If the boffins in white coats at Hitachi Japan have their way, old-fashioned point-and-click TV remote controls could soon be a thing of the past. They're developing an interface that can read our minds and act on whatever we're thinking about.

The technology in the ' brain-machine interface ' measures blood flow in the parts of the brain that work on solving problems. This acts as a simple switch that can operate equipment when the user thinks of a calculation or similar problem. In a recent demonstration near Tokyo, Hitachi's device was used to drive a toy train simply by thinking about it.

Non invasive

Such techniques are neither new nor unique. But the Japanese company's approach is the least invasive seen so far. Other methods have required using either large MRI machines, or devices actually implanted in the brain. Employing infrared light to measure brain activity is seen as a significant step forward.

The research is currently limited to simple on or off operations. But this could be enough to restore some quality of life to paralysed patients through allowing them to communicate with the outside world or to create a device like our hypothetical mind-powered TV remote within a few years.