The Force Is Real: How ‘Star Wars’ Neuroscience Is Revolutionizing Healthcare and More

More than 40 years after it hit theaters for the first time, the cultural influence of the “Star Wars” movie franchise is undeniable. You can see that reach in the skyrocketing box-office take of the most recent installment, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, whose ticket sales worldwide raced past the $1 billion mark just before New Year’s Day.

What most people don’t realize is how impactful “Star Wars” has been on science and technology.

Take the revolutionary prosthetic hand developed under the direction of the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Made available in late 2016 to veterans who had lost an upper limb, this robotic hand is called L.U.K.E. That acronym officially stands for “Life Under Kinetic Evolution.” No one is being fooled here: This incredible achievement of DARPA’s “Revolutionizing Prosthetics” program—launched a decade earlier—is a clear reference to the robotic hand Luke Skywalker receives at the end of The Empire Strikes Back, after having his forearm cut off by Darth Vader during the dramatic lightsaber fight that culminates with the now legendary “I am your father” line. Recently, a multidisciplinary team at Georgia Tech created a robotic hand, also inspired by Skywalker’s, that allows wearers to control each finger independently. A young musician who lost his forearm and hand after being electrocuted got back to playing piano again thanks to this cutting-edge prosthetic.

But wait, it gets better. “Star Wars” and The Walt Disney Co. (which now owns the rights to the franchise) are no longer just inspiring innovation in prosthetic limbs: They are actually actively contributing to it. Open Bionics, a leading company in the field of 3D-printed, low-cost prosthetic limbs, happens to be in the 2015 class of Disney Accelerator companies to which EMOTIV, the company I now work for, also belongs. Open Bionics is commercializing Star Wars-inspired robotic hands designed in collaboration with Industrial Light & Magic, the Academy Award-winning company founded by George Lucas that creates the special effects in “Star Wars” movies. How cool is that?

Not only is the technology cutting edge and affordable, but the design makes kids proud of their prosthetics. As if this were not enough, Disney is donating the time of its creative teams and providing royalty-free licenses. Star Wars-related prosthetics can therefore be life changing for the millions of people worldwide who have lost a limb, 2 million of whom live in the US. This number is expected to double by 2050 because of diabetes and vascular diseases, according to the Amputee Coalition.

The quest for Jedi mind control

However, Luke Skywalker’s robotic hand might not be the technological breakthrough that “Star Wars” fans crave the most. Look around and I’m sure you’ll notice an increasing number of kids – and adults, for that matter – pretending (automatic) doors are opening because they made the trademark Jedi hand movement that unleashes The Force. You know exactly what I mean, and don’t tell me you’ve never tried it yourself.

Children undergo "Jedi training" at Disneyland Paris.
Children, including the author’s child, undergo “Jedi training” at an attraction at Disneyland Paris.Olivier Oullier
Olivier Oullier

Being able to control objects with their minds is the greatest thing Jedis can achieve. Most “Star Wars” fans have wished they could do it. I can vividly remember my father’s grin when he would catch the younger me, arm extended towards a rock that I was trying to move at a distance. Countless times did he tell me that Jedis only exist in “Star Wars” movies, and that I’d better spend my time studying science if I wanted to achieve extraordinary things. Deep inside, I was sure he was wrong. But decades later, I realized he wasn’t.

Today, neurotechnologies can turn each of us into Jedis. All you need is a brain-computer interface (BCI). Here’s the recipe: First, you need a brain. Then, add sensors allowing the real time monitoring of brain waves, and couple those with software that can identify patterns of brain activity and convert them into mental commands that are transmitted to the devices you want to control. It’s actually not that complicated. Scientific labs around the world have developed systems that allow users to control video game characters, move robotic arms or type messages without moving a finger. This kind of BCI actually goes one step further than the prosthetics discussed earlier. Any connected object can be remotely controlled, without being physically attached to a person.

The novelty also lies in the fact that users no longer need to be scientists at DARPA or in neuroscience labs to own and operate a BCI. Thanks to the tens of thousands of people across the world owning devices made by companies like ours—devices that are sharing their brain data on a daily basis—our algorithms are detecting mental commands with an unprecedented level of reliability afforded by machine and deep learning. That makes it super-simple for you to operate your own BCI and mind-control-connected devices. Icing on top of the neuro-cake: Some BCIs now cost less than an X-Box. Ready to open these doors with your mind?

More than six years ago, when I first got my hands on portable brain sensors, I started to use them during my talks to give real-time demonstrations. I would bring people on stage, put the wireless brain sensors on their heads, and teach the volunteers to move a 3-D cube on a screen with their mind. I could demonstrate in a couple of minutes that mind-controlling objects was not the future, but the present. Yet BCIs are not just the neuro version of the magician’s rabbit-out-of-a-hat trick, designed merely to impress an audience.

I started to use BCIs during my DJ sets around the world to allow clubbers to control the lightshow with their minds. During performances, musicians, painters or ballet dancers I was collaborating with used neurotech to express themselves in a totally new way. People can use BCIs to control a flying drone, something one of the most powerful CEOs in the software industry did at a recent event at the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. And of course, someone took care of connecting the “Star Wars” dots. Joshua Carr from IBM Worldwide Bluemix created what fans could see as the ultimate meta experience: mind-controlling the iconic BB-8 drone from the new movies thanks to portable brainwear.

Transforming lives

Applications of affordable BCIs can transform lives. My friend and fellow WEF Young Global Leader, Rodrigo Hübner Mendes, is the founder of an institute that uses education and technology to make ecosystems more inclusive and disability friendly. His social-impact work has helped millions of people already. But, for better or worse, this may no longer be what he will be known for. As I mentioned in a previous essay for Fortune, Mendes became the first person ever to drive a Formula 1 racecar with the power of his brain alone. No steering wheel, no pedals, just a brain-computer interface transforming his brain waves into commands to accelerate, to turn right or left.

Beyond this Jedi-like driving performance lies a very moving story that is at the core of a global advocacy campaign called Powered by Respect. In August 1990, as Mendes was about to start his car in Sao Paolo, Brazil, he was shot in the back. The assault left him paralyzed from the neck down. Thanks to neurotech and a BCI, Mendes’s almost three-decade-long driving hiatus came to an end and he experienced again the dopamine rush associated with driving fast on a racetrack. At the 2017 Brainstorm Health Conference, I shared the movie of his performance during a session with Dr. David Agus. As Agus and I were on stage, we witnessed how amazed the audience was, just like kids watching a science fiction movie. Except that this was not science fiction, but neuroscience in action. (See the video below.)

What was learned in the process of preparing the racecar and fine-tuning the BCI for Mendes is now being used to help improve a new generation of wheelchairs as illustrated by the work of Spanish company Handytronic. Thousands of disabled people who had not only lost the use of their limbs but also their autonomy will be able to go from one place to another in wheelchairs without necessarily asking for help, thanks to neurotech.

This is all the more important because disabled individuals are amongst the most discriminated-against and underserved people globally. According to the Center for Diseases Control (CDC) there are more than 53 million individuals with a form of disability in the U.S. For nearly three decades, the U.S. Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has improved significantly the lives of disabled people by increasing access to infrastructure, transportation, and employment. Yet huge disparities remain between disabled and non-disabled people when it comes to access to healthcare, education and technology. The joint effort of neuroscientists, engineers, policy makers, and organizations like the Instituto Rodrigo Mendes or the Mark Pollock Trust, along with companies in the private sector are already making a difference in the lives of disabled people.

Scaling up

With neurotechnologies and BCIs becoming more affordable, the next step is to make them available at scale and therefore truly pervasive. Recently, the first-ever patent for aggregating bio signals and action data that would allow users to crowdsource brain research was granted to our company, EMOTIV.

The next market that is likely to be transformed by scaling brain computer interfaces is Augmented Reality (AR). Many analysts believe that augmented reality will grow to become a trillion-dollar market in the decade to come. Currently, AR is in its infancy, especially on the user experience front. At present, when additional information appears the field of view of people wearing augmented or mixed smart glasses such as Google glasses, Microsoft Hololens, Meta 2, Recon Jet Pro or the recently announced Magic Leap One “Creator Edition,” if the users want this information to be expanded or to disappear, they still need to use a vocal command, make a gesture, or press a button. This is the case with The Jedi Challenges, a terrific AR game that Lenovo released last month. I bought one for Christmas for one of my daughters who is a total “Star Wars” geek … like her Dad, who does not miss an opportunity to play with it. But as cool as the game and the Mirage AR headset that comes with it may be, they still lack mind control. Quite frustrating for a Jedi-branded toy.

Beyond games, other sectors embracing AR can greatly benefit from affordable and reliable mental commands. Healthcare is one of them. In early December 2017, Vizua, a leading multidimensional imagery and AR company based in Seattle, collaborated with medical image vendor Terarecon, orthopedic prosthetics manufacturer Evolutis and Microsoft’s AR gear division to introduce for the first time the combination of artificial intelligence and augmented reality while surgery is being performed. Dr. Thomas Grégory, Head of Orthopedic Surgery and Traumatology at the AP-HP Avicenne Hospital near Paris, was able to map 3D radiologic information in real time onto the body of a patient thanks to the Microsoft Hololens headset he was wearing. AR also allowed him to collaborate with colleagues located in the UK, the U.S. and South Korea as he was performing the surgery.

As successful as this world premiere may have been, it also revealed that using the AR technology was an additional task to manage for the surgeon, showing that progress needs to be made to facilitate the interactions between the surgeon and the AR content. “We are currently working on integrating a brain-computer interface in the augmented reality headset to allow surgeons to select information provided by AR with their minds. says Sylvain Ordureau, CEO & Founder of Vizua, who also happens to be a “Star Wars” fan. “Their hands must be exclusively dedicated to performing surgery, and their voices to speak with their colleagues. We will soon empower surgeons with mental control and therefore offer a seamless integration of AR in the surgery room.”

Technology should enhance the experience of users and offer as little physical distraction as possible. The ability to have a mental “on/off button,” something as binary as the possibility of mind-controlling a yes/no action, will totally change the AR game. It will allow hands-free silent communication between the user and the wearable device providing augmented reality. This is what AR is missing at the moment and a key objective for most companies selling products or services that require improved user interfaces. Facebook, for example, is working on silent ways for people to type, send and receive messages with their minds. Taiwanese consumer electronics maker HTC, through its $100 million investment fund Vive X, is also showing a strong interested in brain-controlled interfaces. Most tech giants are now actively working with people who know a thing or two about BCIs. (Wink wink.) Once mental commands become available thanks to BCIs embedded into AR wearables and systems, AR will be more likely to break the mass market and be embraced by consumers in their home and in the workplace.

Star Wars: The Force AwakensLucasfilm

In The Empire Strikes Back, when asked by his Jedi master Yoda to move a spaceship with the Force, Luke Skywalker laments: “Master, moving stones around is one thing. This [the spaceship] is totally different.” Yoda replies: “No. No different. Only different in your mind.” As usual, Yoda is right. The mind is the limit. The new “Star Wars” movie might be called The Last Jedi, but thanks to affordable and scalable neurotechnologies and brain computer interfaces, everyone can be a Jedi.

The Force is finally real.

Olivier Oullier, PhD, is a neuroscientist, a DJ and the President of EMOTIV.

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