Brain-computer interfaces are devices that allow people to control machines with their thoughts. This technology has been the stuff of science fiction and even children’s games for years.
On the more advanced level, brain-computer technology remains highly experimental but has vast possibilities. First to mind (no pun intended), would be to aid those with paralysis in creating electrical impulses that would let them regain control of their limbs. Second, the military would like to see its service members operating drones or missiles hands-free on the battlefield.
There are also concerns raised when a direct connection is made between a machine and the brain. For example, such a connection could give users an unfair advantage, enhancing their physical or cognitive abilities. It also means hackers could steal data related to the user’s brain signals.
With this article, we explore several opportunities and issues that are related to brain-computer interfaces.
Brain-computer interfaces allow their users to control machines with their thoughts. Such interfaces can aid people with disabilities, and they can enhance the interactions we have with computers. The current iterations of brain-computer interfaces are primarily experimental, but commercial applications are just beginning to appear. Questions about ethics, security, and equity remain to be addressed.
A brain-computer interface enables the user to control an external device by way of their brain signals. A current use of a BCI that has been under development is one that would allow patients with paralysis to spell words on a computer screen.
Additional use cases include: a spinal cord injury patient regaining control of their upper body limbs, a BCI-controlled wheelchair, or a noninvasive BCI that would control robotic limbs and provide haptic feedback with touch sensations. All of this would allow patients to regain autonomy and independence.
Beyond the use of BCIs for the disabled, the possibilities for BCIs that augment typical human capabilities are abundant.
Neurable has taken a different route and has created headphones that can make you more focused, not requiring a user’s touch to control, but can work with a wink or nod and will be combined with VR for a better experience.
Generally, a new BCI user will go through an iterative training process. The user learns how to produce signals that the BCI will recognize, and then the BCI will take those signals and translate them for use by way of a machine learning algorithm. Machine learning is useful for correctly interpreting the user’s signals, as it can also be trained to provide better results for that user over time.
BCIs will generally connect to the brain in two ways: through wearable or implanted devices.
Implanted BCIs are often surgically attached directly to brain tissue, but Synchron has developed a catheter-delivered implant that taps into blood vessels in the chest to capture brain signals. The implants are more suitable for those with severe neuromuscular disorders and physical injuries where the cost-benefit is more favorable.
A person with paralysis could regain precise control of a limb by using an implanted BCI device attached to specific neurons; any increase in function would be beneficial, but the more accurate, the better. Implanted BCIs can measure signals directly from the brain, reducing interference from other body tissues. However, most implants will pose other risks, primarily surgical-related like infection and rejection. Some implanted devices can reduce these risks by placing the electrodes on the brain’s surface using a method called electrocorticography or ECoG.
Wearable BCIs, on the other hand, generally require a cap containing conductors which measure brain activity detectible on the scalp. The current generation of wearable BCIs is more limited, such as only for augmented and virtual reality, gaming, or controlling an industrial robot.
Most wearable BCIs are using electroencephalography (EEG) with electrodes contacting the scalp to measure the brain’s electrical activity. A more recent and emerging wearable method incorporates functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS), where near-infrared light is shined through the skull to measure blood flow which, when interpreted, can indicate information like the user’s intentions.
To enhance their usefulness, researchers are developing BCIs that utilize portable methods for data collection, including wireless EEGs. These advancements allow users to move freely.
Most BCIs are still considered experimental. Researchers began testing wearable BCI tech in the early 1970s, and the first human-implanted BCI was Dobelle’s first prototype, implanted into “Jerry,” a man blinded in adulthood, in 1978. A BCI with 68 electrodes was implanted into Jerry’s visual cortex. The device succeeded in producing phosphenes, the sensation of “seeing” light.
In the 21st century, BCI research increased significantly, with the publication of thousands of research papers. Among that was Tetraplegic Matt Nagle, who became the first person to control an artificial hand using a BCI in 2005. Nagle was part of Cyberkinetics Neurotechnology’s first nine-month human trial of their BrainGate chipimplant.
Even with the advances, it is estimated that fewer than 40 people worldwide have implanted BCIs, and all of them are considered experimental. The market is still limited, and projections are that the total market will only reach $5.5 million by 2030. Two significant obstacles to BCI development are that each user generates their own brain signals and those signals are difficult to measure.
The majority of BCI research has historically focused on biomedical applications, helping those with disabilities from injury, neurological disorder, or stroke. The first BCI device to receive Food and Drug Administration authorization was granted in April 2021. The device (IpsiHand) uses a wireless EEG headset to help stroke patients regain arm and hand control.
Legal and security implications of BCIs are the most common concerns held by BCI researchers. Because of the prevalence of cyberattacks already, there is an understandable concern of hacking or malware that could be used to intercept or alter brain signal data stored on a device like a smartphone.
The US Department of Commerce (DoC) is reviewing the security implications of exporting BCI technology. The concern is that foreign adversaries could gain an intelligence or military advantage. The DoC’s decision will affect how BCI technology is used and shared abroad.
Those in the field have also considered BCI’s social and ethical implications. The costs for wearable BCIs can range from hundreds even up to thousands of dollars, and this price would likely mean unequal access.
Implanted BCIs cost much more. The training process for some types of BCIs is significant and could be a burden on users. It has been suggested that if the translations of BCI signals for speech are inaccurate, then great harm could result.
The main opportunities that BCIs will initially provide are to help those paralyzed by injury or disorders to regain control of their bodies and communicate. This is already seen in the current research, but in the long term, this is only a steppingstone.
The augmentation of human capability, be it on the battlefield, in aerospace, or in day-to-day life, is the longer-term goal. BCI robots could also aid humans with hazardous tasks or hazardous environments, such as radioactive materials, underground mining, or explosives removal.
Finally, the field of brain research can be enhanced with a greater number of BCIs in use. Understanding the brain will be easier with more data, and researchers have even used a BCI to detect the emotions of people in minimally conscious or vegetative states.
BCIs will provide many who need them a new sense of autonomy and freedom they lack, but several questions remain as the technology progresses. Who will have access, and who will pay for these devices? Is there a need to regulate these devices as they begin to augment human capability, and who will do so? What applications would be considered unethical or controversial? What steps are needed to mitigate information, privacy, security, and military threats?
These questions have yet to be definitively answered—and they should be answered before the technology matures. The next step of BCIs will be information transfer in the opposite direction, like with Dobelle’s original light sensing “seeing” BCI of the 1970s, or computers telling humans what they see, think, and feel. This step will bring a whole new set of questions to answer.
Disclaimer: The information provided in this article is solely the author’s opinion and not investment advice – it is provided for educational purposes only. By using this, you agree that the information does not constitute any investment or financial instructions. Do conduct your own research and reach out to financial advisors before making any investment decisions.
The author of this text, Jean Chalopin, is a global business leader with a background encompassing banking, biotech, and entertainment. Mr. Chalopin is Chairman of Deltec International Group, www.deltecbank.com.
The co-author of this text, Robin Trehan, has a bachelor’s degree in economics, a master’s in international business and finance, and an MBA in electronic business. Mr. Trehan is a Senior VP at Deltec International Group, www.deltecbank.com.
The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this text are solely the views of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect those of Deltec International Group, its subsidiaries, and/or its employees.
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