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    Monday, January 5, 2009

    USA TODAY - Will brain waves help pilot future space ships?

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    NASA's plans to ship people to the moon and some day Mars are very much up in the air these days, with debate over Barack Obama's plans for the space agency a hot water cooler topic in the aerospace industry. Budget battles aside, one new study asks, how should these future astronauts steer their way around our solar system?

    Brain waves, suggests the current Acta Astronauticajournal report. Fans of Neuromancer may recall the story's hero using brain implants to navigate around cyberspace, but the researchers led by Carlo Menon of the European Space Agency, see astronaut brain-machine interfaces as a the way to get around outer space.

    "Brains are characterized by every property that engineers and computer scientists detest and avoid. They are incredibly complex, and their processes at every level are chaotic," say the study authors. "Yet brains, and human brains in particular, are undeniably among the most successful "devices" that evolution has produced."

    For that reason, Menon and colleagues survey the world of brain-machine interfaces, ranging from genuine implants to magnetic resonance imagers, and conclude that relying on electroencephalographic (EEG) signals, a decades-old technology in which electrodes placed on the scalp detect electrical activity inside the brain, offers the best opportunity for space explorers. Portable EEGs are a coming thing, even seen in video games and used to move robots, although most research in the area is aimed at helping paralyzed patients regain movement.

    Because such brain controls cut out the technological middle man buttons, dials, steering wheels and whatnot they could potentially allow for far more refined control of devices in by astronauts, find the study authors. "The possibility of controlling external devices using brain-machine-interface technology could have a tremendous influence on strategic plans for future space missions," they suggest, listing tasks such as:

    Reducing the need for dangerous extra-vehicular activities (EVA) or "spacewalks" by letting controllers operate robots remotely.

    Allowing more than one astronaut to perform crowded tasks in confined spaces.

    Improving and speeding interactions with computer systems during dangerous operations. (Last week's report on the 2003 Columbia space shuttle tragedy, for example, noted the difficulties experienced by crewmembers in pushing buttons.)

    "Robotic aids could also be useful to astronauts weakened after many months in micro-gravity," adds the study. The space environment is a hazardous one, and future space explorers may find interstellar space between stars is even more dangerous due to cosmic rays, completely removing the possibility of EVA repairs. Refining astronaut controls to perform remote operation makes sense, they argue.

    Science fiction author Frank Herbert's 1966 novel, Destination Void, suggested a different brain-machine interface, implanting a human brain in a space ship to let it control the vehicle. That didn't work out too well in the novel, which richly deserves movie treatment, but Menon and colleagues have higher hopes for real-world interfaces.

    "In our opinion, the introduction of novel interfaces capable of reading and interpreting brain activities to control external artificial systems is expected to happen in the relatively near future," they conclude, before adding a scholarly note of caution. "So far, this technology has not, however, reached the readiness level necessary for any realistic implementation. Deep investigations and further developments are therefore expected."

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