The weird future of brain-computer interfaces: Replacing passwords with thoughts and mind-reading bosses who can tell when you are bored

Brain computer interfaces (BCIs) are starting to make their way into the consumer sphere, from brain-training systems to 'passthoughts'.

What is a brain-computer interface?

Brain computer interfaces may sound futuristic, but adoption of such systems -- which allow signals from the brain to be recorded or used to control technology -- is on the rise. Much of the development work going on around BCIs is focused on medical uses for the tech, but consumer applications of BCIs are already being explored, from providing a better gaming experience to allow your boss to track your work rate. 

BCIs have generated enough buzz to make it into Gartner 's hype cycle, the tech analyst's measure of which new technologies are living up to their promises, and which are falling short. BCIs are, according to last year's hype cycle for emerging technologies, in the peak of inflated expectations.

Perhaps it's no surprise that the hype is running ahead of the reality, especially when it comes to consumer use of technology. For now, the most able and interesting uses of brain-computer interfaces are found in research labs. Many are aimed at helping people with injuries and medical conditions recover abilities they've lost, while a few -- gaming using a BCI controller, or flying a drone using thought alone -- are designed to show how the tech could one day be used by consumers. 

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Perhaps the biggest impact that BCIs will have on consumer technology is by fundamentally changing the way we interact with our devices. 

Take authenticating our identity, for example. Currently, the most common way to get access to software or hardware is still passwords, with all the hassles that goes with it: they're hard to set, easy to forget, and frequently hacked. Researchers are already experimenting with 'passthoughts' as an alternative, and have shown that a BCI that can fit inside an earbud can pick up thoughts with enough reliability to be used as a method of authentication.

BCIs could change how we interface with our devices in other ways. Facebook, among others, is betting big on BCIs. It recently acquired CTRL-labs, a brain computer interface startup, in a deal thought to be worth up to $1bn. CTRL-labs offers wrist-worn hardware that picks up nerve signals from the skin using EMG and translates them into movement signals that can be used to control digital devices. Rather than opening or closing a software window with the click of a mouse, systems like CTRL-labs will enable users to do the same thing using a small gesture.  

The drive for new ways of controlling devices In recent years mirrors the rise of virtual reality gaming, as well as augmented reality kit like Google Glass. These new devices have highlighted the need for interfaces that are less intrusive and which need minimal physical interaction for a user to take an action. VR in particular requires users to hold clunky controllers while gaming, which detracts from the feeling of quasi-reality such systems are trying to generate. 

Prior to being acquired by Facebook, CTRL Labs released a developer kit, and published demos showing how its BCI system could be used in gaming. Whether CTRL Labs will boost the gaming side of its business when the acquisition closes is not clear (Facebook also owns VR kit maker Oculus Rift), but others with an interest in BCIs are already showing just how brain-computer interfaces could be used in gaming.

Researchers have demonstrated a BCI version of a Tetris-like game, where players worked collaboratively to win, while BCI startup Neurable launched a BCI-controlled game back in 2017.

While most BCI-controlled games released so far have been research projects by researchers or attention-grabbing stunts, a recent talk by Michael Ambinder, the lead experimental psychologist at game developer Valve, shows how seriously gaming companies are investigating BCIs. 

According to Ambinder, by using a BCI instead of a traditional controller, gamers would be free from the constraints of having to remember complex chains of key presses to control their avatar; with a BCI, they could just think it. For professional e-sports players, BCIs could also offer a way of cutting down reaction time when playing.

For most players, however, one of the key ways that BCIs could shape gaming is by allowing the creation of games that respond to the way players are thinking. By measuring players' moods and attention levels through the BCIs, game designers could create personalised experiences. Like fighting bosses of a certain type, or finding a particular level too boring? The BCI could pick up changes in your mood that shows that, and alter the game to make it more entertaining. Using real-time feedback from BCIs to adapt games would mean "we'd be much better games designers," Ambinder said.

Aside from gaming, there are other brain-computer interface use cases emerging for consumer technologies. 

Several brain-computer interface companies are pitching BCIs as a means of improving memory and mental alertness. Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), which has been explored by both medical and military researchers as a way of improving cognition, is also starting to make its way into the consumer tech sphere. A handful of companies are already selling devices that, when worn on the head, can transmit electrical currents into the brain and so, the theory goes, modulate your brain activity (signals carried in the brain are electrical themselves). They're touted as both ways of dealing with medical conditions like fibromyalgia and migraine, as well as boosting users' memories and mental sharpness if coupled with 'brain-training' protocols. 

The jury is out on tDCS' effectiveness -- and even its safety -- however: "There have also been reports that tDCS can enhance physical as well as mental performance. For example, 20 minutes of exposure to tDCS was found in some studies to improve the peak performance of cyclists," a recent report by the Royal Society said. "Other researchers have issued warnings about the unknown factors in tDCS, such as the possibility of unintended damage to parts of the brain not being stimulated and variable impacts on different people. Others have suggested that the apparent effects of do-it-yourself tDCS may amount to a 'placebo response' in people resulting from an expectation of benefit."

tDCS isn't the only way that BCIs could be used to deliberately hack the brain: neurofeedback systems are being pitched as a way to deal with stress, or even a way to improve willpower or concentration. Researchers at Columbia University have shown how neurofeedback using an EEG-based BCI could be used to affect alertness and improve subjects' performance in a cognitively-demanding task.

Such neurofeedback systems, for now, are largely still in the lab. However, BCI companies believe that neurofeedback could be used to adjust mood or stress, and could one day become another information stream for the quantified self. 

Jamie Alders, VP of product at Neurable, told ZDNet in a recent interview that BCIs could ultimately become part of a "FitBit-for-the-brain type of solution". 

In the same way fitness trackers can monitor heart rate, oxygen saturations, and step count, "in the future we'll be able to give you insights on what your brain has been looking like -- how is your stress level, how is your fatigue level, how your focus changed over the day, and help you make decisions on when's a good time to be at work or when should you take a break and relax. That's not something that's ready today, but that's something we're working towards. That's our vision -- these devices that can control using brain activity and give you feedback that is useful," Alders said.  

Gathering data about the workings of the brain could potentially be fed into existing consumer wellness systems like Apple's Health or Google's Fit to add a new dimension to health tracking. Along with monitoring their physical health, users could gather data on their wellbeing, by measuring metrics such as stress level or emotional state, and potentially use that information to improve mood or reduce anxiety.

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That information may be not only useful to the BCI's users, but it may equally be of interest to their employers, allowing them to keep an eye on how stressed or focused staff are, and adjust employees' environment or workload accordingly. 

"If BCI use is seen as enhancing forms of worker efficiency (whether that be using EEG data to help workers meditate or get into a particular psychological state, or if the BCI itself can be used to accomplish tasks such as recognition-based tasks), employers and companies could start pushing their employees to adopt technologies," Richmond Wong, a PhD researcher at the UC Berkley School of Information specialising in BCIs, told ZDNet.

"We've already seen a version of this where workers get Fitbits or other activity-tracking technologies in exchange for lower healthcare deductibles, but their employer and the healthcare companies get access to their data," Wong said.

If consumer BCIs take off, they will provide whole new data streams about users' thoughts that have never been gathered before. And where there's data, there's likely to be someone looking to make money from it. BCI technology may be cutting edge, but the data it collects is likely to plumb into numerous existing business models that involve consumers sharing vast stores of their own data, some of it sensitive, with a company that then profits from it. 

"Companies will probably find ways to monetize and profit from the data collected from BCI devices," Wong said. "If EEG data is seen as particularly valuable (or even as potentially valuable), companies may encourage new uses of BCIs in order to collect and stockpile this potentially valuable data about users. This is similar to a lot of online services we see today, where users get free use of a social media service, in return for their data being used for advertising purposes or for analysis by the companies collecting the data."