Scientists say that we may soon be able to control flying drones with our minds, and communicate almost telepathically via smart phones, thanks to temporary electronic tattoos. Todd Coleman, associate professor of bioengineering at the University of California, is developing non-invasive means to control electronics with the mind – a technique that can be used by practically anybody.
Controlling machines by thought alone is no longer strictly the domain of science fiction. In recent years, brain implants have given people the ability to control robots with their thoughts, giving hope that one day we will be able to overcome the disadvantages of serious injury and disability with the help of bionic limbs or mechanical exoskeletons.
But brain implants are an invasive technology, and perhaps should only be used in people who need them for medical reasons. Instead, Coleman and his team are developing flexible wireless chips that read brain activity, which can be placed on the hand in the form of a temporary tattoo.
The devices have a thickness of less than one hundred microns – the average thickness of a human hair. They consist of the chips that are integrated into a thin layer of polyester, which allows them to bend and stretch. They are virtually invisible on the skin, so they are easy to hide from others.
These devices are capable of reading electrical signals associated with brain waves, and include built in solar batteries for power and antennae for wireless communication and energy intake. Additional elements may be integrated – such as thermal scanners to monitor skin temperature or detectors that keep track of blood oxygen levels.
Electronic telekinesis? Digital telepathy?
These devices can be placed on different parts of the body – for example, on the throat. When people think about speaking, their throat muscles contract, even if they remain silent – this is called subvocalization. Thus, an electronic tattoo on one’s throat may act as a subvocal microphone, through which people can communicate silently without the aid of chords or wires.
“We were able to demonstrate that our sensors can detect the electrical signals of the movement of muscles in the throat, so people could communicate just by thinking,” says Coleman. He adds that an electronic tattoo on the throat can capture signals that can be used by smartphones with speech recognition.
Coleman notes that current invasive brain implants still perform better in reading brain activity.
But neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis of Duke University Medical Center, says that people are in need and non-invasive techniques such as this. “People want the ability to manipulate their surroundings, or at least to play games, via thought,” said Nicolelis, who is not a part of Coleman’s project team.
Flexible, electronic chips can be used in monitoring brain activity in patients suffering from neurological disorders. These sets of sensors detect the electrical rhythms of the brain and can transmit information optically or electromagnetically, supplying researchers with data on brain disorders – for example, the development of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, depression, and schizophrenia.
There is also the possibility of using tiny electronic labels with sensors and wireless transmitters to replace the bulky wired devices which are currently used to monitor newborn infants in intensive care wards. Resuscitation methods for premature infants have already made significant progress in minimizing damage to the cardiopulmonary system.