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Dec. 20, 2011

Mind-controlled devices might evoke visions of ESP, government testing, and sci-fi thrillers, but smart phones that call someone when you think about them might be closer than you think.

IBM released a list of five innovations that the company believes will change life as we know it in five years or less. Among them: mind-controlled devices.

The technology already exists in rudimentary form?and it's available commercially. NeuroSky, a San Jose, Calif., based electronics company sells a headset that measures brainwaves and allows a user to move an object. Last year, a group of researchers in the United Kingdom used their technology to control a crane and Mattel's Mindflex game uses a NeuroSky headset to allow players to move a foam ball using brainwaves.

But the most relevant real-world work has been done to help patients who've suffered strokes or have brain diseases such as Parkinson's to regain body function.

IBM also listed biometric authentication, universal internet connectivity, personalized "junk mail" and human-generated power sources as other innovations that "have the potential to change the way people work, live and interact during the next five years."

Chad Bouton, a researcher at Battelle, an Ohio-based technology development organization, has helped quadriplegics move their wheelchair and computer mouse cursors with tiny computer chips implanted in a patient's brain that help electric charges bypass damaged brain regions.

"You're essentially rewiring the nervous system," Bouton says.

But making something move based on comparatively rudimentary brainwaves and discerning actual thoughts is a whole different ballgame, according to Bernie Meyerson, IBM's vice president of innovation.

"We've been moving dots around on green screens for five or 10 years," he says. But when it comes to translating human thought into complex actions such as instantly calling up vacation photos as you're remembering your trip, "we're getting lightyears away from [the technology] we have today."

That's not to say we'll never get there?IBM, after all, thinks this technology will change the world within five years. But experts disagree on the speed at which it'll happen.

Meyerson thinks the capability to convert electric signals from the brain into complex action will require a "light bulb moment," one that IBM and hundreds of other researchers are working to achieve.

Meanwhile, NeuroSky is convinced this can be done incrementally. For $99, the company's MindWave headset allows users to play virtual games such as tug of war, analyze golf swing movements, and even detect emotions such as surprise and excitement.

David Westendorf, the company's general manager, says in the next two years, smartphones might be able detect the excitement over seeing your friend's name in a contact list and dial the number automatically.

Such technology gives the world an idea of what's possible, but these fun applications are really the "Model-T compared to the Ferrari" we'll see in a few years, according to Meyerson.

The biggest barrier is differentiating between what Westendorf calls "dominant mental states"?the feeling of surprise, anger, or happiness?and the "thought" that made you feel that way.

Both Westendorf and Meyerson hold out hope that advances in technology will allow brain waves and thoughts to be read through the skull externally with enough accuracy to be useful. They admit it's a stretch to expect consumers to implant chips in their brain in order to play a game or seamlessly make phone calls, at least for now.

"Will it have to go [to chip implantation]? I genuinely don't know yet, but I don't see somebody deciding, 'OK, I want to go gaming, implant this in my head.' I think that's a little extreme," Meyerson says.

It won't happen with current technology, says Bouton.

"The bone and skin tissue tend to smear the signals, so the fidelity is nowhere near what it is on the surface of the brain," he explains.

But if Meyerson has anything to say about it, the days when a keyboard and mouse cease to exist and you're constantly plugged in are coming.

"I actually believe we will get there. I have about an 80 percent level of faith that it's doable," he says. "But we do hard stuff, and sometimes hard stuff just doesn't work."

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