Brain-computer interfacing (BCI) is like something out of a sci-fi movie. The idea of hooking up a person’s brain to a computer in order to elevate the individual’s capabilities, to augment them to overcome the limitations of their flesh, is the kind of plot device used by cyberpunk game developers and writers. However, it is rapidly becoming a reality.
Tech superstars are lining up to back BCI projects. When Tesla‘s Elon Musk isn’t trying to get out of buying Twitter, he envisions a world where brain implants can empower users to do everything from climbing rocks without fear to seeing radar with superhuman vision, courtesy of his own BCI startup Neuralink.
Initially the startup aspires to give quadriplegic people the power to move a pointer on a screen with their mind. By moving a pointer, paralysed people can type, control machinery and do a whole host of life-enhancing actions.
Tech investor Peter Thiel, who most recently hit the news backing the conservative dating app The Right Stuff, has invested in Neuralink competitor Blackrock Neurotech. The startup has similar grandiose goals as Neuralink. Like Musk, Thiel originally made his fortune as one of the founders behind PayPal.
“The sky’s the limit for what BCIs will be able to do in the future, but the future is a very long period of time,” Florian Solzbacher, co-founder, chairman and president of BlackRock Neurotech, tells Verdict.
Unlike Neuralink, Blackrock Neurotech has been tested in humans. The company hopes to restore function in people with paralysis, whether caused by spinal cord injury or neurodegenerative diseases like ALS.
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“[BCIs will] help people reintegrate into society, return to work, create new social connections, and get back to a life that is much more like what many of us take for granted,” Solzbacher says.
BCI businesses have no intentions of stopping there. Neuralink ultimately wants to make BCIs commercially available. Blackrock Neurotech makes it clear that it is currently focusing on helping people with paralysis, but says that the technology itself could have far-reaching implications in the future.
“After those initial medical applications, I think the next step we’ll see is first responders and others who are able-bodied, but work in dangerous, high-risk situations, use the technology to improve their reflexes or become faster, and ultimately safer, similar to the way we use wearable protective technologies now, but with far more advanced capabilities.” Solzbacher tells Verdict.
However, the wildest dreams of BCI enthusiasts are still a long way off. For now, BCIs are used to help people with disabilities overcome their limitations.
The question is how do they achieve that? How does BCIs work? Why are people investing in the technology? Read on to find out.
What is brain-computer interfacing?
So what are BCIs? In short, BCIs are computers that interface with the brain. They can sense electricity, give electricity and tell other computers what to do.
More particularly, BCIs are small computers that connect to your brain. Think blood-pressure monitors, but instead of wrapping around your arm they monitor your brain.
Brains are made up of cells called neurons. Neurons give off small amounts of electricity when they send certain messages to each other. Manmade sensors can detect those signals.
BCIs enable computers to process those patterns of electricity. The computer could, for instance, notice a signal and recognise it as the pattern for how you would normally try to move your arm. It’s not then, relatively speaking, a leap to imagine that the same pattern-tracking capabilites could be used to move a robotic arm.
In fact, that’s already been done to some extent. Researchers at Brown University have used BCIs in exactly this way to empower people with tetraplegia to reach for and grasp objects in three-dimensional space using robotic arms that they controlled directly with brain activity.
This is not the same as BCIs being able to read your mind. However, engineers do not need to read your mind to create working BCIs. All we need to know is that when we move our arms, an electric pulse happens in our brains in the same approximate location. So, if we look for a pulse there and find one, then the BCI has a pretty good idea that you are trying to move your arm.
But there’s still a little bit more to BCIs than that. Some BCIs don’t just detect pulses, they spark them off. BCIs are being developed that can detect epileptic fits before they happen and even prevent them by directly stimulating the brain with electricity.
Types of BCI
BCI developers are taking varied approaches to implementing the tech. Some require invasive surgery while others don’t.
Neuralink and Blackrock devices, for instance, are implanted in brain tissue so they can directly record from individual neurons. These intracortical approaches require brain surgery to implant the BCI.
New York-based startup Synchron has developed another innovative BCI with clearance for testing on humans. The solution gets injected into a vein and travels to the brain where it unfurrows, embeds itself and records electrical pulses from the inside. Synchron hopes anything can do it can do without tricky brain surgery, but it has its own drawbacks. Notably, users need lots of training to use Stentrode and its functionality is more limited, since it doesn’t liaise with single neurons.
Reports have suggested Musk has reached out to Synchron’s founders to invest in the company. Details about any potential deal are scarce.
BCI technologies can be even less invasive. Some companies are developing BCIs that can be worn like a hat. NextMind’s wearable lets users move objects on a screen, and Muse provides auditory feedback to help users fall asleep.
If we don’t need surgery for BCIs, then why are the PayPal founders so invested in more invasive solutions? The short answer is that they are arguably more accurate.
The long answer requires some explaining. Non-invasive BCIs rely on electroencephalogram (EEG) scanning technology. That’s quite a mouthful, but it’s not as complicated as it might seem.
Simply put, EEG sits on top of the head no invasive surgery required. However, that also means that EEG tech is unable to pinpoint the location of an electrical signal with the same accuracy as more invasive solutions.
“[We’ll] see implantable BCIs become ever smaller and less invasive to implant, which will lead to more users both inside and eventually outside the clinical space” Solzbacher tells Verdict.
BCI is part of a bigger medtech boom
BCIs are part of a bigger boom in healthcare technology. Investments in medtech have skyrocketed year-on-year for the past decade.
Venture capitalists (VCs) like Thiel injected $914m into the sector across 220 deals back in 2013, according to data from research firm GlobalData, accessed on August 10.
Investors have clearly developed an insatiable appetite for these deals ever since. The number of deals shoot through the roof over the next eight years.
In 2021, VCs injected over $38bn into the medtech sector across 1,162 deals.
There may be dark clouds on the horizon darkening the medtech industry’s outlook. Huge swats of the tech sector in general has struggled so far in 2022. The industry has suffered down rounds and seen stocks spin into freefall. Market watchers are now debating whether or not we will see the pop of another tech bubble akin to the Dotcom boom and bust of the noughties.
It is unclear what this will mean for the medtech industry’s momentum. So far in 2022, investors have backed the sector to the tune of $12bn across 540 deals.
BCI may have captured the imaginations of venture capitalists and the PayPal Mafia, but perhaps the most smitten will be the so-called transhumanists.
Transhumanism comes in many shapes and sizes, but transhumanists are united under the goal: technology should be integrated into our bodies to help us transcend our human limitations.
By this definition we are all transhumanists of sorts. After all, who wouldn’t endorse cochlear implants to help deaf people? The same thing goes for pacemakers and BCIs for people suffering from paralysis.
However, transhumanist most-often refers to people who want to use invasive tech beyond the medical applications. Some even think it’s high-time to take control of our evolution as a species.
A fringe of punk-transhumanists, or biohackers do take evolution into their own hands. They perform dangerous surgeries without anesthetic to embed technology in their bodies.
When this goes well they gain abilities, such as sensing electrical fields through tingling in their fingertips. But when things go wrong, as they often do with DIY surgeries, they get a trip to the emergency room.
Commercial BCIs – and the possibility of programming them – could be seen as the holy grail for transhumanists, especially with the mention of reflex-enhancing technologies, bionic limbs and gripping virtual worlds. In other words, there is a metaverse angle here too for those looking.
“BCIs wouldn’t principally change what’s possible now with a VR headset and sensory gloves, but they could vastly enhance the experience and make it feel more real, faster and intuitive,” Solzbacher says.
Feasible or fantastical?
BCIs are deeply exciting, but it does have several limitations. Firstly, everyone’s brain is different, even in ways that could be seen by the naked eye. This means there is always going to be an aspect of guesswork about which brain cells we need to look at in each person.
Fortunately, we can make a pretty good guess. Clusters of brain cells in similar locations between people have similar functions. For example the main vision processing area is generally always at the back of the head.
Still, companies like Neuralink and Blackrock cannot connect to all of the hundreds of trillions of neurons in the foreseeable future. Right now they can only access neurons on the surface of the brain, leaving trillions of neurons deep in the brain untapped.
This limitation could slow down the delivery of some of the futuristic applications of BCI. Modern limitations are actively being overcome though.
Another big limitation is with the science. Psychology and neuroscience are relatively new sciences and our brains are pretty difficult beasts to understand, especially when it comes to comprehending our experiences.
Musk has speculated that one day we might get to store and replay memories using BCIs, but Blackrock’s Solzbacher is sensibly doubtful, at least for the foreseeable future.
“When it comes to the types of things in science fiction and areas that touch on consciousness and memory, however, we don’t have the technologies today, and I don’t see them on the road map in the next ten or twenty years. Perhaps 150 years, but it’s really hard to predict that,” Solzbacher says.
Verdict asked Neuralink to comment on its technological limitations, but received no response.
Ultimately, if someone promises that their sparkling new tech will replay memories in just five years time, a healthy dose of skepticism is quite warranted.
We might be a long way off achieving some of the truly fantastical applications of BCIs, but when we get there we should be ready.
A new age of technology brings on a new set of ethical challenges. Fortunately, ethicists are already launching research into neurotech. Moreover, most large BCI companies have their own independent ethical review boards.
Adverts might be personalised to brainwaves. Agencies might also beam ads directly into BCIs. Although modern technology is already rife with advertising, there is something new and disconcerting about adverts residing under the skin.
The more serious ethical concerns will come if futuristic BCIs can augment reality, control movement or read any thoughts with ease.
Furthermore, if only part of the populatiion adopts commercial BCIs, then concerns about equality could also arise.
“The question is, how will we as a society – whether via public policy or cultural change – mitigate any deleterious effects,” Allen Coin, a researcher into the ethics of neurotech at NC State University tells Verdict.
Fortunately, BCIs are a long way off these sorts of implementation. The most advanced ones nowadays can move a curser on a screen, or a robotic limb.
“At this point in time, I’d argue that the raw neural data that could be gleaned is less useful than, for instance, copies of the emails that you or I would send from our phones.” Solzbacher tells Verdict. However, in the far future neural data is likely to grow in value.
In the grand scheme of BCI, these might be simple advancements. But it is these advancements that will give new possibilities to perhaps the most important users of BCIs.
GlobalData is the parent company of Verdict and its sister publications.