Written by Vinay Jayaram

On October 8th, 2016 about a dozen people sat in an auditorium in Zürich and raced each other purely with their thoughts. Hooked up to various computers and sensors, they used their brain activity to control the avatars in a racing game, bypassing the entire physical body to talk to a computer. It wasn’t the first time humans have communicated with computers solely through their thoughts, but it may have been the most high profile. Thousands of onlookers watched the avatars displayed on the jumbotron as the pilots gave new meanings to the phrase “ with minds racing.”

Surprisingly enough, brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) have existed since computers were dumber than Apple Watches. Since the early 1990s people have known that the electrical patterns of activity in the brain change when people do specific tasks (imagining moving a part of the body is a good example), and these changes aren’t actually that hard to measure. Just put some electrodes on the scalp and that’s often enough. The natural question then is, why are you only hearing about this now? Well, they were just not very consistent (or convenient). It’s true that people could control cursors with their minds about twenty years ago, it was just an incredibly tedious process. Imagine if every time you wanted to use your mouse you had to teach your mouse to understand your movements for fifteen minutes, say once every two hours. Then, if you want to make it a bit more realistic, imagine it can only be used once every four seconds, misses every fifth command, and it has all the ergonomics of an ox-drawn plough. But never fear! It only took you six months to train your brain to be able to use it at all. These days things are far better — good enough that some people can actually type pretty quickly using a BCI, though still nowhere near as fast as with one’s fingers. It can only take ten minutes to get the tech used to you, but the ugly and often uncomfortable hardware remains an issue. Worse, they are really only effective in calm, undistracting environments. All in all much better than before, but still nowhere near something a healthy human would actively choose to use.

Even though healthy people may not opt to trade their mice in for BCIs, there are definitely groups that might, such as those people no longer capable of using a mouse. It is for these groups that BCIs are geared. This competition for brain-computer interfaces took place at the Cybathlon, the world’s first international competition for disabled athletes with assistive technology. In essence, the Olympics for the people who are unable to participate in the current Special Olympics — for now it consists only of short races, but perhaps true to ancient form it will one day encompass everything from wrestling to marathons. In this first iteration it had short races designed to mimic everyday tasks that are difficult for people with prostheses of all sorts, such as using the same artificial hand to both screw in a lightbulb and grab a string, or navigating steps with a wheelchair. In the case of the BCI race, it was to highlight options for individuals who are incapable of controlling their muscles due to injury. Unlike the Special Olympics, in which the assistive technology is a tool to enable humans to show off how well they are able to perform, in the Cybathlon the tech itself took center stage along with the athletes. Which, if you think about the Olympics, is a bold step in and of itself.



Source/image rights: ETH Zurich / Nicola Pitaro


Imagine a runner in the Special Olympics. She requires prostheses to run because both her legs were amputated below the knee. For years before the Olympics themselves she trained herself to run with these pieces of metal and plastic strapped to her shins, and when the day comes she runs better than she ever has in her life. She wins.

Now imagine someone at the Cybathlon training for the race with her powered arm prosthesis. Every day she practices using it to do the tasks of the race, like picking up various objects and opening doors and holding bags, and she gets more and more used to it. Once every month, the technicians come in and upgrade it further so it responds quicker and faster. On the day of the race she’s there on the floor of the stage, nervous and waiting for the bell to commence. But once it does, something just feels not quite right, and she’s not sure why. She does pretty well, but she loses.

The magic of the Olympics is that we get to pretend that winners and losers are both reflections of the human condition. How you do reflects you, and pretty much only you — your luck, your training, and even your biology. If you do have some equipment, like a swimsuit or an artificial foot, then they’re just accessories to your success or failure. But what about these examples: was it nerves or a tech issue that stopped our Cybathlete? Are the manufacturers of the Olympic athlete’s leg more or less responsible than the manufacturers of the Cybathlete’s arm? It’s easy to say less, since the leg doesn’t really do anything aside from exist, while the arm must do some things all in its own — but I would disagree. If a special leg makes you two percent faster than you were, and you now move those 0.008 seconds into first place, does the credit really lie entirely on your shoulders? The standard Olympics attempts to deal with this tension by regulations: They prescribe what can and cannot be done in training as well as in competition. No steroids, no fancy swimsuits, nothing that can detract from the core premise of the Olympic games that the world comes together to celebrate the limits of human achievement.

The Cybathlon, in contrast, deals with this assumption head on. Instead of attempting to control what sorts of technology are allowed it actually limits the capabilities of the pilots. For each of the races, pilots were only eligible if they met certain criteria for disability–in a sense forcing the human achievement and the technological achievement to more equal grounds. Best of all, both were equally celebrated. The spectators applauded not only the pilots for winning the races but also the companies and research labs that provided the technology to do so. The atmosphere was one of celebration, for human and machine both — a point especially crucial in this domain. With healthy humans it’s easy enough to pretend that the human achievement is the most crucial kind, but the fact remains that less abled individuals simply cannot do some things. Without a hand, you can’t screw in a light bulb; without being able to control your muscles, you can’t communicate with the world. In these cases it is crucial to see how technology can come to a person’s aid, and how the tech itself needs to be celebrated and supported. BCIs may still not be something a healthy person would want for themselves, but as the Cybathlon proved there are many people for whom such a device makes the difference between connection within the world and isolation. Remembering and celebrating the difference that technology makes, and how devices and people together can accomplish so much more than either apart, can make all the difference in the world.

Vinay Jayaram is a PhD student in brain-computer interfaces affiliated with the Graduate Training Center for Neuroscience and the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems in Tübingen, Germany