This week two new brain computer interface (BCI) based products have hit the headlines, one is a hoax. I’ve placed the adverts for both below, see if you can figure out which one is a real project.
Project Black Mirror
The developers of “project black mirror” claim to have developed a BCI that can control an iphone using Siri.
The developers of “Neurowear” claim to have developed a pair of wearable rabbit ears containing a BCI that moves based on your mood.
But, can you tell which one is an elaborate hoax?
(Watch the videos, check out their websites but don’t scroll down until you’ve made your guess.)
Believe it or not, it turns out that the project that is a hoax is actually the mobile phone device “project black mirror“. This is clear for a number of reasons:
1. EEG can not yet be deciphered anywhere near the extent necessary to achieve a wide range of commands based simply on imagined words. At the moment it is only possible to assign commands based on cues such as our emotions or imagined movements of different parts of the body. Even then, there is a very long way to go before we can achieve significantly more commands than can be counted on one hand.
2. On the “project black mirror” page the group make the blunder of describing the device as an ECG instead of an EEG. An ECG is an electrocardiogram which measures activity from the heart while an EEG is an Electroencephalograph which measures activity from the brain, by definition, a necessary component in any BCI (the brain, that is).
3. On the “project black mirror” page the group describe the device as measuring signals in the range of 0-5v. EEG signals are approximately one millionth of that range! (“microvolts” not “volts”.)
4. The chip board in the “project black mirror” video isn’t properly attached.
5. In the “project black mirror” video, on the laptop screen there is an animation of the matrix code, presumably instead of an EEG output.
As @Interaxon has pointed out, this is a rather sad trick to play because it devalues the work being done by genuine BCI researchers and raises expectations to an unrealistic level. That said, progress is being made. Only this week a breakthrough study was published in the Lancet that demonstrated using EEG that 19% of patients diagnosed with being in a vegative state could respond using BCI.
“Three (19%) of 16 patients could repeatedly and reliably generate appropriate EEG responses to two distinct commands, despite being behaviourally entirely unresponsive (classifi cation accuracy 61–78%)”
(Cruse et, al, 2011) [Open access PDF via The Lancet]
This is a major step forward, demonstrating clinically that there really is potential for us to communicate using the many different BCI packages in development around the world with those that currently have no way of communicating whatsoever. This really is a noble goal and one that we are, right now, witnessing being achieved for the first time. Conversely, the “Project Black Mirror” video appears to be attempting to capitalise on this by applying to crowd-fund their “project” using Kickstarter. This is at best a poor thought out hoax and at worst a blundering attempt to commit a major fraud.
Now, there is one question left to answer and that is…
“What about the BCI rabbit ears?”
Well, it seems that this project may well indeed be genuine. The concept itself is certainly scientifically grounded and empirically demonstrated (Coan, et al. 2004) [Open access PDF]. As for the product, well if there is someone bonkers enough to create it then there would be no reason why it would not be technically possible. And that, it would appear, there is.
NB: This is not an endorsement of the “neurowear” product. I have seen no published data and the apparent use of one electrode suggests the device would be vulnerable to confounding facial movements (See my critical post on the Emotiv’). That said, they certainly aren’t the first group to come up with an attempted wacky implementation of BCI and they certainly won’t be the last.
Damian Cruse, Srivas Chennu, Camille Chatelle, Tristan A Bekinschtein, Davinia Fernández-Espejo, John D Pickard, Steven Laureys, Adrian M Owen (2011). Bedside detection of awareness in the vegetative state: a cohort study The Lancet : 10.1016/S0140-6736(11)61224-5
Coan, J., & Allen, J. (2004). Frontal EEG asymmetry as a moderator and mediator of emotion Biological Psychology, 67 (1-2), 7-50 DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsycho.2004.03.002
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Skip 25 minutes in to last night’s Newsnight for a thought provoking report on the implications of cognitive enhancement. The report begins with the words “we all have had to endure dope smokers who think they’re being profound when really they’re just off their heads“. (Yeah, well up yours too Paxman!) So you may find it a challenge to sit through, especially if you keep on top of neuroscience news (no, there’s nothing new in it), but it certainly provokes interesting debate.
For further reading (or if you feel you can’t endure Paxman shallowly grilling a professor for half a minute and expecting to get a result), you can visit my post’s on the topics of Modafinl and Kevin Warwick’s research on robots controlled using live brain tissue. You heard it here first!Follow Simon on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, RSS, or join the mailing list.
A wise man named Karl Popper once disagreed with the orthodox view that scientific activity starts with observation noting that “observation is always selective”. It is often possible to propose a theory and find results that support or verify it but Popper proposed that it is the negative results that are of crucial value. He used the following simple thought experiment to prove it.
Europeans for thousands of years had observed millions of white swans. Using inductive evidence, we could come up with the theory that all swans are white.
However exploration of Australasia introduced Europeans to black swans. No matter how many observations are made which confirm the theory that swans are white there is always the possibility that a future observation could refute it. Induction cannot yield certainty.
This simple principle revolutionised science and the world lived happily ever after.
…Of course that was not how the story ended. Today there is still massive pressure on scientists by industry, funding bodies, the media and universities to chase after verifying positive findings and in effect supporting established knowledge. This is all very well but when a negative finding is discovered it is all too often brushed under the carpet, almost as if it is an embarrassed (an ugly duckling perhaps). For example consider for a second how truly horrifying the following statistic actually is:
Of that 5.9%, an astounding 75% give positive results – suggesting negative findings are simply not published. This is not the only problem for academics searching for negative results to support a proposition. Because of the way boolean search algorithms work you have to have a little bit of boolean-know-how to actually search for a negative result. Simply adding “not” in to an english language proposition will still yield positive findings. Now a group of scientists have created a database called BioNot that uses data mining and intelligent machine learning methods to systematically search for negative results in Pubmed and Elsevier.
You may wish to write down the URL http://snake.ims.uwm.edu/bionot/ because in an ironic twist the boolean wizards who created this programme have made the URL a little trixy for google to find, presumably because this website is google’s arch nemesis. Perhaps not, but either way if you hit “BioNot” in to google you end up with something to do with nuts.
Anyway, I’m off to have a play with it, if you need some search ideas, check out the fabulous results of my very first search!
Via Neuroskeptic (where you can pop on over and read a little more explanation of the potential applications of this tool)
Agarwal S, Yu H, & Kohane I (2011). BioNOT: A searchable database of biomedical negated sentences. BMC bioinformatics, 12 (1) PMID: 22032181Follow Simon on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, RSS, or join the mailing list.
If I were to tell you that there is a free, safe and legal way to trip this Halloween you’d probably tell me I was mistaken and you’d probably be right. However, there is a trick you can do to touch upon the experience of visual distortion present in a psychedelic trip without consuming a single microgram of psychoactive material.
The surprisingly simple method has been used since the dawn of time by civilisations ranging from an early Hindu denomination, who worshipped in front a candle lit mirror to medieval England where legend told of a witch that would appear if you stared in to a candle lit a mirror while repeating “Bloody Mary” thirteen times“. Last year the phenomenon was empirically tested by an Italian group who published their spell binding results in the journal Perception (open access PDF). I’ve created a very short interactive display below which explains the simple method used and the startling conclusions. (Click here to view in full screen)
I’m intrigued to find out how people experience the illusion when viewing another persons face as this is something that really doesn’t seem to have ever been studied. It’s actually been claimed that Scientologists do the face-to-face version of this trick when brainwashing new recruits but that’s all I’ll say on the matter until I’ve got a stronger legal team (OK – make that “a legal team”.)
So give it a go and let me know what happens, just don’t forget the tale of narcissus who was driven to insanity by his own reflection (perhaps the earliest recorded reference to the effect).
Caputo GB (2010). Strange-face-in-the-mirror illusion. Perception, 39 (7), 1007-8 PMID: 20842976Follow Simon on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, RSS, or join the mailing list.
UPDATE 06/12/11: THE INDEPENDENT HAVE NOW AMMENDED THEIR ARTICLE FOLLOWING A PCC COMPLAINT (THEY STILL FAIL TO REFERENCE THE FACT THAT THE DRUG IN QUESTION IS ALMOST CERTAINLY “VALIUM”.)
UPDATE 05/12/11: THE METRO HAVE NOW REMOVED THEIR ARTICLE FOLLOWING A PCC COMPLAINT.
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