The idea of controlling a computer with your mind seems like something out of a sci-fi novel, something that couldn’t possible happen any time soon, but we might be closer to the technology than we think. Brain-computer interfaces, or BCIs, are machines that read the electronic impulses that our brains release, thus knowing what you want and giving it to you immediately – without you having to lift a finger. Clicking on that mouse button could well soon become a thing of the past!

There are many ongoing research projects into just this, and the technology is being developed for a number of different reasons – aiding disability, telepathy, empathy, education, enjoyment, and supplementing human intelligence[1] being just a few. Elon Musk, entrepreneur and founder of Neuralink, a company working towards the development of wireless BCIs, argues that while initially, the technology will be used to treat disabilities and disorders, ultimately it will be used by everyone. “We are,” he says, “about eight to ten years away from this being usable by people with disability”[2].

 Old Technology

With comments like that, it may feel like the future is fast approaching, but actually, BCIs are not as new as they seem. It’s based on EEG (electroencephalogram) technology that was first developed by German psychiatrist Hans Berger when he was performing neurosurgery on a 17-year-old in 1924[3]. Berger recorded the electronic signals sent from his patient’s brain in order to produce a picture of it – and this technology is still used today in identifying and diagnosing disorders and abnormalities. By 1973, Jacques Vidal was examining the possibility of using EEG-style signals to carry information from the brain to a computer, and it was him who coined the term ‘brain-computer interface’[4].

There are other examples too. Cochlear implants, for instance, have used exactly this technology since their inception in 1982[5]. They bypass the parts of the ear that don’t work, take the sound waves from the air, turn them into electric signals, and sends them to the auditory nerves[6]. It’s a bit more complicated to do this for visual data, but ultimately, BCIs could do a similar thing for blind people – sending impulses to the brain from a camera, allowing the blind person to ‘see’[7].

 Discontinued Disabilities

In fact, aiding disabilities and disorders is one of the most sought-after results of brain-computer interfaces, and science is moving along quickly in that area. Take the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, for example. The Walk Again Project used a non-invasive BCI (electrodes placed on the head as opposed to an implant) to control a lightweight exoskeleton. The electrodes read brain signals and sent the commands to the exoskeleton, meaning that a paraplegic could literally think about moving and he actually kicked off the tournament[8]. Pretty impressive, and he’s not the only one either.

Dr. Ali Rezai from Ohio State University’s Center for Neuromodulation implanted a 4mmx4mm chip into the motor cortex of a man who had become a quadriplegic after an accident when he was just 19 years old. Its purpose was to develop bespoke electronic algorithms that would bypass the damaged spinal cord and work directly with the brain – in much the same way that a cochlear implant bypasses damaged parts of the ear. The results were, and continue to be, astounding. He “was the first human who was able to move his own hand and arm using his thoughts,” Rezai explained. “He initially achieved rough movements of the wrist and hand. Over the past two-and-a-half years, Ian has exceeded our expectations and is able to perform increasingly complex movements that he could not have imagined ever doing again, such as rapidly opening and closing his hands, moving fingers, grabbing and holding objects like a cup, […], feeding and grooming and even playing a video game”[9].

Promoting Pleasure

It’s not all medicinal though. In fact, there are a number of companies looking to develop BCIs for improved convenience, increased speed, and even enhanced entertainment. In April 2016, neuroscientists at the University of Florida hosted the world’s first Brain Drone Race – a race in which drones are brain-controlled using non-invasive BCIs. 16 pilots used their brainwaves to fly drones down a 10-yard course, after their brain signals had been linked with certain motions. In training, they were asked to think ‘move forward’, and this particular signal was linked to the ‘move forward’ action on the controller[10], in much the same way that you might macro certain shortcut commands on your computer’s keyboard. They are planning on running the event again this year, and they have other projects on the go too, such as the Brainwords project which aims to use BCIs for authentication and password access[11].

Even Facebook is getting in on the action. This April, they announced they have 60 engineers working on a non-invasive BCI to allow for telepathic typing, and their ultimate goal is to see BCI users typing 100 words per minute[12] – which is around double the current average typing speed. There are other consumer-based products available too, such as NeuroSky and Emotiv – mobile, wearable, EEG devices aimed at the consumer market. For the moment, products such as these are used to record biometrics in much the same way that fitness trackers measure your sleeping pattern and step counts, but the possibilities for development into every part of our lives are endless.

Partial Perfection

Like all new technologies though, there’s still a long way to go. The non-invasive devices are bulky and require the use of electrodes. They also provide a murky picture, as signals are distorted and disguised by the skull and other outside sounds. Implants, on the other hand, require invasive brain surgery and, for the moment at least, demand a wire to be left on the outside in order to connect to a computer[13]. The implants can cause scar tissue in the brain’s grey matter too, and that scarring will ultimately block the signal from the brain, meaning that users will require even more invasive surgery[14].

There’s also the fear, perhaps encouraged by Hollywood movies and sci-fi novels, of brain-washing, control, and mind reading but many argue that that is more a fear of the unknown than anything else, and the unknown is not something that needs to be feared. Elon Musk points out that we already use interfaces of all kinds – just look at smart phones and tablets that “would’ve gotten you burnt for witchcraft in the old days”[15]. All that researchers into BCIs are doing is transferring that interface from your hands to your head. Facebook, too, try to waylay the fears of the public by reminding everyone that “this isn’t about decoding random thoughts. This is about decoding the words you’ve already decided to share by sending them to the speech center of your brain”[16]. Ultimately though, fear will do no good, because the technology is coming whether we like it or not.

 

[1] Nick Statt, 2017, Elon Musk launches Neuralink, a venture to merge the human brain with AI [online], available at: https://www.theverge.com/2017/3/27/15077864/elon-musk-neuralink-brain-computer-interface-ai-cyborgs. Accessed 05.30.2017

[2] Nick Lavars, 2017, Rise of the mind-reading machines [online]. Available at: http://newatlas.com/mind-reading-machines-musk-future/48642/. Accessed 05.30.2017

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Cochlear, 2012, Cochlear celebrates 30 years of hearing revolution [online], available at: http://www.cochlear.com/wps/wcm/connect/au/about/cochlear-30-anniversary. Accessed 05.30.2017

[6] Ed Grabianowski, 2017, How Brain-computer Interfaces Work [online]. Available at: http://computer.howstuffworks.com/brain-computer-interface.htm. Accessed 05.30.2017

[7] Ibid.

[8] Nick Lavars, op. cit.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Fetz Tepper, 2017, University of Florida held the world’s first brain-controlled drone race [online]. Available at: https://techcrunch.com/2016/04/25/university-of-florida-held-the-worlds-first-brain-controlled-drone-race/. Accessed 05.30.2017

[11] Nick Lavars, op. cit.

[12] Josh Constine, 2017, Facebook is building brain-computer interfaces for typing and skin-hearing [online]. Available at: https://techcrunch.com/2017/04/19/facebook-brain-interface/. Accessed 05.30.2017

[13] Nick Lavars, op. cit.

[14] Ed Gradianowski, op. cit.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Constine, op. cit.

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