Brain Typing And Super-Smart Lasers

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We don’t have flying cars, food replicators, or matter transporters yet, but science has moved to a point where lasers can identify the chemical makeup of compounds and computers can take user input from brain activity instead of needing a keyboard and mouse.

The Google Mars news gained a lot of attention this morning. Most of us think the real Google-to-space transition will happen when Larry and Sergey convert their material forms to pure energy, and Eric builds a starship with all the proceeds from his Google stock sales.

Until that happens, the real interesting science isn’t all happening at the Google Labs. In Arizona (a state that has been within Google’s penumbra of interest), scientist Robert Downs told Australia’s Radio National of his work developing a tiny laser that can identify geological substances.

The laser will be on the way to Mars in 2009. By then, Downs expects the device to be able to identify nearly all of the 4,000-some minerals known on Earth. What it doesn’t know on departure NASA will be able to upload to the Mars Science Laboratory.

The devices uses Raman spectroscopy to accomplish its amazing feats. Downs explained the neat party trick co-worker Bonner Denton, the gadget’s designer, uses to demonstrate the laser’s capabilities:

(W)hite plastic container and the (Tylenol) pills are inside. You can shoot the Raman and the laser goes through that white plastic, it identifies the three parts of Tylenol the aspirin and it tells you what the plastic is made out of. It works on leaves – I can identify the species of trees by shooting their leaves. I don’t think the biologists are aware of this yet. I have a friend who collects snakeskins, I shot the snakeskins and I can identify the species of snake. Last month researchers in Switzerland showed that with the Raman instrument they could detect breast cancer.

Another advance in technology focuses on biology rather than geology. Typists who use speech recognition programs to translate speech-to-text could be left behind when it comes to input speed. Michael Addicott blogged about a “mental typewriter” being demonstrated at CeBIT show in Germany:

The machine makes it possible to type messages onto a computer screen by mentally controlling the movement of a cursor. A user must wear a cap containing electrodes that measure electrical activity inside the brain, known as an electroencephalogram (EEG) signal, and imagine moving their left or right arm in order to maneuver the cursor around.

“It’s a very strange sensation,” says Gabriel Curio at Charit. “And you can understand from the crowds watching that the potential is huge.”

Curio says users can operate the device just 20 minutes after going through 150 cursor moves in their minds. This is because the device rapidly learns to recognize activity in the area of a person’s motor cortex, the area of the brain associated with movement. “The trick is the machine-learning algorithms developed at the Fraunhofer Institute,” Curio says.

The Berlin Brain-Computer Interface, aka the “mental typewriter,” offers great promise for medical usage by patients. Gaming and entertainment industries could benefit too. And as fellow writer John Stith pointed out to me, the military will have an interest in it as well. Firefox (not the browser) could become reality.

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David Utter is a staff writer for WebProNews covering technology and business.

Brain Typing And Super-Smart Lasers
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