch Screens
Continuing the trend towards increasing complexity brings us to touch screens, which are essentially just an array of touch sensors overlaid on a display. The monumental benefit of this approach is the versatility enabled by the screen – the same “button” (or area of the screen) can have an infinite number of purposes if the system merely changes what the user sees. However, touch screens have their limitations as well – their inherent 2D-ness requires a level of abstraction to map the real, 3D world and they have some proximity restrictions (the user has to be close enough to physically touch them).

The smart phone revolution of the last few years has given us a powerful illustration of how useful and popular touch screens can become and I think that they are by far the most powerful interface currently available at a production level of sophistication and usability. However, in my next post I will start getting into some new technologies that are quickly advancing and could supplant touch screens in the not-too-distant future.