Even among those of us who aren't fluent in geek speak, most are at least casually familiar with the concepts of software and hardware: the digital ghost and the shell. But there is a third computer component without which the other two would be meaningless. We're talking about meatware,* or the tech that connects computers to the meaty organic components, aka you.
Today, we access the digital world various types of user interfaces (or a UI): keyboards, touchscreens, Kinect; anything that facilitates information transfer between flesh and silicon. And this tech works well enough. However, compared to the connectivity within a computer or within the brain, contemporary UIs are little more than annoying speed bumps along the road to the Matrix.
But fear not, future human batteries in training! Researchers from around the world are hard at work developing ways to mainline the virtual world directly into your brain. No middle man required. Here we present some of the coolest upcoming technology that will collapse the divide between meat and machine.
(*A more common term is "wetware," but "meatware" just sounds cooler. Let's make 2012 the year meatware happened. Literally.)
5. Computer-aided Telepathy
Professor Stephen Hawking is nearly as famous for his synthesized vox as he is for his many contributions to science. Mr. Hawking suffers from a condition known as Motor Neurone Disease (MND) and can only "talk" via a machine that he operates with twitches in his cheek muscles and eyeball movements. It's not ideal, but for now it is the only way one of the world's leading minds can communicate with those around him.
Unfortunately, the professor's health has been declining recently and he is reportedly no longer able to operate his iconic mechanical voice. Hawking is now collaborating with a team at Intel to develop a new communication method. One avenue the team is considering is "brain-wave scanning," which could translate the professor's thoughts directly into words. In other words: technology-aided telepathy. This may sound bizarre, but it's not that far off.
Researchers at Utah University have developed a system that can translate brain activity directly into spoken language. The team implanted 16 tiny electrodes into the brain of an epileptic patient who had part of his skull removed as part of a non-related operation to treat his condition. The researchers recorded the brain activity centered around known language centers in the brain as the patient repeated 10 basic words over and over again: yes, no, hot, cold, hungry, thirsty, hello, goodbye, more and less.
After gathering enough data, the team was able to decipher brain patterns for each word. When the team had the patient speak the words, the computer (with input from the electrodes, but no microphone) was able to decipher what he was saying with up to 90 percent accuracy. In a very rudimentary way, the computer read his thoughts.
This means what now? Forget these complaints about Siri's accent discrimination, in the future we won't need a microphone, keyboard or mouse to talk to our technology. Of course, a less petty utility will one day allow patients suffering from conditions similar to Professor Hawking to once again communicate with the world.
4. The Internet Feels Like This
Researchers at Duke University recently pulled off a strange proof-of-concept experiment in which they linked a digital interface directly to a test monkey's brain. Implants have been used in the past to "download" information from the brain, however this implant was designed to "upload" virtual (not based on any real world object) sensations the other way. In other words, researchers were able to fabricate tangible sensations of virtual objects. We all may soon have the ability to touch the Internet.
This means what now? This is the digitization of a whole new sense. Up until now, our interactions with technology have largely been through sight and sound. While there have been some attempts at work-around haptic interfaces, this represents a new frontier of digital interaction.
3. Meatware, Meet Hardware
In a related experiment to Duke University's virtual object sensation, a joint team of researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and Johns Hopkins have developed what has been dubbed a "thought-controlled" bionic arm. The mechanical arm is impressive in itself in that it can mimic many of the complex movements of the human hand. But this state-of-the-art mechanical limb can also link directly into the mind via a grid of electrodes placed on the surface of the brain. The arm can give users the ability to detect real-world phenomena such as weight, vibration, and temperature, and more amazingly is able to move under the control of brain activity. This revolutionary brain-computer interface represents a giant leap forward in creating a bilateral bridge over the meatware/hardware divide. Wider testing is ongoing.
This means what now? The most immediate application would be to replace the limbs of people who have lost theirs through combat, accident, or disease. But the same tech could theoretically be used to give humans direct control over various forms of robots and hardware.
2. Cyborg Brains For All
A Tel Aviv-based research team has developed a brain-computer interface that has given a rat to the ability to move after scientists paralyzed the little creature. The researches inserted a brain implant to act as a replacement cerebellum that can facilitate two-way communication between the brain and the body — and theoretically, directly into an outside piece of hardware.
This means what now? Once again, this research could help people with debilitating spinal or brain injuries re-connect with prosthetic (or possibly their natural) limbs. But it may also be another avenue for our brains to directly hook into our technology.
1. A Dreamcatcher, Literally
Researchers around the world are working on technology that could visualize human thoughts. One team from Japan's ATR Computational Neuroscience Laboratories has developed a technique using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) which maps blood flow within the brain in real time. By using this method, the team has been able to capture visualizations of data (thoughts) as the brain processes them.
As it turns out, your thoughts look somewhat like this:
Theoretically, this technique may one day be used to capture images of our dreams as we sleep.
More recently, researchers at the University of California, Berkley have used a similar fMRI technique to capture surreal moving images of visual data. If you ever wondered what Steve Martin looked like to your brain, check out the video above.
This means what now? If technology develops the ability to read directly from the brain, every thought could bring us the ability to access what our social circles think about a subject, what Wikipedia has collected, and what locals are tweeting about it. A literal global hive mind. Removing the barrier between mind and Internet could arguable alter the very definition of what it means to be human.
Sample still images taken directly from the brain via ATR.
More on The Future of Technology:
- 5 government agencies technology will make obsolete in the near future
- 3 science-based approaches to time travel that could actually work
- 13 critical steps that'll get our butts to Mars by the 2030s
- 3 radical nation-less visions for the future that aren't apocalyptic
- 8 next-gen haptic technologies that will let you feel-up the Web