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Q & A: Human-Computer Interfaces

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Most recent answer: 10/22/2007
Q:
Is it possible to integrate the human brain with a computer, creating more storage space or something totally new? I mean is it possible to intergrate computer tech with human genetics so that they work together?
- Sam (age 14)
Miami, FL
A:
Hi Sam,

Most people work with their computers via rather clumsy, slow, awkward interfaces, and that's the way most people like it. We use keyboards, mice, screens, speakers, joysticks, headphones, projectors, and "virtual-reality goggles (which are really not much more than tiny screens put close to your eyes) in order to communicate with our machines. People use computers to store and retrieve large amounts of information already. As a high-energy experimentalist, I use computers all the time to record data from apparatus and then I devise programs that sort through it to measure things. In fact, there is so much more data that my experiment collects than I am personally able to process with my nervous system, I am very much happier that the data didn't go through me in some way, and I am perfectly happy looking at the distilled versions I can devise by making graphs of the data in different ways, looking at them on a screen.

Some machines do in fact interact even more intimiately with us, but always in some limited way. Hearing aids is a common application, as are pacemakers. Research effort is intensifying as I write this to develop an artificial retina; a system which includes a video camera, a radio transmitter, a receiver inside the eye, and electrodes which can stimulate the optic nerve. This device is meant to help restore some kind of vision to people who suffer from macular degeneration or retinitis, but won't help others whose eyesight problems are not related to the retina.

Another kind of new machine interface which is being researched but I don't know if there are any successful examples yet is a prosthetic limb which can pick up small muscle twitches in the stump left over and move accordingly, or one that can pick up electrical impulses on a nerve ending and move accordingly.

I'd imagine that limb prosthetics and sensory replacement devices will become the most desired direct machine-human interface applications for the time being. People will probably revolt against more invasive kinds of technology (particularly anything involving genetics, as you mention -- do we want machines to change our reproduction?). The bioethecists will certainly complain.

Tom

(published on 10/22/2007)

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