Long before there was Firefox, the browser, there was Firefox : the fictional Soviet cold war era fighter aircraft around which Craig Thomas had crafted a wonderful techno-thriller novel that had introduced the idea of controlling machines by thought.
Twenty years later when I was writing my book on Vedanta the idea had cropped up again as I tried to reconcile reality with the idea of a maya or illusions. This was in the context of virtual worlds like Second Life and and it was my belief that these advanced technologies would one day blur the borders between the real and the virtual.
But even while I was writing these, I had always felt that perhaps the usage of these technologies was way, way into the future and it is perhaps unlikely that I would get to see these being applied in my daily life.
No more !!
Given the rapid speed at which this technology is maturing I believe that we will see early versions of these technology being deployed in the next five years. Why do I say so ? Consider the following ...
As early as December 2006, the University of Washington has demonstrated the feasibility of using thoughts to control a robot. See Researchers demonstrate direct brain control of humanoid robot or if you want more detail read this page.
Even earlier, Kevin Warwick at the University of Reading had worked out the technology of picking up neural signals from the body and using them to actuate mechanical devices.
But what is really interesting -- and what is in my mind a giant step forward in thought control / thought reading -- is the breaking of the "content barrier". As reported in Newsweek researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have developed the necessary expertise to distinguish between various pieces of thought ! After a reasonable amount of training, it is now possible to determine whether a subject is thinking about a hammer or a drill or a castle or an igloo and so on .. In fact, the prospect of reading thoughts by decoding brain activity patterns is no longer difficult to imagine.
Determing the state of a neuron in the brain -- whether it is ON or OFF -- is a matter of bio technology. In the past this was done with physical implants inserted (painfully ?) into the brain but now it is much easier ... somewhat like electro encephalogram technology that has been around for decades. What is difficult is the software part -- the pattern recognition software that can decode which set of ON/OFF patterns means what ? Pattern recognition has always been a computationally intensive and algorithmically difficult [ perhaps NP-hard if not NP-complete !] but again thanks to funding for anti-terrorist technology, a lot progress has happened on this front. Perhaps this has had a beneficial spin off in the area of thought reading.
A low tech but possibly very high impact application of this technology could be in the area of remote control devices for TV.
We all know that there are only four buttons that are regularly used in a TV remote : Channel Up, Channel Down, Volume Up and Volume Down. To which you can add a fifth function : jump to a specific channel. What if a TV company could come up with a very simple thought controlled device that can recognise these four or five thought patterns and do the needful !!
While thought controlled wheel chairs for paraplegics may be a wonderful idea, a thought controlled remote TV switch would be easier to demonstrate and would have an immediate market in the commercial electronics space.
But who will be the first to take up this challenge ? The high-tech firms like IBM and INTEL or the consumer electronics folks at SONY or PANASONIC ? Or would it be the kross-over kid - APPLE ? Let us wait and watch.