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The Future of Brain-Machine Interface Technology

Does Brain-Machine Interface technology (BMI) Represent the Future of Communications?

BMI technology is emerging as one of the hottest areas in the global startup community, as many companies are developing services which are enabling the brain to communicate. Studying the human brain for psychological and physiological reasons has long been a mission of academics, often with the goal of treating disorders. More recently, however, many companies are using brain technology to develop new forms of communication and new business applications. Many companies also believe that brain technology will eventually evolve into an entirely new form of communication where users will be able to “think” words which will be converted into text without the need for speaking or writing.

And while this concept may seem farfetched, there are several companies, including some prominent technology players, who are working to make this happen. For example, in 2017 Facebook announced that it was working on a wearable device which would allow users to think up to 100 words per minute which would be then converted into text (the average human can type about 40 words per minute). Since then the company has performed extensive research into brain technologies with the ultimate goal of enabling wearables to be controlled by the human brain. Recent research the company funded at the University of California San Francisco which was able to determine with up to 76% accuracy what a patient was thinking.

The First Generation of Brain-Machine Interfaces, BrainGate by Cybernetics

Brain implants designed to allow humans to control physical objects using their brain have been in development for many years, and the first examples of such devices were designed to help medical patients with physical impairments. One such example is the BrainGate system which uses a functional electrical stimulator to help connect the brain to muscles. The first trials of this technology occurred in 2004, in which a patient was able to control the cursor on a computer by simply thinking where it should go. Since the technology has advanced, and a patient had a microelectrode array implanted in his brain and his arm as his nerves had been severed in an accident in the past. These two microelectrodes were connected and hence brain signals are sent from the brain to the arm, allowing for a high degree of mobility. Two years after this procedure the patient is now able to feed and clothe himself.

Brain Sensors for Wearables, Looxid Labs

BMI technology is just starting to make its way into wearable devices and is expected to play a large role in consumer electronic devices such as smart glasses and VR head mounted displays. One company doing so is Looxid Labs in South Korea. This company makes a VR headset which has several sensors embedded in it, including a sensor that measures brainwaves. By having this sensor, the company can collect data that would be otherwise obtainable from other types of recognition sensors. This in turn enables the company to have unique use cases due to the fact that it leverages brain technology as the company is for example able to determine the emotional state of the user when he or she views an advertisement regardless of his or her facial expression.

Combining the Human Brain with AI – Neuralink

The most closely watched and potentially disruptive company in the brain technology sector is Neuralink, backed by Elon Musk. His company recently came out of stealth mode and unveiled some of its recent technological achievements, as the company as the overall goal of connecting human brains with AI using a machine interface. Neuralink has created a machine that is able to insert threads which are thinner than a strand of human hair directly into the human brain and these threads are able to detect brain activity. These threads are then connected into a device behind the ear which can then be connected to a PC or other smart device. Like most other companies in the brain technology space, Neuralink will also start with the focus of helping disabled people communicate with people and machines. The technology has already been tested on mice and monkeys in a laboratory environment and the company hopes to start human trials in 2020.

Neuralink has ambitions for its brain technology that far exceed the vision of current companies. By enabling the relatively easily and cheaply implanting of thousands of electrodes in the human brain this will unlock an enormous amount of data that can be analyzed by scientists and machine learning to better understand how neurons communicate and this data will eventually be used to decode the language of the brain which will enable further advancements in using the human brain as a communications tool.

What Does the Future Hold for BMI Technology?

In the relatively near term, it is quite feasible that BMI technology will emerge as an advanced form of communication which will be used beyond specialized medical treatment. Devices such as wearables will be equipped with brain sensor technology where a user will be able to think simple commands such as `enter` and `delete` in order to control a device, as opposed to having to say these words out loud. This will overcome a major challenge with voice-controlled devices as many users are hesitant to use them in environments such as offices and while on public transportation. This in turn will make technologies such as personal digital assistants much more useful.

But going further there is a larger area for the application of brain technology, which some believe will be essential for the future of mankind. Elon Musk envisions a future where Neuralink will connect the brain to the cloud, allowing for both an uplink of a user`s brain activity to the Internet and download of new information to a user`s brain, essentially an augmented-reality brain. Musk sees this effort for the future of mankind and believes that his cybernetic system will help humanity navigate any future threats posed by AI.

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(February 28, 2020)

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