Mental Work is an Art and Science exhibit that directly connects the visitor's brain to 19th century technology in order to explore a thought experiment: Faced with the prospect that the developments begun in the Industrial Revolution may end in human obsolescence, can we retool our brains to become useful parts of the machinery? The project brings together Neuroscience, Experimental Philosophy and the Visual Arts for one of the first exhibits to be showcased at EPFL’s ArtLab’ Art- Science Pavilion in 2018.
The Mental Work exhibit is comprised of 4 large and spectacular mind- controlled kinetic sculptures visually and functionally inspired by 19th century computing mechanisms known as slider cranks. After a 30 minute training period, users are able to control the forward and backward movement of each sculpture using a non- invasive brain- machine interface, or BMI, using nothing more than brain power. To date, over 600 Mental Workers have tested their brain power on the machines.
The sculptures themselves express precise motions that embody mathematical functions. These elegant mechanisms are some of the earliest mechanical computers, making mathematical calculations with each movement. Highly useful for controlling machinery, slider cranks were integral in replacing repetitive and tedious manual labor during the Industrial Revolution.
Mental Work integrates these two anachronistic elements into a visually appealing, intellectually stimulating and technically challenging exhibit, first installed in EPFL’s ArtLab space in 2017 and a following installation at swissnex San Franscico early 2018.
What is special about the project?
A primarily Swiss-based group of artists, scientists, communicators, curators and exhibit designers explore both the excitement and fear accompanying the rapid evolution of technology and science in our society through a philosophically-inspired interactive plastic arts installation. Working with technology developed at EPFL, the exhibit has separate but complementary artistic and didactic objectives: to stimulate the general public to reflect on our relationship with technology, and to inform them of the latest in neuroscientific advances.
An essential element to the proper functioning of BMIs is the way they learn about users, and how the users, in turn, learn to work with BMIs. While the data set created by hundreds of exhibit visitors may not be as clean as in a laboratory setting, thanks to its scale, the data will be valuable to the BMI scientific community for several reasons. From a purely sociological perspective, the input from users on how they feel about manipulating external objects with only their mind has been be unique and eye opening. More importantly, the data from the training sessions, especially when compared to the success rates for slider crank manipulation, are extremely valuable for developing better training techniques in the future. This information has been standardised and shared with the global BMI research community in an open science platform where it can be debated, discussed and improved.
There are two types of Mental Work exhibition visitors:
Mental Workers: these individuals sign up, via the Mental Work website, to join the cognitive revolution as active participants. They are given specific time slots and invited to a training booth as the first phase of their scientific experiment. Following an introduction to this active artistic experience, Mental Workers then participate in a 90 minute session and need to sign an agreement if they accept to share their data with the scientific community.
Visitors: these individuals do not have to sign up online. They discover the exhibition’s symbolic language, the translation manual, and are introduced to the first elements needed to understand the Mental Workers’ activities.
October 26, 2017 – February 11, 2018 : The Mental Work exhibition at EPFL ArtLab welcomed 2’524 visitors in total, of which 410 Mental Workers (16%), 1’614 Visitors (64%) and 500 individuals (20%) who attended the various events organized as part of the overall project.
Associated Program: In order to reinforce the education of the audience, a series of 7 events, including conferences, talks and workshops on neurotechnology, man-machine interaction and the future of technology accompanied the exhibition in the Lake Geneva region and in San Francisco.
May 17-July 27, 2018: The Mental Work exhibition at swissnex San Francisco welcomed 1’862 visitors in total, of which 254 Mental Workers (14%), 1’358 Visitors (73%) and 250 individuals (13%) who attended the various events organized as part of the overall project.
Associated Program: 8 events including a successful symposium during the opening weekend.
This first group of papers illustrate how our BCI technology is being deployed outside controlled laboratory conditions:
 Zhang, H., Chavarriaga, R., Khaliliardali, Z., Gheorghe, L.A., Iturrate, I., and Millán, J.d.R. (2015). EEG-based Decoding of Error-Related Brain Activity in a Real-World Driving Task. J. Neural Engineering, 12:066028.
 Leeb, R., Tonin, L., Rohm, M., Desideri, L., Carlson, T., and Millán, J.d.R. (2015). Towards Independence: A BCI Telepresence Robot for People with Severe Motor Disabilities. Proceedings of the IEEE, 103:969–982.
 Perdikis, S., Leeb, R., Williamson, J., Ramsey, A., Tavella, M., Desideri, L., Hoogerwerf, E.-J., Al-Khodairy, A., Murray-Smith, R., and Millán, J.d.R. (2014). Clinical Evaluation of BrainTree, a Motor Imagery Hybrid BCI Speller. Journal of Neural Engineering, 11:036003.
 Leeb, R., Perdikis, S., Tonin, L., Biasiucci, A., Tavella, M., Molina, A., Al-Khodairy, A., Carlson, T., and Millán, J.d.R. (2013). Transferring Brain-Computer Interfaces beyond the Laboratory: Successful Application Control for Motor-Disabled Users. Artificial Intelligence in Medicine, 59:121–132.
 Millán J.d.R., Ferrez P.W., Seidl T. (2009). Validation of Brain-Machine Interfaces during Parabolic Flight. International Review of Neurobiology, 86:189–197.
This second set of papers describe brain-controlled devices that have been regularly demonstrated in different public settings:
 Iturrate, I., Chavarriaga, R., Montesano, L., Minguez, J., and Millán, J.d.R. (2015). Teaching Brain-Machine Interfaces as an Alternative Paradigm to Neuroprosthetics Control. Nature Scientific Reports, 5:13893.
 Khaliliardali Z., Chavarriaga R., Gheorghe L.A., Millán J.d.R. (2015). Action Prediction based on Anticipatory Brain Potentials during Simulated Driving. Journal of Neural Engineering, 12:066006.
 Carlson, T.E. and Millán, J.d.R. (2013). Brain-Controlled Wheelchairs: A Robotic Architecture. IEEE Robotics and Automation Magazine, 20:65–73.
 Tonin L., Leeb R., Tavella M., Perdikis S., Millán J.d.R. (2010). The Role of Shared-Control in BCI-based Telepresence. Proc. IEEE SMC. Istanbul, Turkey.
 Tavella M., Leeb R., Rupp, R., Millán J.d.R. (2010). Towards Natural Non-Invasive Hand Neuroprostheses for Daily Living. Proc. IEEE EMBC. Buenos Aires, Argentina.
This project received a wide attention and triggered a large number of media reports.
Persons involved in the project
Last update to this project presentation 30.07.2020