by Richard Gray
New technology could allow people to dictate letters and search the internet simply by thinking, according to researchers at Intel who are behind the project.
Unlike current brain-controlled computers, which require users to imagine making physical movements to control a cursor on a screen, the new technology will be capable of directly interpreting words as they are thought.
Intel's scientists are creating detailed maps of the activity in the brain for individual words which can then be matched against the brain activity of someone using the computer, allowing the machine to determine the word they are thinking.
Preliminary tests of the system have shown that the computer can work out words by looking at similar brain patterns and looking for key differences that suggest what the word might be.
Dean Pomerleau, a senior researcher at Intel Laboratories, said that currently, the devices required to get sufficient detail of brain activity were bulky, expensive magnetic resonance scanners, like those used in hospitals.
But he said work was under way to produce smaller pieces of equipment that can be worn as headsets and that can produce the same level of detail.
He said: "The computer uses a form of 20 questions to narrow down what the word is.
"So a noun with a physical property such as spade, which you dig with, produces activity in the motor cortex of the brain, as this is the area that controls physical movements.
"A food related word like apple, however, produces activity in those parts of the brain related to hunger. So the computer can infer attributes to each word being thought about and this lets the computer zero down on what the word is pretty quickly.
"We are currently mapping out the activity that an average brain produces when thinking about different words. It means you'll be able to write letters, open emails or do Google searches just by thinking".
Intel already have a working prototype that can detect words such as "screwdriver", "house" and "barn", by measuring around 20,000 points in the brain.
But as brain scanning technology becomes more sophisticated the computer's ability to distinguish thoughts will improve.
Justin Ratner, director of Intel Laboratories and the company's chief technology officer, said: "Mind reading is the ultimate user interface. There will be concerns about privacy with this sort of thing and we will have to overcome them.
"What is clear though is that humans are not restricted any more to just using keyboards and mice".