Friday, March 4, 2011

Hands off Driving, Driving With Your Brain, and All That

"The worst car feature ever invented?"
Robert Basler, Oddly Enough blog, Reuters (March 3, 2011)

"Every so often an idea comes along that is so awful it deserves a place in the Bad Idea Hall of Fame. Like there was the toilet timer that made sure workers don't spend too much time in the bathroom, and of course there was that hotel bed-warming service.

"But now, along comes an idea that makes those others seem positively brilliant.

"We have photos showing 'hands free driving' in a car that is controlled by the driver's brain. I'm not making this up.

(from Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch, via Oddly Enough, used w/o permission)
"Dr. Daniel Göhring of the AutoNOMOS research team of the Artificial Intelligence Group at the Freie Universitaet

"I don't know how good you are at controlling your thoughts, but speaking for myself, if you strap that gizmo to my head when I'm behind the wheel, here are the sort of unfiltered random impulses my car is going to get from me:..."

Mr. Basler's "unfiltered random impulse" are - all too plausible. It's the Lemming's opinion that this hands free driving' car will be highway-ready in a few years. And that a few drivers will fall madly in love with the technology.

The Oddly Enough post is, typically, funny. In the Lemming's opinion. Your experience may vary.

Jump Jet Deja Vu

This technology reminds the Lemming of a vertical-take-off military jet that test pilots loved. It was wonderfully responsive: reacting almost instantly to any twitch on the controls. Aviation technology magazines featured it regularly.

Then the thing went into production. As the Lemming heard it, after a few fatal crashes folks found out that most pilots aren't, quite, like test pilots. The jet was fun to fly: for someone with unusually fast responses, who reveled in rapidly processing information rushing in through multiple channels. And whose attention never, ever, wavered from the task at hand. Not even for an infinitesimal fraction of a second.

For any normal human being, even someone who'd been trained as a military pilot, that jet was an accident waiting to happen. Apparently all it took was a momentary lapse in pilot concentration, and the thing went from 'barely stable' to 'unstable.'

Brain Computer Interface: Good Idea, But - - -

The Lemming's on the same page with Mr. Basler. This 'hands free driving' car has 'bad idea' written all over it. In the Lemming's opinion, most drivers simply won't have the sort of mental discipline it may take.

That Dr. Göhring can use this system work doesn't surprise the Lemming particularly: a person doesn't get that far in the technical end of academia by having a mind that wanders. The rest of us? Mr. Basler outlined some of the probable outcomes.

Which doesn't mean that this research is a waste of time. At all.

In the Lemming's opinion, technology developed for 'hands free driving' has an obvious application for folks who use powered wheelchairs. There's not that much difference, in principle, between Dr. Göhring operating a car with a control system that interfaces with his brain, and someone operating a motorized wheelchair without needing manual controls.

What's the point, since we've got those little joystick controls? Not everybody has control circuits running all the way from the motor cortex to their hands. Everything from fish to iguanas and us has the main control circuits at the front/top end, and a control cable running through a more-or-less-flexible segmented sheath to near the other end. It's a pretty good design - but means that a broken neck can be trouble.

And that's another topic. Topics.

Getting further from vehicle control systems, the sort of technology being developed by the AutoNOMOS research team should be adaptable - in the Lemming's opinion - to other 'brain-computer interface' applications.

There are the obvious medical/prosthetic devices. Imagine an artificial arm or leg, that responds more-or-less the way the original did: and lets the user feel through the prosthetic. Eventually we should be able to grow new limbs: but it doesn't look like that technology is quite as far along. There was a promising bit of serendipity a decade or so back, when researchers found fresh skin growing back on immune-suppressed - mice, the Lemming thinks it was. And that's (what else?) yet another topic.

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