Hey Scientists, Where’s My Jetpack?! : The future is here; it just looks a little different than expected

in News, Pop Culture
April 6th, 2011

In almost every major futuristic science-fiction work of the last century, jetpacks and flying cars are seemingly as ubiquitous as today’s oversized SUV’s, lining the closets and garages of every hardworking American.  Understandably, in the year 2011, this has lead many disenchanted Trekkies and purveyors of assorted geek cultures to ask, “Well, scientists, where’s my jetpack?!”  While I commiserate with my fellow fans of Asimov and Adams, several recent innovations have led me to believe that we all might be overlooking just how “futuristic” the time we live in really is.  Accessing Google on the iPhone is certainly as close to the Hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy as we may ever come.  We have the ability to beam blueprints of intricate plastic objects and now even organs anywhere in the world and literally print them out.  We have computers that can beat us in Jeopardy!  And last but not least, Ladies and Gentlemen, I present to you Brain Driver, the thought-controlled car.  On behalf of scientists everywhere, I accept your apologies, geeks.

The AutoNOMOs Project's semi-autonomous car can be powered by smart phones, tablet computers, and now even your own thoughts.

The AutoNOMOs Project's semi-autonomous car can be powered by smart phones, tablet computers, and now even your own thoughts.

Brain Driver, a semi-autonomous thought-controlled vehicle, is a research endeavor by the AutoNOMOS project, a division of the Artificial Intelligence Lab at the Freie Universität Berlin headed by Raul Rojas.  The car itself is fully decked out with 360 degree scanning lasers and cameras.  This allows it to navigate roads, to stay within lines, to avoid pedestrians and other obstructions, and to look super futuristic.  I know, how mundane right?  We’ve all seen that Lexus parallel park itself on TV; this doesn’t impress me.  Except that the team at the AutoNOMOS project isn’t content with stopping here. They have utilized a new consumer EEG technology from Emotiv, called the Epoc, to map distinct thought patterns recorded from the brain onto navigation directions that can be used to control the car.  The Epoc, not the first consumer EEG (Electroencephalography) system of its kind but definitely the most user friendly, uses 16-channels to record electrical patterns in the user’s brain from outside the skull as the user is asked to move a virtual cube on a computer screen to the right, left, forward or backward.  Custom algorithms are then used to map these “thought” patterns, unique to each individual, onto specific navigation commands for the car (forward and backward corresponding to acceleration and deceleration respectively).  As the car approaches an intersection, the system records the thought pattern of the driver and proceeds to turn in the desired direction.

Well, that’s the plan anyway.  While the system does work with good regularity, there is a distinct drawback to the two-second delay between when the electrical patterns are read and when the car actually turns.  It also has the limitation of only being able to discern between four different commands, not exactly enough for normal road navigation.  It also appears that a large swath of the population seems to be what Rojas refers to in an article on Wired.com as “BCI illiterate”, or incapable of using EEG based brain-computer interface technologies.

The Emotiv Epoc EEG headset allows mind reading to become a portable activity.

The Emotiv Epoc EEG headset allows mind reading to become a portable activity.

If vaguely unreliable, thought-controlled cars seem like a bad idea to you, I can certainly see where you are coming from.  It’s undeniable that this isn’t intended to be the ultimate use of this technology.  There are, thankfully, researches looking to apply these very same ideas to more useful and practical means, like motorized wheelchairs.  When applied in this way, this gadget moves beyond the realm of mere novelty item intended to intrigue the masses, into a life changing technology for people who could truly use it.  A thought-controlled wheelchair would allow quadriplegics, and others whose conditions leave them with minimal control of their bodies, to move about their worlds simply with their thoughts.  As far back as 2007, Javier Minguez of the University of Zaragosa gave an interview to Wired.com discussing his group’s work on thought-controlled wheelchairs.  At that time, portable consumer EEG technologies were not available; subjects were literally tethered to oversized desktop computers.  One could see how this might be a problem.  With the advent of the Emotiv Epoc, and the vehicle control technologies developed by the AutoNOMOS project, the hurdles between the current state of this technology and widespread consumer availability now lay exclusively in training people to use the technology, and increasing the number, and complexity of the directions the system can learn.  Australian researchers D.A. Craig and H.T. Nguyen at the University of Technology in Sydney are already hard at work on this problem.  In a clever attempt to map a greater number of more complex commands, these researchers have combined thought pattern mapping for diverse and complex mental exercises with head motion sensors, adding many degrees of freedom to the command interface.  We can only assume that with research on both the EEG and autonomous vehicle fronts moving forward, it won’t be terribly long before thought-controlled wheelchairs are commonplace amongst the American public.  Jetpacks or no jetpacks, the future is here, and I for one am ecstatic about the technological possibilities it promises!

The AutoNOMOs Project

Emotiv– Brain Computer Interface Technology

Tan Le: A headset that reads your brainwaves – Videos on TED.com

A wheelchair that reads your mind-Wired.com

Thinking your way through traffic in a brain-controlled car-Autopia-Wired.com

Craig DA, Nguyen HT. “Adaptive EEG Thought Pattern Classifier for Advanced Wheelchair Control.” 2007 Annal International Conference of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society, Vols 1-16 : 2544-2547 2007-PubMed

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