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Boffins create thought-controlled computer

A boon for the disabled

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Boffins at the EC's Joint Research Centre have created a computer that can "read" peoples' minds and enable disabled people to write message using nothing but thoughts.

The system has been tried out on a 40-year-old severely disabled man in London, the Sunday Times reports and he was ecstatic. Cathal O'Philbin, who has spinal muscular atrophy, said: "This is something really special. It would make a big difference to me."

The computer works by picking up the electromagnetic signals created in the brain when people think of different things. Electrodes attached to a plastic cap which is put on the user's head pick up the signals. Then by tying in thought patterns with different, simple instructions the computer can be controlled by thought alone.

In the case of Mr O'Philbin, he was told to think hard about a rotating cube, about moving his left arm (which he can't do physically) and then to relax mentally (abstract, physical, calm). This provided three widely varying electromagnetic patterns which were then tied-in with moving a cursor across the computer screen. By moving the cursor, he was able to select letters and managed to spell out "Arsenal Football Club".

Mr O'Philbin said it was hard getting the two to work but was asked to be given one as soon as possible. The Spanish scientist who co-ordinated the project, Jose del Millan said: "The key to our system is its natural and quick operation. Without any assistance a user can teach the machine to recognise his thoughts within one or two hours."

The Adaptive Brain Interface cost £1 million to develop and, you'll be glad to hear, uses special software sitting on top of Windows 2000. The cap costs £150.

The system is obviously in its early stages but its effectiveness has been proved and the project team hopes to gradually improve it - to the extent where it may even prove a valuable application for able-bodied people.

Del Millan was keen to dispel sci-fi evil mind-reading applications of it however. "We are only developing applications where the user consciously decides to issue a command to the computer," he said. "We are not exploring the brain at the unconscious level." But that's what they want you to believe.

The Thought Police are known to be taking an interest in the project. ®

Related Link

Sunday Times article

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