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Will we see brain-controlled technology in just ten years?

How far away are we from using the power of thought to communicate with electronic devices and even each other? And would this usher in an era of ultimate connection with others, or simply spell the end of free thought? Below, Michael Björn thinks out loud about telepathy technology…

Head of Research Agenda and Quality at Consumer & IndustryLab

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Head of Research Agenda and Quality at Consumer & IndustryLab

Head of Research Agenda and Quality at Consumer & IndustryLab

Loneliness is the human condition. We can surround ourselves with family and any number of friends, but at the end of the day, we can never truly reach out and connect with other people; we are forever doomed to isolation in our own minds. Until now. Maybe.

From telephony to telepathy in 10 years?

In our 2030 consumer trends report, many early adopters of consumer technologies such as AR, VR and digital assistants say they believe that in just ten years we will have thought-control over electronic devices, and even be able to share thoughts with others. In other words: telepathy technology.

Right now, millions of people globally are confined to their homes so as not to spread the Covid-19 virus. For some, it may be relaxing to be at home, but for others this forced isolation could cause strong feelings of isolation. Maybe being able to freely share thoughts with friends and colleagues could break that loneliness for them. Or maybe, as in the 2014 bestseller ‘The Circle’ by Dave Eggers, they would feel pressed to share everything, at all times, and end up feeling lonelier than ever as a result.

More than 2,000 years ago, Greek philosophers had already formulated the idea that each human was alone and could never truly know the existence of another. But how would they have reacted if someone had shown them a future where they could send their voices across the world – or even to the moon – and receive voices from others back in response? Maybe they would have been less confident in their assertions.

Today, we obviously frown on such ‘magical’ abilities: It’s just telephony. Switching from telephony to telepathy might be as easy as switching sensors. A microphone captures airwaves, so why not switch to sensors that capture electrical activity in the brain?

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Will the ability to freely share thoughts in real time break or accelerate loneliness?

The brain-computer interface

In fact, there are already sensors that can do partly that. They’re called brain-computer interfaces, but they currently suffer from either being too invasive or needing significant practice by the user, even for simple tasks.

Both limitations are non-starters: Invasive sensors, in particular, are as scary as they sound. Electrodes stuck into your brain simply aren’t a good idea.

These kinds of electrodes have been around since the 1970s, but first gained prominence in the late 1990s, when Johnny Ray, a stroke victim who could no longer communicate, had an implant that let him control a computer cursor. Since then, invasive sensors have also been used to restore vision and to control artificial limbs – hands, in many cases.

But just because someone with a prosthetic arm can hack it to control a synthesizer with his mind, it doesn’t mean we’re all set to become cyborgs. And the implementation of soft, brain-reading threads, like Elon Musk’s Neuralink is proposing, doesn’t necessarily make this technology more attractive for mass market use.

On the other hand, the challenge with non-invasive sensors – those that use electroencephalography (EEG), for example ­– is that the signals are so weak that it’s difficult to precisely locate them. This often means a lot of repetition and practice is needed to use such devices. Despite the fact that some of the non-invasive thought control examples are quite impressive, such as drone racing, the amount of practice needed means it’s difficult to see any mass-market adoption anytime soon.

Another problem is that mastering one application doesn’t necessarily mean you get better at others. For example, I’ve been using the Muse headband for meditation for a few years, but that doesn’t mean I’ll be winning any drone races from the get-go!

Facebook is still using invasive sensors for its mind-reading technology, which already recognizes a limited set of words and phrases that the user is thinking. But recently they’ve also been looking at a non-invasive version using infrared light sensors instead. The idea with infrared would be to measure oxygenation rather than electricity.

While this may still sound a bit outlandish – and it probably is – I don’t believe we’ll see the mass adoption of AR glasses if they don’t come with a brand new user interface, such as thought control.

In fact, our trend research showed that 6 in 10 consumers expect that merely thinking the term ‘show map’ would display a map right before their eyes, enabling them to search for routes simply by thinking of the destination. We call this trend Your brain is your user interface for good reason!

Touch control might work fantastically well for smartphones, but I certainly wouldn’t want to go around poking myself in my eyes all the time if I had a pair of AR glasses instead. Likewise, smart speakers might work in a home environment, but I can’t envision people running around busy city centers talking out loud to their glasses.

Let’s imagine that this form of telepathy really happens by 2030. What kind of implications would this have on society? Will we be joined together in mutual understanding, or will we be lonelier than ever, not even daring to think freely or expressively? What if you could record your dreams and watch them when you’re awake – would it open new avenues for personal development or turn into a living nightmare?

And what if lie detectors were as common as surveillance cameras are becoming today? What if your boss, or your spouse, could know everything you’re thinking? In our research, 7 in 10 said that ‘thought data’ for locking and unlocking their front doors needs to be private. But can you really lock away your thoughts from family, friends and colleagues? And what about digital advertising?

Whether we reach the 2030 prediction or not, the questions surrounding brain-controlled technology – and crucially, the morals and values we decide to build around it – are important factors we need to start thinking about now, rather than waiting until the technology is already available.

Learn more

Explore our 10 Hot Consumer Trends 2030 report to find out how the internet of senses is shaping consumer expectations.

Browse our other ConsumerLab reports that cover the future of technology.

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