True facts: Every time you have a thought or feeling, your brain produces weak but distinct electrical signals corresponding to that thought or feeling. Recording and deciphering those signals is called electroencephalography (EEG), and it has been medically possible since 1924. We've all seen what classical EEG devices look like: the electrode caps on the shaved heads, the gel dots and hundreds of tiny wires. Setup is labor intensive, the results are aesthetically unpleasing and the devices are incredibly uncomfortable to wear.
For Philip Low, a mathematician and biology student doing experiments with birds at the University of Chicago in 2007, the last of the complaints was particularly vexing. In a phone interview with The Huffington Post, Low talked about the problems he and other researchers faced trying to figure out if birds dreamed. There was evidence, he said, that birds "replayed songs in their heads" while they slept, but the results given by EEG devices were wildly unreliable. "The birds had to be drugged to sleep," said Low, in order to attach the electrodes. But the drugs interfered with the birds' sleep patterns, and Low’s results were thus inconclusive.
So Low set out to invent a new kind of EEG, one that would revolutionize mind reading -- a field that he's once again on the cusp of fundamentally changing five years later.
By 2009, Low had succeeded on his first invention, with "math so simple it could fit on a page." The algorithms he invented allowed researchers to collect electrical signals from bird brains using just a single electrode, a technique now called "single-channel EEG." They also allowed Low to graduate from the University of San Diego with a one-page thesis ("The shortest in the history of the university," he said.) and a 350-page appendix.
But by the end of the same year, Low was ready to move beyond birds. He wanted to build a single-channel device for humans. When he approached incredulous investors, though, he said he had "every door shut in my face."
"Tech people thought I was selling out, while CEOs thought I was a tech kid who couldn't run a company," he told HuffPost.
Nevertheless, Low took risks, applying for loans from as many banks as possible while maxing out every credit card in his name. The cash boost he received was enough to build a single-channel EEG device for humans (named the "iBrain" just before the iPhone came out) and a small company, "NeuroVigil," around it. Subsequently, Low gained some fame when it was revealed that he was assisting Stephen Hawking. But thus far, the devices he's produced have been "for medical and research use only," he said.
But Low wasn't alone in seeing the possibilities offered by single-channel EEG. In 2009, Australia-based hardware company Emotiv began producing $300 EEG-enabled gaming headsets under the brand name EPOC. Soon after, NeuroSky, a company claiming to make "bio-sensors for everybody," began producing emotion-reading, mind-controlled cat ears called "Necomimi" to sell at anime conventions. Now, even the scientific community that once deprecated Low is taking a look at his single-channel EEG -- and they've realized mind reading isn't just for research anymore. On the contrary, it can be used in a myriad of ways, both malicious and benign.
Mario Frank isn't a specialist in EEG. He told The Huffington Post via email that his research in Berkeley, Calif., is in computer hacking, including "key-logging, timing attacks, etc." Frank's research group, however, has an interest in the fact that commercial single-channel EEG devices "are becoming increasingly popular in the gaming and entertainment industries." The group has produced a paper that looks at the developing EEG industry as currently defined by players like commercial EEG producer Emotiv.
Could these devices allow malicious hackers to gain access to our minds? Yes, according to some. By gaining access to the software used to record and analyze electrical signals picked up by the EEG, hackers could build "brain spyware" apps that could potentially trick users into offering up personal information, Gizmodo wrote in a story on mind-hacking. In email correspondence with The Huffington Post, Frank said he thinks EEG devices present an unique vector for cyberattacks.
"The experiments have demonstrated that an attacker with access to the raw EEG signal can guess secrets of the end-user significantly better compared with random guessing. This means that, once this technology is used by more people and once there are more apps written by third-party developers, there is the chance that malicious software attacks the user's privacy," Frank wrote.
But as malicious as mind reading may seem, EEG devices also have the power to enhance existing technologies that enable humanitarian endeavors. Christine King, a biomedical engineering student at the University of California at Irvine, recently built and tested mind-controlled robotic legs that could eventually succeed in restoring 'brain-controlled ambulation' to the paralyzed. In an email to The Huffington Post, King said she's optimistic about EEG devices' potential to "increase the independence and quality of life" of those with injuries that restrict mobility. The legs are currently in the earliest stages of development, confined to indoor treadmills and tested only on subjects who are not paralyzed, but the latest research from King’s team indicates that paralyzed testers may try the legs in the near future.
Low is hoping to speed up such medical advances with his newest product: a device the size of a U.S. quarter that he plans to release sometime next year. Low's "iBrain 3" will be the first FDA-approved EEG device on the market, which means it can be used for medical as well as recreational purposes. Low said his goal is to drive the cost of the product down to less than $100 in order to "have a lot of people using it." With all the applications the world has already found for EEG technology -- video games, computer games, painting, composing, mind-controlling cat ears, even letting people walk again -- a tiny EEG for under $100 may be just what it takes to make mind reading go mainstream.
But in that process, Low may be his own worst enemy. While he hopes to make the iBrain 3 commercially viable, Low insists that he doesn't want it used for "some gizmo for people to buy at Christmas." Low hopes the product will be used as a tool for serious medical research, he said. However, he plans to make the API for the iBrain 3 public -- which means he won't be able to control what "gizmos" people make for the single-channel device after NeuroVigil begins to sell it.