By 11 January 2010 | Categories: feature articles


What we’re talking about here is the ability to control a device using thought alone. Imagine Googling with your mind – the possibilities for semantic search are just incredible. What about managing your home with thought – switching on the TV, turning off lights and getting a quick update on how much power you’ve used in a day? Productivity could also be greatly improved – what if you could prepare word documents a sentence at a time rather than typing letter by letter?

If this sounds like sci-fi nonsense, then think again. In 2008 a University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine research project planted probes in a monkey’s brain so that, using thought alone, it could control a prosthetic arm to feed itself.

Understanding the brain

Pomerleau’s work is based on recognising common thought patterns in the brain using blood flow changes in specific areas of the brain. The team’s research is attempting to map these patterns using fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) technology. Once the patterns are mapped researchers can program the chips to translate them into actions or commands.

Pomerleau takes the idea of mapping brain patterns even further; claiming that understanding the brain will also improve microprocessor design, stating “if we can see how the brain does it, then we could build smarter computers.” This could further converge the brain and electronics.


Researchers on the Intel project believe that implanting brain chips will become a reality as soon as the year 2020. There are obvious concerns however, from valid privacy issues like brain cookies and activity monitoring, to sci-fi scenarios like brain hacks and brain chip software viruses. The issue of upgrading a chip implanted in your brain is obviously a little worrying as well. We can even expect religious unease, with the chip possibly stirring-up ‘mark of the beast’ type conspiracies.

Intel research VP Andrew Chien, counters these concerns by pointing out that, “[i]f you told people 20 years ago that they would be carrying computers all the time, they would have said, ‘I don’t want that. I don’t need that.’ Now you can’t get them to stop carrying devices. There are a lot of things that have to be done first but I think implanting chips into human brains is well within the scope of possibility.” The big question surrounding brain chips however, concerns what it will do for us as human beings. Will it make us more productive? Does it have the potential to make us more intelligent? What are your thoughts on this? Mail us at


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