Scientists open doors with the power of the mind


* Michael Fitzpatrick
* The Guardian, Thursday 22 January 2009
* Article history

A mock-up of a home controlled by the power of thought has been successfully piloted by a hospital in Italy, promising new levels of independence for the severely disabled.

Scientists showed that people could open doors or operate lights, a telephone, a small robot and even a robotic hand by wearing a strip of electrodes on their head to pick up brainwaves that signal “interest” and send them to a computer that interprets them as desired actions.

Demonstrating the system in the Fondazione Santa Lucia research hospital in Rome, Professor Fabio Babiloni said this was one of the first lab-based mock-ups in the world to successfully test this form of home automation – or “assistive domotics” – by mind control.

He predicts that within three years such a system would be of practical benefit to the severely disabled.

“The progress in developing brain computer interfaces (BCI) has grown very rapidly in the last few years to the point where we are capable of 85% accuracy in the computer interpreting a subject’s desired action, such as turning a wheelchair or switching home appliances on or off,” says Babiloni. “The type of brainwave we pinpoint is common to nearly all people when making this ‘focusing interest’ thought.”

Nor is much training required. “A 10-minute familiarisation session is usually enough,” says Babiloni.

That is because the brain wave that is produced when we “show interest”, for example when we focus on a light switch, is well mapped, distinct and almost uniform from person to person.

To demonstrate, one of the Santa Lucia team wore a fabric headset connected to the BCI and could open doors, switch on a fan or adjust lights by concentrating on a menu on a monitor. Two to three attempts are usually needed for each action.

Other applications, apart from gaming and use in a smart home for the exceptionally lazy, is in space, says Babiloni: mind-controlled devices would be a boon to muscle-wasted astronauts.

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