It’s science, not magic: Capitol researchers harness brainpower to control devices

March 16, 2018

Being able to use your thoughts – no mouse or joystick required – to control computerized devices may once have sounded like sci-fi fantasy, but a research team at Capitol is working on projects that demonstrate such capabilities are very real.

Stock photo of an EEG headsetDrs. Jason M. Pittman and Garima Bajwa are co-leading the Brain-Machine Interface program at Capitol, with a lab on campus providing space and equipment for experimentation. Currently on the agenda: enabling humans to fly drones using just their thoughts.

“You think ‘drone go up, drone go down, drone go left, drone go right – there’s no joystick,” Pittman explained. “You fly it and think it. We have a team of four students who are working with Dr. Bajwa on this.”

In addition to the Capitol community, opportunities are available for students at area community colleges to visit the university and see this technology in action. Capitol will be holding a special BMI workshop on Saturday (March 24) for community college and high school students.

“We’ll have activities for them that involve interacting with the drone, or using your brain to interact with a piece of software and control an object moving on a screen – like playing a game of Pong using only your thoughts,” Pittman said. “It’s some pretty cool stuff.”

And the potential applications are boundless. Human activities are increasingly linked to a variety of computerized, networked devices that, together, constitute what many refer to as the Internet of Things. Tools like the “personal assistants” Alexa or Siri allow humans to control these devices with voice commands.

The technology being explored at Capitol takes the process a step further – one day, Pittman says, we may not need to utter a voiced command to control our devices. They will respond to our thoughts.

“It’s exciting and scary,” he says. “Exciting because of the benefits – for instance, people with certain kinds of disabilities or impairments will have access in a way that they didn’t have before. Scary because of the security aspect. A nefarious actor could theoretically get between you and your devices. The lights turn on, leaving you to wonder ‘did I think that?’” There is the potential to mess seriously with people’s minds and sense of agency.”

As a cybersecurity expert, it’s part of Pittman’s job to consider such risks and devise ways of mitigating them. For now, though, the BMI workshop’s main focus is to explore the technological possibilities – in ways that are educational and excitement.

“We’re having a blast,” Pittman says. “And we hope area students will join us on the 24th to join in the fun.”