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Event Horizon

Someday, you’ll move robots with your mind

Telekinesis is already here, and it’s getting better.

By Glenn McDonald

The Fantasy

Remember when Yoda used the Force to lift Luke’s entire X-wing fighter out of the swamp in The Empire Strikes Back? How about when Stranger Things’ Eleven levitated Mike, or when Stephen King’s Carrie levitated herself, or when the X-Men’s Jean Grey did just about anything?

Telekinesis — the ability to move objects with the power of the mind — is a familiar trope in speculative fiction. In fantasy stories, it’s usually ascribed to that convenient phenomenon called magic. In science fiction, it might be genetic mutation or Jedi training. For some reason, intense little girls tend to be good at it — Eleven, or Carrie, or Roald Dahl’s Matilda.

In the real world, of course, telekinesis is not an actual scientific phenomenon. It goes against several fundamental rules of physics, including the conservation of momentum, the second law of thermodynamics, and the inverse square law.

However, thanks to recent and rather astonishing developments, the telekinesis effect can be approximated with the use of brain-computer interface technology, or BCI. By way of sensors, computers and robotics, people really can manipulate objects in the real world using nothing but brain power. And BCI may be able to approximate some other sci-fi powers, too.

The Reality

BCI, simply put, is any technology that allows for direct communication between the brain and a computer or other device. Specialized sensors transpose brain activity into electronic signals that can control an onscreen cursor, or a prosthetic limb, or maybe a quadcopter drone.

There are two main categories of BCI systems. Invasive BCI requires surgically implanted electrodes placed on or inside the brain. For those irrationally squeamish about cranial surgery, non-invasive systems simply use sensors placed on the scalp.

BCI technology already has several practical, even life-changing applications. Today, some patients with paralysis or other conditions are using invasive BCI to control prosthetic limbs. On the other end of the spectrum, basic non-invasive BCI gizmos can be used with games and toys — remote-controlled monster trucks, say, or X-wing holograms.  

Technically speaking, it’s telekinesis: People are indeed manipulating things in the physical world with the power of thought. But you also need those electrodes, sensors, wireless transmitters, computers, and robotics.

Could some advanced BCI implant someday enable a person to directly levitate an object just by thinking about it? Mathew Yarossi, an engineering professor at Northeastern University, says it would be very tricky.

“Imagine levitating a pot of hot coffee, then pouring that coffee into a levitating cup.”

Mathew Yarossi, an engineering professor at Northeastern University

Yarossi’s work includes technology known as “closed-loop” BCI systems, which not only transmit brain signals out, but can also process sensory information back into the brain. Yarossi specializes in movement neuroscience and physiology, and he directs a Northeastern lab focused on brain rehabilitation. But in the spirit of sci-fi conjecture, he’s willing to speculate on direct telekinesis. And he sees a problem.

“Imagine levitating a pot of hot coffee, then pouring that coffee into a levitating cup,” he says. “You need tactile feedback to do that. How heavy is the pot? The cup? If you tried to do this using just your visual senses, it would be a mess.”

Yoda and Matilda make it look easy, but telekinesis would be total chaos without some sort of sensory feedback to the brain. The good news, Yarossi adds, is that several labs worldwide are working on closed-loop BCI technology.

The Future

The fun of science fiction is looking past the obstacles — thinking big. Through that lens, the future of BCI technology is wide open. Indeed, the possibilities fractal out past telekinesis into other areas long considered strictly sci-fi, such as telepathy and giant robots.

Andrea Stocco, of the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington, says he’d like to see a kind of reverse BCI, a system that could send information directly into the brain from a digital source — like a camera or virtual-reality rig — or even from another person’s brain.

“I imagine a future where individuals could share their full experiences just like they can post pictures on Instagram,” Stocco says. “Your followers would be able to download your experiences directly to their brains.”

Northeastern’s Yarossi says it’s also possible that we could use advanced, far-future BCI technology to power giant robots — the kind we only see now in sci-fi.

“We already have these brainwave toys where people are moving little robots with their mind,” he says. “There’s no reason that someone couldn’t move a really, really big robot.” Project that concept over the event horizon and you’ve got mega-robots operated with mind control, like the kaiju-fighting Jaegers in the movie Pacific Rim.

It’s all very grand in the long view. But in the short term, Stocco reminds us, BCI-powered telekinesis still has some early-adoption issues.

“I’m hoping non-invasive technologies make a leap,” he says. “It’s going to be hard for BCIs to become popular if the only effective ones require surgery.”

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Glenn McDonald is a writer based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He has written for National Geographic, NPR, Discovery News, The History Channel, Thrillist, Goodreads, and McClatchy newspapers.


Illustration by Adrià Voltà.

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