Mattel Mind Flex was one of the most remarkable devices at CES 2009. Simpler but coneptually similar to the Emotiv headset expected to be out soon, Mattel’s device measures brain theta waves and lets you control a small ball with this output as you change the theta waves by thinking. Unless I’m mistaken a lot of folks think these devices are silly gimmicks when in fact I’d argue that this type of controller represent the single most important change in history in the way humans interface with machines. For millions of years our relationship to tools has been primarily by hand and/or foot, generally using sights and sounds and touch to manage our relationships with the tools we use. In this sense computer control, like hammer and nail control, comes from our physical interactions with the device.
Brain wave control, although still fairly primitive, is likely to accelerate the process that is going on right now at a pace too slow to be popularly recognized for what it is – the merging of human and machine. From heart pacemakers to glasses to BrainGate, the distinction between human and machine is breaking down slowly. I think that it will break down very rapidly as soon as technologies exist to enhance intelligence via this type of direct brain interface. How long will it take to refine this such that we can pull up the internet in our mind and access information at computerized rather than junky organic neuron speeds? I’d wildly guess 5-10 years though part of this answer will come from popular use and “hacks” with things like the mindflex and the Emotiv headsets coming out this year (yes, I’ll be getting one!).
The extension of this approach to interaction with machines may lead to the technological singularity predicted by an increasing number of technologists and futurists though I remain somewhat skeptical that conscious computing will quickly lead to the massive universal intelligence explosion predicted by Kurtzweil and others.