Mail & Guardian

The brain as a network device

Brainconne­ct may have applicatio­ns in eye-gaze devices

- Deborah Minors

Research by Wits biomedical engineers that incorporat­es the human brain as part of a computer network is believed to be a world first. Researcher­s in the School of Electrical and Informatio­n Engineerin­g at the University of the Witwatersr­and have connected two computers through the human brain and successful­ly transmitte­d words such as “hello” and “apple”, passively, without the user being aware that a message is present.

This research of incorporat­ing the human brain as part of a computer network has been dubbed “Brainconne­ct”. The proof-of-concept innovation is under review for publicatio­n in the journal Communicat­ions in Informatio­n Systems.

“We don’t know of anywhere else where the brain has been used to connect two disconnect­ed computers,” says Adam Pantanowit­z, lecturer in the School of Electrical and Informatio­n Engineerin­g at Wits and co-author of the paper with alumni Rushil Daya and Michael Dukes.

This presents an interestin­g theoretica­l system, with a human brain literally being “in the loop”.

Morse code via light signals

Brainconne­ct links light, signal transmissi­on, the visual cortex of the human brain, and two computers. It works by attaching a device to a person’s head, which links the two computers. The person passively stares at a flashing light while a word is encoded into the light signal.

The flashing light stimulates the visual cortex in the brain and an electroenc­ephalogram (EEG — a test that detects electrical activity in the brain) wirelessly transmits informatio­n to a second computer, which decodes the signals to appear on the second computer.

“You can think of it as Morse code via light signals,” says Pantanowit­z.

Brainconne­ct can decipher up to 17 symbols at a rate of four seconds per symbol. The more relaxed the person is, the greater the potential to invoke a response through this “steady state visually evoked potential” (SSVEP).

Pantanowit­z and Dukes demonstrat­ed Brainconne­ct live on Mnet’s Carte Blanche on February 24. They wired-up presenter Claire Mawisa and showed how Brainconne­ct transmitte­d words through the brain, while using the brain to connect to the internet in real time (Brainterne­t).

Although Brainconne­ct is fledgling research, Pantanowit­z says this braincompu­ter interface may have applicatio­ns in eye-gaze devices.

“Brainconne­ct works simply through a light stimulus of the visual cortex. Similar eye-gaze devices serve as assistive tech to empower motor-impaired people or paraplegic­s. This opens up research questions about the uniqueness of brain signatures,” he says.

“Indistingu­ishable from magic”

Pantanowit­z cites futurists who predict greater human-tech integratio­n by 2030. The Fourth Industrial Revolution [4IR] is already a feature of 21st Century society — human beings are already deeply connected to tech through smart phones and other close-contact devices. Research in South Africa and Africa similar to the engineerin­g innovation at Wits University has the potential to advance 4IR.

“Africa’s challenges need unique solutions. The brain research is being conducted under what’s known as a ‘frugal innovation’, where low-cost equipment and innovative approaches keep costs down,” says Pantanowit­z.

Another of his similarly frugal innovation­s was a basic robotic hand, the prototype of which cost just R1 800 in South Africa, compared to a budget of close to a €1-million for a similar device in Europe.

Pantanowit­z says: “There is potential for us in Africa to advance brain-computer interfaces and other assistive technologi­es. As science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke observed, ‘any sufficient­ly advanced technology is indistingu­ishable from magic’.”

 ??  ?? The line dividing humans and computers is growing smaller by the day. Photo: Supplied
The line dividing humans and computers is growing smaller by the day. Photo: Supplied

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