If you believe this video — and that’s a big if — the era of thought-controlled phones has begun. A pair of hobbyist hackers claim to have taken Siri, the iPhone 4S feature that obeys voice commands, and turned it into an app that obeys brainwave patterns.
“It works! It really works! It’s so freaking amazing,” Josh Evans and Ollie Hayward announced Tuesday on the blog they created to chronicle what they call “Project Black Mirror.”
In the accompanying YouTube video, Evans wears EEG pads on his forehead and squints in concentration. A circuit board attached to an iPhone on the table beeps shortly later, and a mechanical voice says “calling Graham,” the third member of the project, whose phone then rings.
The hackers explain that they used the EEG pads to record the “signature brain patterns” of 25 Siri-based commands. By pairing the signatures with the commands, they effectively create a brain pattern-to-voice dictionary.
That means their system doesn’t necessarily know what a person is thinking, but it knows that certain electrical activity in the brain translates to certain commands.
When the system identifies the electrical signature in the brain, it feeds the appropriate command to a sound synthesizer chip, the audio output of which is plugged into the iPhone’s microphone jack.
Scientists at the Honda Research Institute unveiled a technology in 2009 that makes its robot, Asimo, responsive to thought commands. It also used EEG technology to translate electrical signals into commands.
The Case Against
But Honda also said the real-life applications of the technology were limited. That was partly because of the way our thoughts get easily distracted, and partly because brain patterns can differ greatly between two people who are thinking the same word. In other words, anyone who wanted to use the technology would need to train it.
Jonathan Hefter, the CEO of technology company Neverware, says that if Project Black Mirror does work, it probably has similar limitations and is unlikely to be capable of executing a large number of commands.
“Black Mirror does not seem to be using a general dictionary of human thought, what we would call mind reading,” he says. “Their EEG can’t really tell the difference between you thinking about a movie you like and a song you like. ‘Mind reading’ will require a much higher resolution scanner, like an fMRI or an embedder array, and a common map and dictionary of what our natural thoughts look like.”
There’s also a possibility that the Black Mirror demonstrations posted to YouTube are the result of creative camera work rather than an interesting hack. The blog incorrectly calls the technology used to measure electrical activities of the brain ECG instead of EEG. ECG is used to measure activities of the heart.
It seems that this is a mistake someone familiar enough with the technology to use it in a thought command project would be unlikely to make. The setup is also somewhat suspicious, according to Dami Oomojola, who similarly used four electrodes in a brain computer interface he created to move a cursor on a computer screen.
“[In their setup] they are far more likely to be picking up the electrical signals generated by moving the larger muscles of the face such as when blinking the eyes,” he says, “[and] the lack of shielding in the leads from the head also mean there is going to be lots of ambient noise in their signal.”
Those who are willing to believe that the project is genuine may soon have a chance to put some skin in the game. The hackers’ demo video is intended for a Kickstarter funding page.