Wouldn’t it be nice if your computer knew what you were thinking even before you touched the keyboard? Or, better still, if the computer did the thinking — er, data processing — for you, because it is ‘connected’ directly to you? Cybernetics — the science of communications and control in animals and machines — is radically changing the way we interact with computers. It promises a future where keyboards and computer mice would be replaced by mind control for everything from managing files, sending e-mails and Google searches. US mathematician Norbert Wiener coined ‘cybernetics’ (Greek for ‘steersman’) in 1948 to describe the study of autonomous machines that use a feedback mechanism to survey their surroundings and respond to it.
The concept of ‘cyborgs’ takes cybernetics a step further, making humans a part of the machine itself. Ask Kevin Warwick, renowned British cybernetics researcher, who recently gave a lecture at the IIT Techfest in Mumbai. A Radio Frequency Identification Device chip, implanted in his arm in 1998, enables him to walk into his office without an ID card and prompt lab lights to switch on when he enters. In other experiments, silicon chips implanted in his body enabled machines and people — with identical transponders — on another continent to replicate his movements through the internet.
It won’t be long before the desktop makes way for super-fast tiny computers worn in headbands, allowing us to ‘type’ almost as fast as we write by hand. Since the capacity of silicon-based technology typically doubles every two years, we should soon be able to process thoughts as fast as speech. This new realm of human-machine (and human-human) communication holds great promise for paralysed patients to use the power of ‘thought’. Paraplegics, for instance, could operate artificial limbs merely by ‘thinking’.
The forerunners of such ‘brain-reading’ technology are already here. The Sony (Charts) game system beams data directly into your mind without implants, and uses a pulsed ultrasonic signal to induce sensory experiences like smells, sounds and images. German neuroscientists have developed a similar device to help disabled people communicate by reading their brain waves through the skin. This ability to trigger neurons mechanically gives us the power to think something and have it happen: fly a plane, cook dinner, or, well, write a column. Next up could be ‘network-enabled telepathy’, where your thoughts flow from your brain over the network right into someone else’s brain. Truly hooked-up!