Computing Community Consortium Blog

The goal of the Computing Community Consortium (CCC) is to catalyze the computing research community to debate longer range, more audacious research challenges; to build consensus around research visions; to evolve the most promising visions toward clearly defined initiatives; and to work with the funding organizations to move challenges and visions toward funding initiatives. The purpose of this blog is to provide a more immediate, online mechanism for dissemination of visioning concepts and community discussion/debate about them.

“The Cyborg in Everyone”

October 24th, 2011 / in big science, conference reports, research horizons / by Erwin Gianchandani

2011 Emerging Technologies Conference at MITWe blogged about brain-computer interfaces early last week — and it turns out there was a related talk later in the week by Gerwin Schalk, a Research Scientist at the Wadsworth Center, during MIT’s 2011 Emerging Technologies Conference. Schalk described his lab’s pioneering methods for controlling computers with thoughts instead of fingers:

Gerwin Schalk, Wadsworth Center, New York State Department of Health

[In 1968], Doug Engelbart actually showed for the first time how it is possible to use a mouse, a graphical interface, and networked computers to … augment human function. The idea of course was to offload some of the … clerical tasks that we used to perform as humans to a computer that [could] hopefully do these things much faster…


So the vision of Doug Engelbart and his contemporaries — or even people before him — which was nicely expressed by J.C.R. Licklider, who wrote … more than 50 years ago, is that, ‘The hope is that, in not too many years, human brains and computing machines will be coupled together very tightly, and that the resulting partnership will think as no human brain has ever thought and process data in a way not approached by the information-handling machines we know today…”


Now, of course, you know that this vision that J.C.R. Licklider articulated 50 years ago truly has come to be a reality. We can now go on Google and we can type in a keyword, [and] Google goes out and has terabits of information processing speed and terahertz of information processing power, and comes back on 0.23 seconds and tells us what the answer to our query is…


Now that, however, has sort of brought up another problem which I used to call the communications problem… Our brain is an information processing machine that does a lot of things in parallel. It doesn’t execute one particular algorithm very quickly, but it executes a lot of algorithms all at once. Now in contrast, [in] the computer… you have one particular algorithm — typically one of a few algorithms — that are executed very, very quickly. So both of these devices — the brain and the computer — in their own right are extremely, extremely powerful. [But] the path that connects these two is a very, very small pipe. In fact, in terms of information transfer rate, if we transmit information to the outside by spoken language or by typing for example, we cannot communicate more than about 40 to 50 bits per second. Period. That’s the maximum speed of our motor system in communicating with the outside. Now that’s sort of pathetic given the fact that the brain is pretty powerful and that computers of course can transmit hundreds of gigabytes per second, and so forth — and then you have about 50 bits per second that relate the two…


So just like Doug Engelbart and contemporaries, I, too, have a vision. And my vision is that, wouldn’t it be nice if we could tap directly into the brain to get access to this rich semantic representation and communicate … directly between the brain and the computer? 

See the answer as part of Schalk’s presentation after the jump…

…and share your thoughts below.

Be sure to also check out other talks from last week’s Emerging Technologies Conference here.

(Contributed by Erwin Gianchandani, CCC Director)

“The Cyborg in Everyone”