Science fiction has long played with the idea of devices that enable people to perform an action simply by thinking about it. Brain computer interfaces are turning that vision into a reality – and the potential is vast.
L ast April, a monkey played a video game simply by using its mind. Not long before that, researchers at the Battelle Memorial Institute restored the sense of touch to a paralysed man by implanting a microchip in his brain. And Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg has predicted that people will one day be able to type with their mind thanks to “brain-reading” devices that the company is developing.
Welcome to a mini-industry that is having a moment: brain computer interfaces, or BCIs. The concept is much as it sounds: technology that melds computers with the most complex machine of all, the brain.
Restoring quality of life
The possibilities are almost limitless. Tesla CEO Elon Musk, whose start-up Neuralink was behind the video game demonstration, has predicted that BCIs will enable us to become one with artificial intelligence (AI), allowing us to plug in directly to the entirety of the web to access whatever we want instantly. The technology, he says, will “secure the future of humanity relative to AI”.
There is just one catch: inserting Neuralink’s chip inside your head requires open brain surgery, a considerable barrier to entry, even in Silicon Valley.
Nonetheless, the concept of BCIs or “neuroprosthetics” has been kicked around for decades, with the Pentagon one of the biggest funders of its foundational research. A technology that can restore quality of life and function for soldiers who come back from war paralysed is a high priority. And now a series of breakthroughs has stoked excitement that a new era is upon us, where a technology that starts out allowing paralysed people to regain certain abilities evolves into a generation of consumer products that become as ubiquitous as the Apple Watch.
The electrodes will not restore movement. Instead, they will read brain signals, which will be sent via Bluetooth to a smartphone-sized device that interprets and converts them into actions
Musk’s optimism apart, inserting electronics safely inside people’s heads remains a massive hurdle. Neuralink is developing a robot that can perform the whole procedure, drilling tiny holes into the skull and sewing into the brain tissue thousands of almost invisible polymer threads that are hooked up to a chip that is smaller than a fingernail. Yet even brain micro-surgery brings with it huge risk.
Dr Mary Lou Jepsen – who was once named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world – is the founder of Openwater, a San Francisco-based start-up that is working on a non-invasive headset to instantly detect strokes using near-infrared light and sonic data. She warns that the Neuralink robot could cause swelling of the blood vessels that lead to mini-strokes. Jepsen, who had brain surgery in her twenties, knows better than most of her rivals the trauma of such a procedure.
Going for the jugular
But drilling is not the only option. New York-based Synchron has just begun a first-of-its-kind clinical trial, implanting electrodes via an incision in the jugular vein in the neck and guiding them into the brain. The outpatient procedure draws on the well-established technique of finding a major vein elsewhere in the body and then using blood vessels to insert, say, a pacemaker in the heart or a stent in the brain.
Brain signals via Bluetooth
“This is why we’re moving faster than anyone else,” says Dr Tom Oxley, Synchron’s founder. “There’s an entire industry that already exists around delivering technology through blood vessels into the brain. There are 300 surgeons in the US who do open brain surgery. More than 10,000 do these types of blood vessel procedures.” The trial will start with up to 20 paralysed people. The goal, Oxley says, is to “digitise intention”. The electrodes will not restore movement. Instead, they will read brain signals, which will be sent via Bluetooth to a smartphone-sized device that interprets and converts them into actions on a computer, smartphone or other device. “People who are paralyzed lose the ability to control Microsoft, Google or Apple. Once you give that back, you give them back those powerful systems. That makes a huge impact on their lives,” he says.
spends 100 hours in a
functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine, a computer
can make an ‘atlas’ of how their brain reacts and draw on that data to
predict what they are
going to say
The work builds on technology that stretches back to 2006. A team at Brown University implanted 96 electrodes into a quadriplegic man’s motor cortex. The result was that he could move a cursor with his thoughts. Around the same time, researchers at Stanford University produced similar results in a non-paralysed monkey. In more recent years, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley have shown that if someone spends 100 hours in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine – in effect, the video version of MRI – and watches films or other stimuli, a computer can make an “atlas” of how their brain reacts, based on its use of oxygen. It can then draw on that data to predict accurately what they are going to say.
Today, much of the sector’s efforts, from Synchron to Neuralink, are focused on those most in need – patients who are paralysed or have suffered a severe brain injury. But enthusiasts are already making breathless predictions of a time when BCIs will impart superhuman powers, be it telepathy or merging with AI.
Industry pioneers remain sceptical, however. Dr Patrick Ganzer led the team at the Battelle Memorial Institute – a non-profit applied science company – which made headlines in 2016 when they “reanimated” Ian Burkhart, a man who had been paralysed in a 2010 diving accident.
Ganzer and his colleagues inserted an implant that interpreted signals from Burkhart’s motor cortex, which controls movement.
An intention to, say, grab a cup, was sent to an electrical stimulation sleeve that activated the necessary muscles to complete the action.
Ganzer’s team was able to interpret faint signals related to the sense of touch. Burkhart, despite severe paralysis, could feel as well as move his hand
Last year, Ganzer, now at the University of Miami’s Project to Cure Paralysis, went further. His team was able to interpret faint signals related to the sense of touch, which the injury had effectively blocked. These signals were boosted by the implant and sent to a haptic device on Burkhart’s hand. Despite severe paralysis, he could then feel as well as move his hand.
Remarkable as these advances appear, Ganzer explains that it is difficult to persuade even severely disabled people to agree to go under the knife. Convincing healthy people? That is a bridge the industry is far from crossing.
“It was really hard to recruit patients, even for people that have that desire and need to move their hands again,” Ganzer says. “When it comes to making the superhuman versus helping patients that have an injury, I really don’t think that the field knows yet how to do the healthy human augmentation. It’s hard, and there are all these difficult trade-offs.”
Everything around you is going to include neural measurement: the shows you watch, the news you read, the stuff you write, the friends you have, all of it
That does not stop people from trying. Bryan Johnson made a fortune when he sold his payments company, Braintree, to PayPal for $800 million in 2013. Over the past five years, he has ploughed more than $100 million into Kernel, a Los Angeles-based company that last summer began shipping prototypes of a helmet-like device that measures brain stimuli. The company has begun selling the gadget, a bulky series of grey plates packed with chips, sensors and lasers, to researchers.
Johnson believes the helmet will soon become a consumer device, especially as it shrinks in size. As he explains: “The first cell phones were big, too. We are in the direct current of global consumer electronic trends, so we will benefit from all the enhancements by being in this technology stack.”
Catalyst for services
The question is, why would the average consumer buy it? Johnson believes the answer is relatively simple: because they can – and there is almost nothing else like it today.
His vision is that, just as the iPhone or Facebook became platforms upon which entire industries have been built, Kernel will catalyse a universe of new services and products centred on neural measurement.
“Within 10 years it might be seen as difficult to comprehend why you wouldn’t have brain measurement as a normal routine in your life.
We’re bringing this to the mainstream,” Johnson says.
Today, efforts are focused on patients who are paralysed or have suffered a severe brain injury. But enthusiasts are already making breathless predictions of a time when BCIs will impart superhuman powers
To those who are already worried about what social media may be doing to them, this might seem a dystopian vision – a device that measures which parts of your brain light up when you scroll through just-so images of your friends’ fabulous lives.
For Johnson, however, it is only a matter of time before we will be able to quantify virtually any experience, matching our feelings to hard data.
“Everything around you is going to include neural measurement: the shows you watch, the news you read, the stuff you write, the friends you have, all of it,” he says. “It may sound wacky to us today, but we know, for example, that we become the people around us. What if that was measured? What if you could actually look at the effect that your closest associates, friends and family have on you?”
Such a device could add a whole new dimension to Christmas dinner with the family. Fortunately perhaps, it is not clear how far off that reality is, if indeed it ever arrives n