Mind control? Thanks to neurotech, it's not unfeasible

Thanks to the fact our brain activity can be tracked almost as easily as a heartbeat, more people are learning to control connected objects using only their minds

Olivier Oullier, president of Emotiv. Courtesy photo
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On April 3, 1973, Martin Cooper, an engineer at Motorola, was walking in a street in New York City holding a 10-inch long portable phone weighing just over a kilo – the equivalent of a bag of sugar. Chances are that people who saw him that day walking down Sixth Avenue did not realise they were witnessing technological history as he dialled the office number of his competitor Joel Engel, head of research at Bell Labs, to make what was to become the first public cellular phone call ever. After that, it took Motorola an entire decade to launch its seminal DynaTac mobile phone on the market. Nicknamed "the brick", this phone model became an icon of the 1980s when Michael Douglas, playing banker Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone's Wall Street, used it to deliver his infamous "money never sleeps, pal" line. Our appreciation of the deep impact mobile phones have on our daily lives is quite recent, considering they entered the market little more than three decades ago.

Recently my daughters asked me about the TV shows I watched when I was younger and we looked up old episodes of Saved by the Bell on YouTube. They were surprised when they saw the main character Zack Morris using the brick to make phone calls from school. They could not believe people would carry such big phones and asked me how people sent texts. Answering gave me the opportunity to walk down memory lane and tell them about the annoying mid-1990s experience of listening to a modem dialling up while waiting in front of a desktop computer to be able to access the internet. But the important issues for my children was not so much the size of the hardware. They were wondering how people could function with slow and limited access to information.

Children nowadays are not as impressed by hardware the way my generation is. What matters to them is what tech can allow them to do and how it impacts their lives. And for them what matters most is to have virtually unlimited and instantaneous access to content and social interactions wherever they are. With more than 1.5 billion smartphones sold globally last year according to Statista, the neuroscientist in me enjoys investigating how embracing mobile technology is increasingly playing a pervasive role in our daily activities, changing our habits, our perceptions and ultimately, impacting our brains.

Many parents are concerned about their children being glued to their phones, fearing they might be missing out on non-digital reality. I can understand that, even if I too spend way too much time on my phone.

One profound change that happened due to instant access to information and content afforded by our connected devices is the dramatic decrease in our patience. There is increased psychological evidence supporting that avid smartphone users struggle with delayed gratification and sometimes even exhibit weaker impulse control. It is as if waiting no longer seems to be an option. Perhaps Freddie Mercury singing: “I want it all and I want it now” at the end of the 1980s was a timely premonition.

A research review published last month gives a neuroscientific spin on opinion formation and peer influence among the current generation of teenagers who live immersed in media-saturated environments. Their brains are still maturing and are therefore very sensitive to social recognition and highly “reactive to emotion-arousing media”, according to the authors. A study conducted by the University of California, Los Angeles, imaging the brain activity of teenagers between 13 and 18, provides further insights. Teenagers had to respond to pictures and were asked to like their own as well as those provided by other participants. Seeing many "likes" on their own pictures triggered increased activity in the “reward circuit” of the teenagers’ brains. This circuit is activated when you crave your favourite food, wait for something you really want, like a gift or holidays or if you are a smoker, when you inhale. This experiment also revealed higher activity in a brain network contributing to social behaviour, as the teenagers liked pictures that were already liked by many people. In other words, instant social gratification has become the new norm for adolescents and we can measure the extent to which they are sensitive to it in their brains. Likes act like a mental currency on the market of social interactions and gratification among teenagers.

There is so much that we can learn from behavioural and brain insights. But until recently, studying the human brain required big and expensive systems that only a handful of experts had access to and could operate in scientific and medical facilities only.

But brains are free and can be monitored everywhere, thanks to new portable, affordable and reliable neurotech that allows everyone to access some of their brain activity on their phones, almost as easily as they would track their heartbeats. Today everyone is just one click away from owning a portable brain scanner for less than the price of a gaming console. People use portable brainwear in their homes to monitor their sleep, levels of attention, distraction or to meditate as their brainwaves are sent wirelessly to their mobile phones and processed in real time. Portable neurotech is also extensively used by the private sector in the consumer, entertainment, health care, automotive, insurance or airline industry as well as in education and wellness.

But that’s not all. More people are using brain-computer interfaces to control connected objects with only their minds. Every week this column will bring you exciting stories about innovation in neuroscience and its impact on our lives. And as you will see, the societal changes portable neurotech are bringing are likely to have a bigger impact on our daily lives than the mobile phone Mr Cooper premiered 45 years ago.

Professor Olivier Oullier is the president of Emotiv, a neuroscientist and a DJ. He served as global head of strategy in health and healthcare and member of the executive committee of the World Economic Forum