The notion of a nefarious power somehow dictating what individuals say and do by tampering with their brains is, for the moment at least, still fictional. But there’s a less diabolical kind of mind control and it’s very real, as Mick Ebeling is happy to show you.
In his Venice, California, laboratory he is developing a device that will permit disabled people to write with their minds—no pencil strokes or keystrokes required. Called the Brainwriter, it combines new, low-cost headsets that monitor the brain’s electrical activity with eye-tracking technology and open-source software. By thinking about a single idea or word, a person can command a computer cursor to enter writing mode, the equivalent of putting pen to paper. Then, as the eyes move, the cursor traces their path on-screen.
“I like to see things that are not supposed to be done, be done,” says Ebeling, co-founder of the hopeful-sounding company Not Impossible. He’s not an engineer himself—he’s a film and TV producer—so he recruits technical experts to help him solve real-world problems. “Help one, help many” is one of his mantras. For instance, Ebeling and his team 3-D-printed prosthetic arms for amputees in South Sudan, starting with a teenage boy named Daniel.
Brainwriter was inspired by an L.A. graffiti artist named Tony Quan (tag name Tempt One), who is afflicted by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and no longer has control over his muscles. At first, Ebeling and his crew fashioned a device out of plastic eyeglasses, a coat hanger and a hacked-open PlayStation 3 camera. “Steve Jobs would roll over in his grave if he saw our stuff,” Ebeling says. In this version, Quan blinked to enter writing mode and select his drawing tools. But as his condition worsened, he could no longer control the device with his blinks.
So the next step was to tap into brain waves, monitored via electroencephalogram. A focusing brain produces a particular EEG pattern, which the computer software recognizes and processes the same way it processes the click of a mouse. Still in the testing phase, Brainwriter will give patients with paralysis a new way to communicate, more efficient than the current method of spelling out words letter by letter. In later iterations, it might be adapted for people with no control over their eye movements. “Mick will unashamedly and unabashedly say that our solution is not the end word,” says David Putrino (left), a neuroscientist who works with Not Impossible. “Our solution is a lesson that it can be done.”
Ebeling predicts that someday soon similar technologies will not only help disabled people but will also enhance the way everyone communicates. Ordinary baseball caps studded with EEG sensors will be sold at the mall. You won’t necessarily compose a sonnet with them, but you’ll be able to perform simple actions, like making a dinner reservation. While other developers hack the brain to make a toy robot walk or control a video game, Ebeling strives for a technology more akin to the telephone. “Just being able to convey information,” he says, “is huge.”