MICHELE NORRIS, host:
For millions of people across the globe, the popular social media site Twitter has become a way to let the world know what they're thinking in 140 characters or less. It calls to mind the image of thousands of people with their fingers flying over all kinds of keyboards. But imagine this, a biomedical engineering grad student at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, figured out how to Twitter using just the power of his brain. It's part of a Brain-Computer Interface or BCI software program.
And to tell us exactly what that means and how this works, I'm joined now by student, Adam Wilson.
Welcome to the program.
Mr. ADAM WILSON (Biomedical engineering Student, University of Wisconsin, Madison): Thanks for having me.
NORRIS: Adam, how did you get this idea? When did you decide that you wanted to try to take this technology that you've been working on and apply it to Twitter, to come up with something I guess you could call tweetokinesis(ph)?
Mr. WILSON: Sure. It was an idea that's kind of been floating around in the back of our heads here for a couple of months. And then finally, I think it was towards the end of March, I read Roger Ebert's blog, and he had mentioned - he was talking about twittering in his article, and at one point he said, in the near future, people will just be using their brain activity to update their Twitter accounts. And I kind of read this and said to myself, you know, I could probably have something like this working tonight.
And so I went in and kind of hacked our Brain-Computer Interface software and sent the first kind of test message that night, and then the next morning sent the first message with my brain activity.
And you know, it was a pretty neat experience just to have that kind of a quick turnaround on a new idea like this. And you know, I ripped off the cap and was running down the halls and, you know, telling the other members of the lab what I had just done.
NORRIS: Now, Adam Wilson, do me a favor. Take a step back, and in the simplest terms possible, try to help me understand how this works. Do you have to wear some sort of headgear, and do you think about what you actually want to say, what message you want to send? How does it work?
Mr. WILSON: So the first step, we put basically what looks like a swim cap with a series of little electrodes, and we're looking at specific parts of the brain for a certain kind of brain activity that's basically related to attention.
So we're flashing a series of letters and numbers on the screen, kind of randomly, and the person is paying attention to a specific letter. So every time their letter flashes, your brain kind of goes, oh wow, the thing I'm waiting for just happened. And if we do this enough times, we can kind of go back and see which letter, basically, their brain was responding to.
NORRIS: Do you really have to concentrate in order to do this? Do you have to clear your mind of all other thought?
Mr. WILSON: Yes, that's correct. It takes a lot of concentration. And when I try it on myself, I find I really need to concentrate on it in order for it to work, and if I, you know, kind of space out for five or 10 seconds, it just doesn't really work as well.
NORRIS: What are the possible practical applications? Could this help people with ALS or Lou Gehrig's Disease or someone with a spinal injury or someone who's lost their speech because of a stroke?
Mr. WILSON: Right, exactly. And that is the target audience. Like you said, someone with ALS or another condition that we see a lot as a brainstem stroke. Just on a practical scale, kind of addressing the wants and needs of people who are in this condition, you know, just the ability to kind of keep their family up to date, you know; I'm feeling good today, or I'm not feeling so good today could you come and visit. Just something like that, I think, would be very welcomed by the type of people we're kind of aiming this towards.
NORRIS: A simple I love you or a happy birthday.
Mr. WILSON: Yeah, exactly.
NORRIS: Adam Wilson, thanks so much for talking to us.
Mr. WILSON: Thank you very much for having me.
NORRIS: And by the way, congratulations. We understand that you handed in your dissertation today.
Mr. WILSON: That's correct. I sent it out to my committee last night. So it's out of my hands at this point and into their hands. So hopefully that goes well.
NORRIS: Big ups to you. That's Adam Wilson. He's a grad student at the biomedical engineering department at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
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