This video is a hoax (and I’ll explain why at the end of this post) but unfortunately that won’t stop it from being widely reported and believed as fact. The media is all too easily fooled where brain-computer interface technology is concerned. For some reason, whenever a story involves brainwaves, reporters turn off their BS detectors.
This is why we are so careful, in our dealings with the media, to speak accurately about the potential of this technology, and to be candid about its limitations. Any slight misrepresentation will be echoed and amplified as the story propagates through the social web.
We have to work incredibly hard to get accurate information about EEG into the world, struggling against the innacurate and negatively stereotyped images of science fiction that have convinced people that we are either evil geniuses looking to steal people’s thoughts or miracle workers able to know the unknowable.
While the perpetrators of this hoax are probably having a great laugh at the credulous horde of bloggers reposting this story, what these “jokers” fail to understand is how this hoax damages that work of thousands of hard-working entrepreneurs and researchers around the world who are working to bring this disruptive technology to the market.
Because of this hoax, and its inevitable viral spread, the first five minutes of every conversation I have about thought-controlled computing is going to be spent debunking this video, and trying to roll back the expectations. Every time I sit down with an investor, a potential partner or a reporter, I am going to have to carefully deconstruct the impossible expectations this video has created in their head.
But my inconvenience is nothing compared to the anguish caused in families who have a loved one in a ‘locked-in’ or vegetative state. A hoax like this gives them false hope, as they dream of getting their father or sister back, only to find out later that this technology is still years away. Toying with people’s emotions in this way is grossly unacceptable.
So now let me turn to the matter at hand: Debunking Project Black Mirror
There are many problems with this project, from inaccurate statements about EEG, obviously inoperable circuits, impossible claims and more. I’ll break the down here:
Innacurate Statements about EEG
On the Project Black Mirror page, they say the following:
1. ECG pads provide raw skin conductivity / electrical activity as analogue data (0-5v).
2. This is plugged into the Arduino board via 4 analogue inputs (no activity = 0v, high activity = 5v).
This is problematic for a number of reasons. First, and most obviously, ECG stands for Electrocardiography, which is the measurement of the electrical activity of the heart. EEG is Electroencephalography, which is the measurement of the electrical activity of the brain.
Second, they describe, and the pictures show them plugging the sensors into the arduino directly, and measuring the signals as 0v-5v. Unfortunately, EEG signals are measured in microvolts. They must be amplified using very sensitive, low-noise amplifiers before they can be converted into digital signals. There is no way they could detect any meaningful brainwave signals through that setup.
Obviously non-functional circuit
One of the most obvious giveaways that this is a fake is the picture of their circuit board. Anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of electronics can see that they have placed the Speech Synthesis chip onto the breadboard sideways. As pictured, the chip is entirely non-functional. All of the pins are shorted to each other. This has been pointed out in other places around the net.
Again from Project Black Mirror:
4. Josh trained the program by thinking of the main Siri commands (“Call”, “Set”, “Diary” etc.) one at a time and the program where we captured the signature brain patterns they produce.
5. The program can detect the signature patterns that indicate a certain word is being thought of. The program will then wait for a natural ‘release’ in brain waves and assume the chain of commands is now complete and action is required.
This is where things get really ridiculous.
To understand this we should talk about what is possible with brainwaves. There are a number of signals that can be detected from the head.
With a single electrode, you can detect the basic types of brainwaves (alpha, beta, theta and delta) which are different frequency bandwidths in the electrical output of the brain. Sort of like radio stations occupy different frequencies in the spectrum. This electrical energy is generated by the electro-chemical activity of your neurons, which encode information in tiny electrical impusles.
All of the primary brainwaves are present in your brain all of the time, but different waves will be stronger when you have particular types of thoughts. For instance, there will be stronger alpha waves in your brain when you are relaxing, and stronger beta waves when you are concentrating.
These alpha and beta waves are what most consumer EEG technology is based on. Consumer grade EEG applications, like the applications created for the Neurosky Mindwave, are for the most part based around interactions that measure the users levels of alpha and beta waves. Some sleep and meditation applications study theta and delta waves too.
The most advanced system available at the consumer level is the eMotiv EPOC, which has 16 sensors. The eMotiv operates similarly to how the hoax system is supposed to, in that the user is asked to think a certain thought a number of times, and the emotiv algorithms learn to recognize patters of EEG activity that correlate to those thoughts. But even with 16 sensors and advanced processing, they are only able to repeatedly recognize about 4 commands at a time, and this is after millions of dollars spent and years of research by some of the top minds in EEG processing.
Also, the types of thoughts that are recognized by systems like the eMotiv system are limited to very specific types of thoughts, particularly thoughts about moving objects in space (i.e. push, pull, etc.) A complex thought like “Call” or “John” may eventually be detectable, but that kind of detection is at least 15 years away.
The idea that this system is able to decipher the full command “Call John” is completely unbelievable, especially considering that the system appears to only have 4 electrodes that are all located on the front of the head.
So there you can see: this “hack” is revealed as a hoax, and one that is as disappointing as it is clumsy.
At InteraXon, we wholly believe in brainwave-based technologies. We see a world where computers understand and respond to human thoughts and behaviours in ways that make us happier, smarter and more efficient. We see EEG-based interfaces as tools for self-knowledge that will allow us to know ourselves better so that we can live more fulfilled and engaged lives. We want to bring these technologies to market in products that become essential parts of people’s everyday lives.
Hoaxes like Project Black Mirror make it that much harder for us to realize our vision. If you care about, believe in and support this technology, then please help us. Spread the news that this is a hoax. Share links of the real progress that is being made in BCI technology. Like the adorable and captivating Neurowear Necomimi EEG responsive ears, or the astonishing news that EEG technology can determine whether patients in vegetative states are still conscious or not.
Help us share these stories about what really is possible with EEG technology and we’ll keep working hard to make sure that there are more amazing stories to share.
-Trevor Coleman (@trevorcoleman)