Brain-computer interfaces have been under development for at least a few years now, however most of them are pretty tiring to the user. A team of researchers from École Polytechnique Fédérale De Lausanne is doing something about that by engineering a system that allows for rest and multitasking. By using statistics they isolate commands given by the user while he is performing other tasks. From the press release:
In an ongoing study demonstrated by Millán [Professor José del R. Millán] and doctoral student Michele Tavella at the AAAS 2011 Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C., the scientists hook volunteers up to BCI and ask them to read, speak, or read aloud while delivering as many left and right commands as possible or delivering a no-command. By using statistical analysis programmed by the scientists, Millán’s BCI can distinguish between left and right commands and learn when each subject is sending one of these versus a no-command. In other words, the machine learns to read the subject’s mental intention. The result is that users can mentally relax and also execute secondary tasks while controlling the BCI.
The so-called Shared Control approach to facilitating human-robot interactions employs image sensors and image-processing to avoid obstacles. According to Millán, however, Shared Control isn’t enough to let an operator to rest or concentrate on more than one command at once, limiting long-term use.
Millán’s new work complements research on Shared Control and makes multitasking a reality while at the same time allows users to catch a break. His trick is in decoding the signals coming from EEG readings on the scalp—readings that represent the activity of millions of neurons and have notoriously low resolution. By incorporating statistical analysis, or probability theory, his BCI allows for both targeted control—maneuvering around an obstacle—and more precise tasks, such as staying on a target. It also makes it easier to give simple commands like “go straight” that need to be executed over longer periods of time (think back to that airport) without having to focus on giving the same command over and over again.
Press release: At AAAS 2011: Taking Brain-Computer Interfaces to the Next Phase…