It is not enough to have a good mind; the main thing is to use it well, said the 17th century French philosopher Rene Descartes. True enough. Three days ago, an announcement by German scientists revealed how science is moving towards doing just that.

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Driving a car using the power of thought is the latest advance in linking the brain to a computer. Scientists at the Free University of Berlin have connected commercially available sensors that record brain activity—technically, EEG, or electroencephalogram sensors—to a computer-controlled sedan, which means the car is now controlled by thoughts. It was obviously not a good idea to do the test on a road, so Berlin’s mothballed Tempelhof Airport was chosen to prove the concept.

Here’s how they did it. The human brain communicates through electromagnetic signals, which can be measured by EEG sensors fixed to a special cap. That cap was worn by a driver and linked to a computer. A computer interpreted these signals as patterns. The person producing these signals could, through special software, train a computer to interpret these brain patterns as commands, such as “go right", “accelerate", “brake", or “go left". Once the computer was trained, it was taken aboard a car equipped with video cameras, radar and laser sensors—in other words, it could drive itself. The driver took control by simply using his or her thoughts (there’s a lag of a second or two before the driver thinks of, say, turning right and the car obeying).

Clever as it is, you won’t be able to immediately buy a car controlled by your thoughts, and getting a computer to interpret brain patterns is not the same thing as controlling machines with your brain. Linking the brain to a computer is a beguiling prospect, tantalizingly explored in numerous movies, such as the Matrix series and, most recently, Inception, both of which explore how humans live in virtual worlds created at the intersection of the brain and the computer.

To the scientist, these are fantasies rooted in impossibilities, but there is much else that is now in the realm of possibility thanks to dramatic advances in computing, engineering and neuro-biology.

Earlier this month, the US Food and Drug Adminstration (FDA) announced it would review a brain-controlled artificial arm. An FDA press release said the robotic arm is “designed to restore near-natural arm, hand and finger function to patients suffering from spinal cord injury, stroke or amputation".

Repairing damaged bodies—specifically, movement, sight and hearing—has always been the focus of a science called the brain-computer interface. The brain is a supercomputer capable of instantly processing vast amounts of information, and as computers evolved, connecting them to the greatest computer of all was logical. Serious research began in the 1970s, but the biggest breakthroughs emerged as computers, software and brain science together crossed a cusp. It was in the mid-1990s that the first neuro-prosthetics, as devices connected to the brain’s nervous system are called, were implanted in humans.

In 2005, a tetraplegic called Matt Nagle—paralysed from the neck down after being stabbed—became the first person to control a robotic arm simply by thinking of it. Unlike the non-invasive cap worn by the driver of the German car, Nagle, who died in 2007, aged 27, had a computer chip implanted and connected to his brain. He could also control a television set and lights. The company that gave Nagle his implants, BrainGate, collects and analyses the brainwaves of severely disabled, eventually turning their thoughts into action.

A non-invasive offering comes from an Austrian company called Guger Technologies, which sells a special EEG cap: put it on, inject a gel into each electrode and you can start ordering a computer to spell—by selecting characters on a keyboard-like matrix on the screen by thinking about them. It does require some training of mind and machine but most users are good to go within 10 minutes.

Expect to hear of rapid advances in the powers of thought this year.

An annual international competition for brain-computer interface projects saw 60 entries last year, many from China, apart from Japan and the US. The 2011 awards are scheduled for 22 September in Graz, Austria.

An ambitious new research programme supported by the European Commission will study “how the emerging symbiotic relation between humans and computing devices can enable radically new forms of sensing, perception, interaction, and understanding". The project, called HC2 (human-computer confluence) kicked off four months ago and will be officially presented at a European conference on emerging technologies in May this year in Budapest, Hungary.

One HC2 programme, the Hyper Interaction Viability Experiments (HIVE), hopes to turn brain-computer interaction in the opposite direction—computers stimulating the brain. There’s an HIVE workshop in Barcelona on 11 June. There was never a better year to put your thoughts to good use.

Samar Halarnkar is editor-at-large,Hindustan Times. This is a fortnightly column that explores the cutting edge of science and technology.

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