Steer a Spaceship with Your Brain

Astronauts of the future might have a similar cockpit view of space as they did from the Atlantis Space Shuttle, but the difference is that they could potentially pilot a craft using their thoughts.

When the subject concentrated on moving the spaceship along the right trajectory, several computers worked together to read the brain signals, analyze them, and display the simulated spaceship’s movement in real-time.

Initial results were promising. Then, when two people worked collaboratively on moving the spaceship, the trajectory improved considerably. Working with a brain-computer interface is such an intense experience that one person naturally has lapses in attention and two people aren’t likely to have a simultaneous lapse, Poli explained.

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Joint decision-making might not sound as impressive as controlling a spaceship with your brain, but such a set-up might have more immediate applications in a military setting. For example, intelligence officers tasked with sifting through large volumes of satellite images for anomalies could potentially work more effectively if two of them were hooked up to a brain-computer interface.

Real spaceship control is unlikely to be attempted with such a simple set-up, though. “Certainly a kid with a joystick can do better than any number of adults with a brain-computer interface,” Poli said. His research is more of an attempt to move BCI from the lab to the real world and give space agencies a better understanding of BCI in a space context.

This month Poli and his colleagues are presenting their work at the International Conference on Intelligent User Interfaces in Santa Monica, California. Next, Poli said they plan to continue collecting data for their system.

Deniz Erdogmus is an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Northeastern University who directs the Cognitive Systems Laboratory there. His team focuses on researching brain interfaces to develop tech that helps people with severe motor and speech disabilities.

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“This paper presents yet another exciting exploratory work in the domain of brain-controlled machines,” he said. When properly designed and used, such a system might reveal an astronaut’s true thoughts. “Brain interfaces could, in the near future, measure attention and vigilance, motivation, fatigue, cognitive load, affective state,” he added.

Poli is quick to point out that others have done more groundbreaking work developing brain-computer interfaces. The key for his team was using one to control a spacecraft simulator for the first time.

“What we were trying to do is see where the limits are,” he said.

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