The ability to control a computer using only the power of the mind is closer than one might think. Brain-computer interfaces, where computers can read and interpret signals directly from the brain, have already achieved clinical success in allowing quadriplegics, those suffering “locked-in syndrome” or people who have had a stroke to move their own wheelchairs or even drink coffee from a cup by controlling the action of a robotic arm with their brain waves. In addition, direct brain implants have helped restore partial vision to people who have lost their sight.
Recent research has focused on the possibility of using brain-computer interfaces to connect different brains together directly. Researchers at Duke University last year reported successfully connecting the brains of two mice over the Internet (into what was termed a “brain net”) where mice in different countries were able to cooperate to perform simple tasks to generate a reward. Also in 2013, scientists at Harvard University reported that they were able to establish a functional link between the brains of a rat and a human with a non-invasive, computer-to-brain interface.
Other research projects have focused on manipulating or directly implanting memories from a computer into the brain. In mid-2013, MIT researchers reported having successfully implanted a false memory into the brain of a mouse. In humans, the ability to directly manipulate memories might have an application in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, while in the longer term, information may be uploaded into human brains in the manner of a computer file. Of course, numerous ethical issues are also clearly raised by this rapidly advancing field.
This list was compiled by the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Emerging Technologies. Noubar Afeyan, Managing Partner, Flagship Ventures is the Council’s Chair, as well as a Mentor for the Annual Meeting of the New Champions 2014. Mark Lynas, Freelance Writer on Science, Technology and Climate Change, and Sir David King, Special Representative for Climate Change, Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the United Kingdom, are its Vice-chairs. For a full list of the Council’s members, see here.