Twitter, a total waste? Two diamonds in the rough.

Guest post by Stephen.

With its 140 character limit, you’d be pretty hard-pressed to post something significant or influential on Twitter.  In fact, many of the Twitter naysayers out there would be forgiven for thinking that the social networking tool is just another modern avenue for excessive information and runaway self-expression — until recently.  On April 15 a tweet went up, “Go Badgers,” that seemed as run-of-the-mill as any other.  But it turned out to be, well, the most important tweet ever, for what that’s worth.  It remains to be seen how it stacks up against historic expressions of school spirit.

The author of the post was Adam Wilson, a biomedical engineering student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and he composed it with the electrical signals of his brain.  In doing so, he turned his fingers and keyboard into unnecessary middlemen and uncovered a new mode of communication for “locked-in patients” who have normally functioning brains but severe limitations on their movements.  Wilson’s setup uses a head cap of electrodes to capture the electrical impulses of brain activity and software he created to translate those signals to Twitter.  While viewing a screen of flashing characters, Wilson decides which character he’d like to transmit and concentrates on that character, say a “G.”  When the “G” flashes, his brain sends a unique signal that is captured by the electrode cap and passed through his algorithm.  To post his message on Twitter, Wilson focuses his attention on the word “twit” that appears at the bottom of the computer screen.

Of course, Wilson’s isn’t the first brain/machine interface.  He isn’t even the first to marry biomedical engineering to a wildly popular cultural phenomenon — a few months ago a group at Hopkins taught amputees to play Guitar Hero by using signals from their intact nerves and muscles.  They cleverly dubbed the system “Air Guitar Hero.”

We may categorize Wilson’s work under the broad and spooky-sounding realm of mind reading, but this is no parlor trick.  Scientists are aggressively trying to understand our intricate system of neural connections and firing patterns in order to demystify the foundations of our rich subjective experiences.  Research towards that goal hit a milestone last year when a Berkley team reconstructed images subjects were looking at by doing a voxel by voxel analysis of fMRI data.  In other words, their computer program could take raw brain activity and spit out an image remarkably similar to what was being viewed.

So if we study the brain to throw open the lid of this “black box,” is there a more conspicuous singular expression of our progress than the mind-generated tweet?  One doesn’t come to mind easily.  Here we have an internally generated thought, one that is only represented by internal brain states, which is extracted from neural activity and transmitted to anyone around the world who happens to be signed up to receive Wilson’s messages.  As our ability to directly peer into the private theater of consciousness expands, it may be worth our while to engage in a public debate on the consequences of piercing the subjective veil.

For now, though, we should be happy that practical work is being done to improve the lives of locked-in patients and thankful that science gifts us with such thought-provoking, and extracting, research. For those of you who would like to follow Wilson on Twitter, his ID is uwbci.  And though I’m sure most of you are already receiving Darlene’s updates, tell your friends to sign up at scicheer.

From Darlene: “Thanks, Steve. Here’s another gem. Hot off the press. In this weekend’s video address, President Obama briefly makes the presidential case for the power of social media in the context of halting the spread of swine flu/H1N1 . You’ll find the highlights on TechPresident.”