Telekinesis 2.0

A team of researchers in Switzerland brings brain-computer interfaces to the next level–by making them less exhausting. And a team in Germany makes them scarier–by showing that you can even use them to drive a car.

brain-computer interface


Telekinesis is tough work. Brain-computer interfaces are increasingly becoming a reality, enabling neuro-prosthetics, brain-powered wheelchairs, and even thought-controlled pinball machines. The problem, though, is that using brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) can require an exhausting level of concentration, and are rarely able to be effectively used for more than an hour (which is okay for the pinball dilettante, but hardly so for the quadriplegic).

Now a research team at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland is working to solve this problem, by engineering BCIs that allow users to rest their brains–and even to multitask.

Typically, even simply telling a brain-powered wheelchair to “keep going straight” requires intense focus. But the Lausanne researchers, headed up by Jose del R. Millan (whom we’ve written about here before), have figured out ways to ease the user’s cognitive burden. They’ve developed a statistical analysis program that helps the BCI read the subject’s mental intentions. When the subject really wants to deliver a command, the computer detects that. When the subject actually wants to be thinking about something else, the computer detects that too. The group demonstrated this approach recently in Washington, DC, showing how users could read aloud while delivering commands to the BCI.

In a video explaining the recent advances, Millan says: “The next step in improving mental control over long periods time is to integrate information about the cognitive state of the subject.”


He has his work cut out for him, apparently, because it’s not just wheelchairs and tiny robots that we’ll be controlling with our minds in the future. We also learn today that computer scientists in Germany have made it possible to drive a car with your thoughts. “In our test runs, a driver equipped with EEG sensors was able to
control the car with no problem–there was only a slight delay between
the envisaged commands and the response of the car,” said Raúl
Rojas, of the AutoNOMOS project at Freie Universität Berlin. A video, below, helpfully cautions that you should “never try this at home.”

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[Photos: EFPL]

About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.