Brain-computer interfaces Featured

8:00pm EDT May 26, 2008

Rolling out of bed, brushing your teeth and saying goodbye to your family — most of us take these routine acts for granted, but for people locked into their bodies due to diseases like ALS or the resultant disabilities from strokes, these actions may be impossible or, at best, difficult.

But what if technology could bypass these disabilities, allowing humans to conquer genetics or disease and enable a return to a normal or improved life? These breakthroughs may be closer than you think.

“The BrainLab is working to discover impactful solutions for brain-computer interfaces by uncovering the underlying characteristics that affect users’ control,” says Dr. Adriane Randolph, director of the BrainLab, Coles College of Business, Kennesaw State University.

Smart Business spoke with Randolph about how brain-computer interfaces may help mitigate debilitating illnesses and injuries and create a new paradigm for the ways in which humans interact with computers.

What is the working definition of brain-computer interfaces?

Brain-computer interfaces are also known as direct-brain interfaces and brain-based interfaces. They are tied to the emerging fields of neuromarketing, neuroeconomics and neuroinformation systems (IS). Brain-computer interfaces allow people to communicate and control devices in their environment without the need for voluntary movement but instead through the use of signals from the brain. In addition, brain-computer interfaces allow for applications more informed about their users’ states of mind.

At this time, we cannot determine exactly what you are thinking, but we can read the patterns of your thoughts. You can learn to control certain patterns at will and these can be mapped to interfaces for control. For example, I cannot read your mind to see directly that you want your coffee with cream, but I can offer you an interface with which you may select coffee with cream by perhaps concentrating on a related image while that and other nondesired options are highlighted, and I can then see a certain area of your brain light up when the desired option is highlighted.

What types of brain-computer interface applications are studied?

Activity is recorded through direct means, such as using electroencephalograms (EEGs) where electrical activity of the brain is recorded and functional near-infrared (fNIR) imaging where oxygenated blood in areas of the brain needed to fuel different thought processes is monitored. Also, activity is recorded through indirect means, such as by using galvanic skin response (GSR), which is similar to a basic polygraph system where small changes in sweat are recorded. These techniques have just begun to move from clinical use to real-world application for control and assessment of user states.

Who are ideal candidates for the interfaces?

Brain-computer interfaces have been found useful for some able-bodied populations, but the target end-users are people who are literally locked into their bodies due to diseases such as ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease) or after strokes. Individuals suffering from locked-in syndrome are completely paralyzed and unable to speak but otherwise cognitively intact. Traditional assistive technology is ineffective for this population of users due to the physical nature of input devices, such as mice and keyboards. Unfortunately, we do not yet know the specific profile of an ideal candidate for the various types of brain-computer interfaces, and this is the primary mission of the KSU BrainLab.

What is the biggest challenge of changing thoughts into actions?

In order for brain-computer interfaces to be used as nonphysical input channels for communication and control, they require that users be able to harness their appropriate electrophysiological responses for effective use of the interface. There is currently no formalized process for determining a user’s aptitude for control of various brain-computer interfaces without testing on an actual system. I developed a model for matching users with various interfaces in a way that predicts control, and seek to further validate that model. In addition, current brain-computer interfaces still are quite slow and error-prone where a user may only generate three words per minute in contrast to the ability for unassisted communication by humans at 200 words per minute. Although perhaps not a selling factor for use by able-bodied individuals, this is a significant triumph for someone who might not otherwise have an outlet.

How might brain-computer interfaces cut across business methodologies?

Brain-computer interfaces offer a new paradigm for the ways in which humans interact with computers. They provide for more informed, ‘natural user interfaces.’ Thus, organizations may better understand their clients’ true motivations. Further, we have seen incredible leaps in nanotechnology and changes in the way business is conducted due to innovations such as the Internet and wireless technologies. Brain-computer interfaces sit just beyond the horizon of technological breakthroughs that will impact business methodologies in the future. Already, companies like Microsoft and IBM are exploring these potentials.

DR. ADRIANE B. RANDOLPH is an assistant professor of Business Information Systems and director of the BrainLab at the Coles College of Business, Kennesaw State University. She can be reached at (770) 423-6083 or arandol3@kennesaw.edu.