The future in a dystopian world has always been alluring to humans. Movies and sci-fi novels have made us fantasize about a tomorrow inundated with humanoid robots, immersive gadgets that helps frees us from menial and rote tasks while we focus on things that require our attention or simply relax. Brain-computer interface (BCI) or brain-machine interface (BMI) is one such technology. Thanks to hype around Neuralink by Elon Musk, tech enthusiasts are anticipating brain implants that will allow everybody to control computers with their minds. Elon Musk says that this kind of chips has more potential than reading and controlling thoughts. This can solve many medical conditions — including paralysis, anxiety, and addiction.
BCI chips acquire brain signals, analyze them, and translate them into commands relayed to output devices that carry out desired actions. It does not use normal neuromuscular output pathways. It is often used as assisted living devices for individuals with motor or sensory impairments or neuromuscular disorders such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, cerebral palsy, stroke, or spinal cord injury. Basically, the brain-computer interface results from the amalgamation of technologies from the fields of electrical engineering, computer science, biomedical engineering, and neurosurgery.
These BCI devices are of two types, viz., Non-invasive BCI and Invasive BCI. Non-invasive BCI tools use sensors applied on or near the head to track and record brain activity. These ones can be placed and removed easily, but their signals may be muffled and imprecise. However, Invasive BCI requires surgery as they are to be implanted beneath the skull, directly into the brain, to target specific sets of neurons. Unlike the non-invasive BMI tools, these provide a much clearer and more accurate signal between the brain and the device.
An MIT Technology Review article states that Neuralink isn’t the first work on the idea of brain implants extending or restoring human capabilities. Researchers began placing probes in paralyzed people’s brains in the late 1990s to show that signals could let them move robot arms or computer cursors. And mice with visual implants really can perceive infrared rays. Even doctors are employing similar concepts when monitoring the electrical activity in the brain using EEG (electroencephalography) and in the muscles using EMG (electromyography) to detect nerve problems.
Last year, the University of California, San Francisco, announced its researchers have been developing “speech decoders” to determine what people are trying to say by analyzing their brain signals. Even Facebook wants to create a wearable headset that lets users control music or interact in virtual reality using their thoughts.
BCIs promise many exciting applications in neuroscience, military, medicine, rescue and disaster management, security, education, and rehabilitation. For instance, BCI can help patients with nervous system disorders, injuries, or diseases, improve an individual’s ability to navigate through day-to-day experiences. By implanting these chips in the robotic braces, disabled users could gain control of their own limbs, allowing them to move and directly interact with the environment. The U.S. military believes that using BCIs can potentially enhance its personnel’s physical and cognitive power.
While BCIs try to mimic the way our brains function, understanding the mechanics can be quite challenging for researchers. Further, there have been concerns on ethical grounds on this research. This includes privacy and security issues. Ethicists fear that captured neural signals can be used to gain access to a user’s private information. And security is critical in BCI technology because BCI chips and devices capture signals directly from a subject’s nervous system. This transmitted data can be extracted for nefarious purposes, or even the whole BCI system can be hacked by cybercriminals. Hope these issues are addressed before the commercial launch of BCIs in the future.