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
Warning: This post contains satire. Satire may me harmful to your health.
Today for the first time in human history, hits from every drug ranging from ecstacy to crack cocaine can be downloaded and “I-Dosed” straight in to your brain with only a few taps of the keyboard and the click of a mouse. The only paraphenalia that is needed is a pair of headphones and a will for self destruction. Welcome to the brave new world of I-dosing.
I-dosing, Binaural Beats or Digital Drug-taking is a new scourge currently sweeping the internet by storm, it is is a grave and dangerous threat to the people of America, online dealers have sprung up everywhere to sell drugs to you and your children in the form of MP3 files.
Digital drugs can have the effects of ecstasy, heroin, crack cocaine and LSD but dealers claim they can also be used to treat insomnia, headaches, exhaustion, PMS and relieve pain. Either way, all your children have to do to obtain these drugs is type a few words in to google and hey presto they’ll be rolling around on the floor like this….
These shocking sites are even offering opportunities for your kids to work as runners, selling the drugs in a play ground near you….
So what action needs to be taken?
Due to the sudden onset and unknown effects of digital drugs we must immediately ban MP3 files containing i-doses, this action is currently being rushed through congress. This however is insufficient, due to the freedom the internet provides, idoses will remain in cirulation on file sharing networks. Further there is currently no way of telling innocent MP3 files from idoses, the only option available to the goverment is therefore to ban MP3 files. This raises the further issue that MP3 files can be converted to MP4 files or the larger WAV files, these file types must therefore also be made illegal.
Forecasters are predicting that no sooner than MP3 files, MP4 files and WAV files are, banned children will begin “zipping” idoses and sending them to each other via the internet and their mobile phones. This presents the gravest security threat to America since it was discovered that marijuana was not just a humble weed. The only solution to the problem of digital drugs is therefore to take the internet offline immediately and ban the distribution, production and appreciation of all forms of music as well as mobile phones and devices that can be used to listen to music.
…Okay okay, I’ll stop insulting your intelligence, though I hope you can see how this entire case is a fantastic metaphore for the futility of the “war on drugs”. Amazingly however, this week the media and even the authorities in parts of America are still taking this prank very seriously indeed. Schools have actually banned devices that can be used to listen to music as well as websites including youtube in response to this. Worse still, schools have used this as an excuse to enforce drugs tests on students and have written to children’s parents encouraging them to prevent children from having these devices and access to the internet.
You may wish to refrain from watching the following video from News Central, it’s pretty tedious, the droning stupidity of the correspondent and her epic failure to find anyone who has the faintest clue what they’re talking about is the stuff of legends…
Update 18/7/10 – And this story hits the big time, TIME magazine just covered the story with no analysis what so ever. Nothing can stop the crazy “soccer mums” banning their poor squealing kids from the internet now. Prepare for screaming scenes in super markets across America…. “mammmmmmmmmy I promise I won’t idose I promisseeeeeeeeeeeeee”
20/7/10 – The story reaches the Daily Mail.
Ok so what is it and how does it work?
“Binuaral beats” essentially work by playing two slightly different frequencies in each ear. The brain judges where a sound is coming from by analysing the difference betweenthe sounds in both ears. Upon hearing a binuaral beat through stereo headphones the brain is forced to conclude that the sound is emmitted from inside your own head. In theory this should be mildly confusing, in practice it sounds a bit like a vacum cleaner or a static ring depending on the variance in frequencies. FYI the first three praragraphs of the wikipedia page are generally accurate up until the word ”hypothetical” at which part the bullshit meter starts to go haywire.)
What I find even more interesting however than the effect itself is that this is probably one of the most spectacular demonstrations of the placebo effect and mass hysteria ever recorded in such extraordinary detail. Binaural beats are very well understood and have been demonstrated to cause very small changes in brain activity which result in relatively negligible changes in the way we feel. However tell some kids that “this choon gonna make you trip balls” and a few of them will have the time of their lives rolling around the floor laughing their ass off.
Mass hysteria, though there have been many examples over the course of history (article coming soon) we know very little about the type of people that are affected and the mechanisms behind it. I for one would be fascinated to find out whether any of the videos on youtube are genuine hysteria or whether they are all intelligent kids ripping the piss out of their own Beaurau of Narcotics. If so this may go down as the greatest hoax since the US army fended of German troops with inflatable tanks.
If you have ever experienced binuaral beats in any way or have tricked anyone in to believeing they are high on binaural beats (with or without effect, prank or genuine, whether or not you believe this to be hysteria, placebo or the real thing) please email me a brief report in confidence at firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject “digital drugs”. (Any material recieved may be used for academic published works but your names and contact details will be removed)
For those of you who were pretty heart broken to discover this was all a hoax here’s a little gems especially for you. It is not a binaural beat, but whatever you do, don’t tell FRANK!
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