A group of American researchers from MIT, Indiana University, and Tufts University, led by Erin Treacy Solovey, have developed Brainput — pronounced brain-put, not bra-input — a system that can detect when your brain is trying to multitask, and offload some of that workload to a computer.
The idea of using computers to do our grunt work isn’t exactly new — without them, the internet wouldn’t exist, manufacturing would be a very different beast, and we’d all have to get a lot better at mental arithmetic. I would say that the development of cheap, general purpose computers over the last 50 years, and the freedoms they have granted us, is one of mankind’s most important advancements. Brainput is something else entirely though.
Using functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS), which is basically a portable, poor man’s version of fMRI, Brainput measures the activity of your brain. This data is analyzed, and if Brainput detects that you’re multitasking, the software kicks in and helps you out. In the case of the Brainput research paper, Solovey and her team set up a maze with two remotely controlled robots. The operator, equipped with fNIRS headgear, has to navigate both robots through the maze simultaneously, constantly switching back and forth between them. When Brainput detects that the driver is multitasking, it tells the robots to use their own sensors to help with navigation. Overall, with Brainput turned on, operator performance improved — and yet they didn’t generally notice that the robots were partially autonomous.