© 2017 EPFL / Mental Work / Adrien Barakat

Experiential Science Fiction: Bringing #MentalWork to SXSW

Listen to a streaming audio archive of the talk. 

swissnex San Francisco headed to the SXSW conference in Austin, Texas, to discuss how dismantling boundaries between art and science can help us imagine, understand, and prepare for the transformational potential of Brain-Computer Interfaces.

Sheila Fakurnejad hosted a panel with brain-computer interface (BCI) researcher Ricardo Chavarriaga and experimental philosopher Jonathon Keats, two co-creators of the Mental Work exhibition: a global, public neuroscience research experiment where participants control industrial machinery using only thoughts and BCI technology.

BCI enables machines to read and interpret data from brain activity and transmit it to an external device, which can interpret those impulses into useful feedback. These interfaces can be applied in a variety of ways, most notably in allowing those without physical control of their limbs to control mobility devices, such as a wheelchair.

The project draws on research from José Millán, a researcher at Campus Biotech — co-founded by Ernesto Bertarelli, Campus Biotech focuses on neuroscience and biotech research, hosting academic and industrial partners including EPFL, the University of Geneva, and the Wyss Center for Bio- and Neuro-Engineering.

The Mental Work exhibition brings BCI technology from EPFL into a gallery setting, where visitors can move industrial-era gears and machinery with their thoughts. The EPFL ArtLab in Lausanne put these machines to work in October 2017, designing the first factory dedicated to what Keats calls the “Cognitive Revolution.”

“It becomes a way to experience a possible future, and to connect it to the past,” said Keats. The machines “serve as philosophical instruments,” that “allow us to become better capable of deciding what sort of future we might want.”

Thinking through the machines at an early stage is a way to help guide conversations about the technology, but also about what collaborations between artists and researchers can achieve. By bringing artists into the fold so early, researchers can glean greater insights into unpredictable uses of BCI that are difficult to envision in a laboratory.

“Negative outcomes arise when we deploy technologies into scenarios that haven’t been envisioned yet,” said Chavarriage. New spaces allow for a wider range of possible failures — and can help to better anticipate potential problems.

By bringing emerging tech into unlikely spaces — and gathering data about how people interact with the tech they find there — it opens up a broader conversation that helps us imagine what might be possible in the future. Keats calls it “experiential science fiction,” calling back to the role of sci-fi in helping society collectively envision what inspires (or frightens) us about tech beyond the horizon.

Mental Work at SXSW was made possible thanks to the generous support the Swiss-based Fondation Bertarelli, which tackles issues in the fields of marine conservation and life science research by developing partnerships with scientists, NGOs, and governments around the world.

Mental Work is part of swissnex San Francisco’s ongoing examination of how intelligent machines are shaping the emergent future.

You can hear a recording of the full panel discussion at the SXSW site.

Cover photo © 2017 EPFL / Mental Work / Adrien Barakat