Computers as Mind Readers

THE MARRIAGE OF MAN (OR WOMAN) and machine is one of the most intriguing images in science fiction. From the Bionic Woman to RoboCop, these creatures are blessed with bodies that just won't quit and brains at the top of the evolutionary scale. You ain't seen nothing yet. To some futurists, the most alluring possibility is what science fiction calls ""wetware,'' the linking of the human brain and computers. The word ""wet'' refers to the brain; it's a play on hardware (computer equipment) and software (computer programs). In this vision, humans would be connected directly to the machines. The computer could literally read your brain waves, your thoughts -- all your thoughts, mundane and majestic. Need a phone number for a friend named Joe? There it is on the screen, called up from your private database, which also lists Joe's other vital stats. That novel in your head? It's all typed out for you on the screen, right down to that embarrassing little fantasy you'd prefer no one knew about. (The name of this genre? What else but stream of consciousness?)

Virtual telepathy is probably generations away (if it ever happens), but researchers are currently experimenting with devices that might someday evolve into a kind of wetware. Scientists are trying to create computer images through electrodes attached to the brain, arm or facial muscles. These systems work by translating the electrical signals generated by the nervous system into patterns that the computer can read. The research helps increase computer access for disabled people who could substitute a blink of an eye or the twitch of a cheek for fingers on the keyboard.

A handful of entrepreneurs are working on ways of using this technology to sell products to a larger audience. None of these is real wetware -- or even close to it. But they're appealing to true wetware believers.

The BioMuse computer from BioControl Systems, a company in Palo Alto, Calif., processes signals from muscles, eyes and brains, according to cofounder Anthony Lloyd. His partners are an engineer and a neurophysiologist. An armband or sweatband picks up the electrical signals. The BioMuse isn't reading the user's mind in the science-fiction sense; it turns the body's electrical impulses into digital data that the computer understands. Ultimately, the company hopes, the BioMuse could allow users to control the computer through thinking. The computer could interpret thought patterns as different commands, depending on the software that's used with it, Lloyd says.

Another small company, IBVA Technologies, Inc., in New York, says its Interactive Brainwave Visual Analyzer transforms brain waves, again collected through a device that looks like a headband, into many forms, including music. As you become angry, for example, your brain waves change and the notes corresponding to particular patterns shift as well. It's a cousin of biofeedback, says Helen Meschkow, IBVA's sales manager. She says in future incarnations, the machine might be used to turn your whole house into a kind of mood ring. If you come home feeling stressed, the machine would translate that tension into a command to lower the lights and turn on soothing music.

MindSet was developed by the Aqua-Thought Foundation, a California research organization dedicated to studying interaction between humans and dolphins, and Monsoon Software of Baltimore. It draws maps of a user's brain waves on a computer screen. Sunil Gupta of Monsoon Software, who helped create MindSet, says it sells for around $2,000. He thinks devices like his could eventually be used to control computer functions. Someday, Gupta predicts, interaction between humans and computers will be ""transparent'' -- in other words, there will be no artificial barriers such as a keyboard. Machines and humans will interact using a range of senses -- auditory, visual and tactile.

In March, Advanced Neurotechnologies in Colorado Springs announced its ""BrainLink'' computer-interface system. After a two-week, $6,000 training session, users can learn to control their brain waves, claims founder Richard Patton. The user studies a pattern on the screen and then concentrates so he can reproduce that pattern.

If some of this stuff sounds on the edge, consider the subculture of neurohackers described by writer Gareth Branwyn in an article on wetware research in Wired magazine. ""Science fiction has fed us so many images of technologically souped-up humans that the current work . . . seems almost retro by comparison,'' says Branwyn. The neurohackers can't wait for the future, he says; they've decided to ""take matters into their own heads'' -- sometimes by sending electrical signals directly to their brains through homemade devices.

The early forms of wetware seem especially primitive compared with the brain itself, which is far more complicated than even the most powerful supercomputer man could attach to it today. ""We have this gigantic power of memorizing visual images,'' says Emilio Bizzi, head of MIT's department of brain and cognitive sciences. ""No machine could come close to storing a fraction of the images in our head.'' On the other hand, someday a version of wetware might remind you where you left your car keys so you can concentrate on more important issues -- like where you want to go.