Conor Russomanno: A cutting-edge device paving the way for mind-reading tech Imagine sending an email...by just thinking it. Neurotechnologist Conor Russomanno is building brain-sensing headsets that he says will usher in a new era of mind-reading technology.

The beginning of mind-reading technology? No, it's not science fiction

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1226681289/1227163582" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:

So to get to a future where all this neurotechnology is even possible, a lot of technical work is being done in labs all over the world, like one that I visited in Brooklyn at a company called OpenBCI.

So wait. What am I going to put on my head?

CONOR RUSSOMANNO: Yeah. So the new Galea headset is crazy. These...

ZOMORODI: I was there to try out a brain-sensing virtual reality headset called the Galea.

RUSSOMANNO: I'm just going to adjust this island back here.

ZOMORODI: It's a helmet-like contraption that is at the bleeding edge of neurotechnology, and costs about $25,000.

RUSSOMANNO: The one in the back also has three active EEG electrodes.

ZOMORODI: So what are they collecting, then?

RUSSOMANNO: They're collecting brain activity.

ZOMORODI: So it's mostly academics, medical researchers and other tech developers who are using the hardware as a starting point for their own projects. Founder Conor Russomanno walked me through what was happening as I looked at a screen.

It's going to calibrate my eyes.

And all the sensors attached to my scalp and earlobes began processing lots of data and building a very rough profile of how my mind works.

RUSSOMANNO: It kind of records your EEG, your eye tracking, your heart rate, your heart rate variability, all these things against these stimuli.

ZOMORODI: The result is a display of all my brainwaves.

RUSSOMANNO: See the delta, theta, alpha, beta and gamma.

ZOMORODI: It's like a rainbow of brain activity that I'm looking at. I feel, like, naked 'cause I feel like you can look at these brainwaves and be like, wow, she's a nervous wreck inside, but she presents as, like, a normal human being.

Conor could not read my mind, but he and the computer could quickly make sense of the electrical pulses my brain sent out to move tiny muscles.

RUSSOMANNO: Let's try flexing or, like, kind of winking your left eye.

ZOMORODI: And then an incredible thing happened. With barely a wink of an eye, I was able to save a virtual cat from evil rats.

All right, here I go.

RUSSOMANNO: All right. So there's left. Try out right.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME SOUNDS)

RUSSOMANNO: There it is. Wow. Nice. Try right again. Then you want to collect those bones, but you got to...

ZOMORODI: Oh, I want the bones.

RUSSOMANNO: ...Avoid those pesky rats. Yeah.

ZOMORODI: Yeah. All this incredibly impressive, complicated...

RUSSOMANNO: Starting a UDP stream now...

ZOMORODI: ...And expensive technology to play a video game. I know. But it's early days, and the goal is to get to the point where we can just think something and have it happen on a screen.

RUSSOMANNO: You know, at OpenBCI, we're really focused on the path of least resistance to solving the problem, which is decoding the mind - intention, emotions, what makes us who we are - and then how do we augment that? How do we improve that?

ZOMORODI: To do that, Conor and his team are piecing together how the mind works with the data that's easiest to collect, like the brainwaves that show up when I twitch my eye. The computer begins to understand that an eye twitch shows a specific wave pattern, and that means move the cat. Eventually, with a lot of repetition, I could just think about moving the cat and it would know to move it. So this is maybe the beginning of mind reading technology.

RUSSOMANNO: If we figured out the right way, it becomes the greatest tool that humanity has ever created.

ZOMORODI: When you say the greatest tool, tell me - give me an example. Like, to a - to somebody listening like, what do you mean the greatest tool? How is that going to help me?

RUSSOMANNO: OK. So if you knew your computer was keeping track of your emotions, your deepest - I mean, deepest, darkest secrets, but also, just, like, are you focused? Do you need a nap? Do you need to go for a walk? Are there these kind of, like, basic things that you don't even know about yourself but I do because I now understand your subconscious better than you do.

We're already there in a lot of ways, but, you know, we have the power, the potential with modern neurotechnology and computers to make it even more powerful, the understanding of our subconscious. And so when I think about in a real world context, like, I do want the ability to walk down the street and not have to bend my neck down to look at my emails and not have to be like, man, I got to, like, open up Google Maps and copy and paste that address from my text thing and then, like, make sure that it's northeast, not northwest, you know, like, it could be turning down the brightness of the display in your sunglasses because it's noticing that you are getting too much light or you're being stimulated too much and it knows that. So instead of giving you more of what it thinks you want, it knows that it should be prioritizing what you need and not what you want.

ZOMORODI: But that's not what Conor thought the purpose of this technology was when he first started the company in 2013. He learned a lot just watching how people in other fields used his hardware.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

RUSSOMANNO: In the beginning, our goal was to build an inward-pointing telescope and to share the blueprints with the world so that anybody with a computer could begin peering into their own brain.

ZOMORODI: Conor continues from the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

RUSSOMANNO: At first, we were an EEG only company. We sold brain sensors to measure brain activity. But over time, we discovered people doing very strange things with our technology. Some people were connecting the equipment to the stomach to measure the neurons in the gut and study gut-brain connection in the microbiome. Others were using the tools to build new muscle sensors and controllers for prosthetics and robotics. What we learned from all of this is that the brain, by itself, is actually quite boring. Turns out, brain data alone lacks context, and what we ultimately care about is not the brain, but the mind - consciousness, human cognition. When we have things like EMG sensors to measure muscle activity or ECG sensors to measure heart activity, eye trackers, and even environmental sensors to measure the world around us, all of this makes the brain data much more useful. But the organs around our body, our sensory receptors, are actually much easier to collect data from than the brain, and also, arguably much more important for determining the things that we actually care about - emotions, intentions and the mind overall.

Additionally, we realized that people weren't just interested in reading from the brain and the body, they were also interested in modulating the mind through various types of sensory stimulation - things like light, sound, haptics and electricity. It's one thing to record the mind, it's another to modulate it. The idea of a combined system that can both read from and write to the brain or body is referred to as a closed loop system or bidirectional human interface. This concept is truly profound, and it will define the next major revolution in computing technology.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: It sounds like you think that we are at a moment where on and off are not going to be the way we live anymore?

RUSSOMANNO: Yeah. There's all these moments where there's friction, and there doesn't need to be. Like, the computer, if we trusted it, would just access that information for us and it would understand that it put the wrong thing in and that we're frustrated and it would change it without us changing it for it. And we're already there, right? Like, most people feel uncomfortable when their phone is not with them.

ZOMORODI: That's true.

RUSSOMANNO: You know, most people feel like there's a piece of them missing when they're like, where's my phone? Where's my phone? Oh, my gosh, did I lose it? Oh, what does that mean, right? That - I've lost part of my brain.

ZOMORODI: Yeah.

RUSSOMANNO: My - there's memories in there that I don't have without my phone, right? And, like, this is part of our mind right now. And it changes us. It manipulates us. And I think, you know, we're right at this kind of inflection point where we're figuring out how to put real, human emotions directly into the computing loop.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

RUSSOMANNO: When you have products that not just are designed for the average user but are designed to actually adapt to their user, that's something truly special. When we know what the data of an emotion or a feeling looks like and we know how to make that data go up or down, then, using AI, we can build constructive or destructive interference patterns to either amplify or suppress those emotions or feelings. In the very near future, we will have computers that we are resonantly and subconsciously connected to, enabling empathetic computing for the very first time.

ZOMORODI: OK. So tell me what that looks like to you. Like, if everything goes according to plan for you, what is the potential that you see coming from the technology that you're building?

RUSSOMANNO: I think, you know, the potential is immense. And so in my mind, success is building a new type of personal computer where the owner, the user of the computer, has total agency over their own data and how the computer is augmenting their mind. We're working on what I believe is the greatest challenge of this century and maybe the greatest challenge that humans have ever faced, which is understanding intelligence - human intelligence.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: That's Conor Russomanno, CEO of OpenBCI. You can watch his full talk at ted.com. On the show today, brain hacks. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

Copyright © 2024 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.