Oct 2020 Strand
Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCIs) are becoming a popular interest. BCIs are extremely promising because they have the potential to serve as efficient and effective healthcare diagnostic tools and treatments; however, BCIs have also caught the attention of several private companies who plan to expand their uses for non-medical purposes, inviting fair amounts of controversy.
What is a Brain-Computer Interface?
An interface is simply a device that allows two systems to communicate; a brain-computer interface (BCI) is therefore a connection between the brain and a computer. The human brain is composed of millions of neurons that fire electrical pulses in specific regions in order to perform certain functions. BCIs allow computers to decode these electrical neural impulses and allow the brain to understand computer messages. Neural impulses can be measured with technology such as electroencephalography (EEG), a technology that scientists use for brain mapping, which determines the correlation between neural impulses in discrete regions of the brain and certain neural functions. Machine learning is required to map an individual’s brain function, since everyone’s brain is unique.
Current Technologies and Research
Although BCIs have only recently become a popular subject in the media, they have long been used as an option for those hard of hearing. A cochlear implant implements a BCI that assists individuals who chose to undergo the treatment by translating sound into electrical impulses that can be understood by the brain. This implant essentially functions as an ear, and is an option that allows improved hearing to those that wish to use it. This device is extremely popular, and is used globally.
Although not implemented yet, researchers are currently developing BCIs that can assist those who would like to speak, but cannot. These BCIs are based upon an individual’s imagined speech: a form of thinking where thoughts are presented as an inner voice. Several studies are laying the groundwork for decoding the electrical impulses that produce imagined speech. This research aims to allow an individual’s imagined speech to be heard by others, if wanted. One study measured imagined speech with a BCI that used EEG recordings. In this study, researchers asked participants connected to an EEG to read a word off a screen out loud and then imagine the speech. Several trials were recorded to train a machine-learning algorithm to decode their imagined speech. Although only a few words were used, the researchers found that this algorithm was extremely accurate. With further research on imagined speech, researchers hope to be able to decode entire sentences reliably.
Another exciting application of BCIs could be control over our movements. A BCI able to control our movements must implement a full interface for the motor cortex of our brains, which is responsible for the planning, control, and execution of movements in our bodies. Like imagined speech, imagined movement entails thoughts of our body performing a certain motor task. Research has been conducted on imagined movement with EEGs; however, research done with electrocorticographic (ECoG) recordings have had more promising results. ECoG procedures are more invasive than EEGs because they involve placing electrodes directly on the exposed surface of the brain. One such study involved surgically implanting ECoGs in the brains of two quadriplegic patients, who elected to undergo the treatment. Over time, the researchers collected data for their BCI machine learning algorithm by having the patients move a virtual avatar with their imagined movements. They were able to use their algorithm to allow the patients to control an exoskeleton. Researchers are hoping to implement this technology as a treatment for individuals who would like assistance over the control of their motor functions.
In 2016, the well-known entrepreneur Elon Musk founded Neuralink, a company researching the use of a fully integrated BCI. Musk also claims that this chip will eventually enhance brain function and help individuals access their memories more readily. However, such a feat is unlikely to occur anytime soon, considering that neuroscientists have not gotten very far with understanding how the brain processes memories and thoughts. Collecting the data itself from brain implants is not the difficult part—decoding all this information and applying it is the challenge, as this is still a new field of research. Currently, there is little research on BCIs that can perform more than one action. Copious research on general-purpose BCIs will have to be undertaken to achieve all the applications Neuralink hopes to.
Though it’s scientifically plausible, there are several ethical concerns regarding using a BCI to improve cognitive function. BCIs can send commands from one BCI to another—this is called a brain-to-brain interface (BBI). In 2019, researchers developed a BBI that allowed a human to have wireless control over a rat’s motor functions. The study claimed that they were able to direct the rats through a complex maze using the human subjects imagined motor imagery. It is concerning that BBIs can potentially influence one’s imagined movements. Currently, there are no laws that would protect an individual with a brain implant from being manipulated by the company.
On top of safety concerns, there are socioeconomic concerns. There is no doubt that obtaining a brain chip will be extremely expensive, and people who cannot afford this technology may therefore be at a disadvantage. For example, imagine a brain chip that allows individuals to retain information more efficiently. This would give students with said brain chips an unfair advantage over students without. This technology may deepen the divide between privileged individuals and people who cannot afford the technology. Since BCIs can communicate with each other, receive sound, and decode thoughts, brain chips may completely transform human communication: people with brain chips may be able to communicate through simply thinking. People unable to obtain brain chips may thus become isolated or even looked down upon.
The implementation of Neuralink will take a lot longer than Elon Musk suggests since the level of research regarding BCIs is inadequate. Although BCIs are an interesting innovation in the context of supporting human health, there is a lot of safety and social issues regarding the use of BCIs that must be addressed before considering their use for non-medical purposes. Neuralink is putting a lot of money into BCI research, which is nonetheless exciting, as research on BCI technology opens the doors to our post-biological evolution.