Using your mind to make things happen


Your thoughts could turn lights on and off, if new research into brain-computer integration pays off. Yvonne Cunninghamreports

People with disabilities may one day be able to use the power of thought alone to operate simple devices such as light switches.

Mind control devices are one of the aims of the University of Ulster's new €29.4 million Intelligent Systems Research Centre.

Scientists at the new Derry-based centre are carrying out research into brain-computer integration. They hope to be able to use brainwave or EEG signals from elderly and disabled people to control simple tasks such as switching a light on or off.

Using thought to control a simple computer game has already been achieved.

"We can already do this in a screened room. We can get people to direct a ball on a computer screen into a basket, and 80 to 90 per cent of the time they get it right," says Prof Martin McGinnity, director of the centre.

Existing systems require the person to wear bulky headgear which detects EEG signals through the surface of the scalp and connects them to a computer. The headgear would be awkward in real life, however, and the research team is trying to develop a lighter more comfortable to wear system.

The equipment could be used in other ways, says McGinnity. Directing EEG signals to control a game has just as much potential for stroke and rehab patients because mental practice helps people recover from strokes more quickly.

In the future researchers also want to do more fundamental work such as modelling large scale neural networks.

These could be used to control more advanced prosthetics which could then be operated by thought alone, he adds.

Making computer systems more intelligent is another goal of the new Intelligent Research Systems Centre, which will be based at the university's Magee campus in Derry.

"Humans are smarter than computers, we can reason and learn from experience, computers can't do that. We will develop intelligent systems which will be more sophisticated and human-like," says McGinnity.

One of the projects is an effort to model the human visual and auditory systems as a prelude to building robots which will see and hear like humans. These robots should be able to identify the direction a sound comes from and to identify the content of the sound.

"Current robot vision systems are quite crude, the systems we will be working on in the new centre will be biologically inspired," McGinnity says.

"We are going to try to build systems which can recognise faces, something that humans are very good at, but computers have always been bad at."

The technology they hope to develop can also be used in manufacturing. "Intelligence is useful anywhere," says McGinnity. The centre is also looking at systems that can adapt, learn, self-organise and self repair. This will improve production management which will make manufacturing processes more efficient, says McGinnity.

Machines might for example diagnose faults and repair themselves without needing human intervention. This would lower costs and mean that Ireland could become more competitive.

"We want to have real concrete success stories coming out of this centre, and to have spin off companies that will create jobs with the practical applications of research," McGinnity states.

Research into intelligent systems has been going on at the University of Ulster for more than 15 years. The objective of the new centre is to consolidate and build on what they already have.

"We needed a new centre so that we could expand the research to a critical mass and compete on a world stage, the proposal was in the making for about two to five years," says McGinnity.

The centre will eventually house about 100 researchers when recruitment is complete. The University of Ulster has launched an international search to bring the world's leading talent in the field to Northern Ireland.

The centre is funded by Invest NI, regeneration organisation ILEX and the university itself. The project has a total budget of €29.4 million with investment of €11 million coming via ILEX and Invest NI. It's the largest single research investment in the 150-year history of the campus. The investment forms part of a regeneration strategy for Derry and the north-west region as a whole.