In the latest episode of Future You, check out an armband that lets you control tech devices with your mind. This is not a brain implant or even a headset. It's an armband that reads neuron activity to let you move objects in digital space. Then it goes further, giving you mental control of physical robots too. Think "the Force" from Star Wars.
Could this fundamentally change the way we interact with our devices? The scientists and engineers behind it say that if this kind of intention-powered technology takes off, clunky keyboards and tiny smartphone screen buttons will be a thing of the past. Instead of controlling our tech with voice or touch, we'd control it with our thoughts.
This season of Future You is dedicated to the human body and what capabilities we will have in the coming decades. You can find the latest episodes on YouTube or at npr.org/futureyou. And send us your ideas about upgrading humans: Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or contact us through Twitter, Instagram or Facebook.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
You know how in "Star Wars," Jedi Knights can pick things up and make things move just by using their minds using the force? There are some scientists and computer programmers out there who are developing digital technology so that you can do that. This is the subject of the latest episode of our video series Future You, and Elise Hu has been trying it out. Hi there, Elise.
ELISE HU, BYLINE: Good morning.
INSKEEP: How would it be possible in the real world to make things move just by thinking about them moving?
HU: By reading the nerve impulses from your arm. So I went to the offices of a company called CTRL-labs, where they've developed an armband. It's the size of a wristwatch. And that can read the nerve impulses in your arm. And when you put it on, just by moving your hand or flicking a finger, you can make things happen on a screen or even in real life with physical objects.
INSKEEP: In real life - like what?
HU: OK. First, let's take the screen example. Picture a video game on the screen where there's images of objects, a whole world on there. And with this armband on, I could make a motion with my hand...
JESSLYN TANNADY: You pull like this, kind of like, I want this to, like, come towards me...
HU: ...Like I was grabbing something and picking it up or even pushing it away. And, on the screen, the object would respond. The engineer there, Jesslyn Tannady, taught me how to do this.
TANNADY: Try pushing something far away using open hand.
HU: Hold on. Oh. Oh...
TANNADY: You got it. You got it.
TANNADY: All right. Try - oh. Oh...
HU: What am I - oh.
TANNADY: Towards sky. Towards sky. Towards sky (laughter).
INSKEEP: People will be a little familiar with the concept because they've seen video games like Xbox, where the device somehow reads your motion. But here, it's reading your thoughts?
HU: That's correct. So this is a lot more sophisticated. And the other thing, Steve, is they've taken this beyond the digital world. They've devised ways that this armband will let you actually move physical objects - for instance, a robot.
So this guy - this y'all call the hexapod?
TANNADY: This is our little hexapod.
HU: They have this little robot that looks like a mechanical spider, about the size of a football. And each of its legs represented one of my fingers. So I could open my hand to make it walk. Or if I held that robot behind my back and lined its legs kind of near my back there, I could scratch my own back.
TANNADY: Give yourself back scratches.
HU: OK. Hold on. Oh, whoa (laughter).
INSKEEP: So assuming this works on a larger and larger scale, what does it mean for human beings?
HU: The founder of this company says he wants this nerve impulse reading to fundamentally change the way we actually interface with our devices and machines. His name is Thomas Reardon.
THOMAS REARDON: So, yes, an extension of you where interacting with a computer and a machine no longer feels like something you're doing mechanically, but instead is just a fluid extension of your thoughts and subtle movements.
HU: So what he's saying there, Steve, is no more typing, no more swiping on your phone or even voice control.
REARDON: All these things that we think of as the internet of things that all have their perverse little interfaces, like the Nest thermostat on the wall...
HU: Right. Right.
REARDON: ...There's no reason for me to go up and touch it and move it. I ought to be able to just look at it and change the temperature.
INSKEEP: Sounds powerful and amazing. But in this series, Future You, Elise, you always ask what the downsides of things are.
HU: Right. And privacy is a huge concern here because your neural identity is so specific to you. So the signals that we generate neurologically are the most unique identifiers of ourselves. Reardon puts it this way.
REARDON: Give us 30 seconds of recordings from a person, and we can identify that person for the rest of their lives. And we have to make sure that people who might have the opportunity to exploit it, to track you and otherwise pervert your superpowers don't have an easy way to go do that.
INSKEEP: It's like a fingerprint, only it's a neuro-print?
HU: Exactly. And as with a lot of technology, we're making our lives a lot more fluid this way, and it would enhance what we can do. But it's opening up a lot of questions as we go forward too.
INSKEEP: What can I do with this technology right now?
HU: CTRL-labs is going to release a developer's kit. Other tech designers can make their device work with the armband. So maybe an auto engineer would be able to make a car that responds to your arm movements. And you'll be able to summon that car, or you could change your thermostat, like Reardon says.
INSKEEP: Thanks, Elise.
HU: You bet.
INSKEEP: You can check out Elise trying the force - or more accurately, this CTRL-kit armband - in her latest episode of Future You with Elise Hu. It's at npr.org.
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