Posting Tweets with Brain Power


Tired of using thumbs to endlessly update Twitter on a cell phone?  Well, worry no longer about finger injuries from marathon tweeting: the University of Wisconsin Department of Biomedical Engineering has come to the rescue.  They have created a system that allows a person to tweet with only a thought.  It’s not a bid to help mankind become even lazier (its intended use is for people with disabilities), but it certainly is one step closer to telepathy.

I think, therefore I tweet

The ability to move a cursor on screen using only the human brain has been around for some time, but this adaptation has an immediate effect on disabled people who have trouble communicating.  Rather than create a system to send e-mail, which would be cumbersome for the user during the address selection process, the inventors opted for Twitter.  Using Twitter makes it simple for the user, allowing an instant update to anybody who subscribes and thus bypassing the hassle of choosing addresses.

The system works by displaying a keyboard on a screen.  The rows and columns are constantly blinking, periodically turning the desired letter blue.  The user wears a hat covered with electrodes and, as a specific letter is focused upon, the hat detects when the brain responds to the color change.  Although relatively slow, with experienced users averaging about ten characters per minute, this technology could do a world of good for people who have normal brain functions but whose bodies are immobile.  Check out the video, below, to see the system in action:

Like any new technology, the current incarnation of brain-controlled devices is relatively clumsy and slow.  The same was said about the cell phone, which upon its advent was merely a plastic brick with an antenna but, in the few decades since its inception, has become a tiny, touch-sensitive masterpiece.  The brain is capable of accomplishing tasks much quicker than the appendages to which it is attached so, if the technology that reads the brain directly were to be improved, tasks could be completed at a much greater speed and with better accuracy than is currently possible.

While the current applications are now rooted in bringing basic life functions back to the disabled, the future of brain-controlled technology could apply to literally any facet of daily life.  Video games could be played with no frustrating coordination errors, automobiles could be driven in a safer manner by having control over the vehicle with barely any reaction time, and the famed “clapper” light switch could be activated by simply thinking about clapping twice.  These are just a few of the multitude of applications that would make life completely hands (and feet) free.  Of course, these applications are years in the future and rely on scientists being able to accurately measure and decode the brain, which is quite a massive challenge.

It would certainly be easier for humanity to simply think through life aided by brain-reading technology, but this is still quite a few years away.  It seems as though we will have to take solace in the fact that these mind-reading hats are already helping those who have real disabilities.  No, brain-to-computer typing is not yet better than using some fingers, but it is certainly a start in the right direction.

Andrew is a recent graduate of Northeastern University in Boston, MA with a Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering. While at Northeastern, he worked on a Department of Defense project intended to create a product that adsorbs and destroys toxic nerve agents and also worked as part of a consulting firm in the fields of battery technology, corrosion analysis, vehicle rollover analysis, and...

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