Scientists have made some hugely promising advances when it comes to brain-computer interfaces in recent times, with machines that can turn thoughts into controls for drones, wheelchairs and music. Now, researchers in Japan say that they've broken new ground with a technology that can recognize Japanese words and also guess the single-digit number on a subject's mind with 90 percent accuracy, simply by monitoring their brainwaves.

The system was developed by researchers at Japan's Toyohashi University of Technology and uses an electroencephalogram (EEG) cap. These types of headsets use electrodes placed on the scalp to monitor electrical signals coming from the brain, and though they could have wide-ranging applications, one area in which they seem particularly promising is improving the lives of handicapped people.

In 2010, for example, we saw a home-based EEG cap system that enabled users with locked-in syndrome (where the brain is active but the body is not) to communicate by selecting characters on a virtual keyboard simply by concentrating on them. In the same year, researchers at the University of Utah showed off an implantable (but not brain-penetrating) version that translated brain signals into a limited number of words.

The Japanese researchers too hold hopes of one day allowing people without the ability to speak to communicate. They say that turning EEG signals into words has previously been limited by the amount of data that these systems can collect, but its new approach to interpreting these signals, which it says is based on holistic pattern recognition and machine learning, allows it to achieve "high performance" with just a small data set.

So much so, that the system can recognize uttered numbers between 0 and 9 with 90 percent accuracy. And perhaps more promisingly, the system recognized 18 single-syllable Japanese words with 61 percent accuracy, raising the prospect of a brain-activated typewriter.

With further development, the team imagines that its system will not only help handicapped people, but act as a more seamless computer interface for healthy people, too. It says it plans to refine the technology and develop a device that can plug into smartphones within five years. It will present its progress at the Interspeech conference in Sweden this August.

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