Until recently, brainwave-reading devices have pretty much only existed in science fiction. Sure, electroencephalography (EEG), the technology that powers these devices, has been used in medicine and psychiatry since the late 1800s, but diagnosing people's brains and reading their minds are two totally different things. The first EEG headsets available to the public were used mostly in gaming and even in fashion, but in the last few years, they've gotten a little more sophisticated.
At the USENIX Security Conference this year, researchers presented their findings on using a $300 headset by Emotiv to 'hack' people's brains and steal sensitive information like "PIN numbers, birth months, and areas of residence." Basically, the brain–computer interface can detect when an image or word is familiar to the wearer by the spike in a certain type of brainwaves. That's not to say it can just pull data straight out of a person's brain, it just greatly reduces the amount of guessing involved.
This isn't anything to worry about right now, but the scientists say that this experiment shows the potential of these types of attacks being used in the future. The good news is that in order for the researchers' trick to work, you'd pretty much have to be a willing participant in order to get hacked because you have to be fed images through the headset. The bad news, though, is that if these headsets become more popular, you can bet that people are going to come up with craftier ways to do this, especially since anyone can create applications for them on the company's website. You can read more about the experiment and watch the presentation here.
On the other side of the globe, researchers at Zhejiang University in China are putting the very same headset to a much less sinister use: they turned it into the controller for a quadcopter to help disabled users interact with the world in ways they normally can't.
The 'Flying Buddy 2' picks up on thoughts and gestures from the wearer and gives commands via Bluetooth to a laptop, which sends them to the copter over a Wi-Fi network.
The team behind this awesome project has some very noble and high hopes for its eventual applications. They think that "Maybe one day in the future, disabled people can use brain control to drive a plane in which they are seated, and go anywhere they want to go." You can see the system in action in the video below.
If more people start using these headsets, there could be a ton of cool applications for the technology. The 'brain-hacking' method has a lot of possible uses, but unfortunately, the most obvious and likely is in law enforcement. It could help interrogators know when someone is lying about recognizing a suspect or when they're holding back information. It could also be used along with lie-detector tests to make them more accurate, which are already hard enough to beat.
If you ever do find yourself on the wrong side of this technique, there are a few things you can do to try and outsmart it. Do a little research on how polygraph tests work so that you know what types of responses they're looking for. There are also a few tricks you can do with your breath and stress level, like doing math in your head to create stress and confuse the test. The most important thing is to appear calm, but not overconfident, and to not offer any more information than you absolutely have to.
Hopefully, this will be put to more cool uses than sketchy ones, but like any new technology, there will always be people who abuse it. What are some other ideas? What would you like to be able to control with your mind?