Brain-Machine Interfaces are Here - And They’re Scarily Exciting
Updated: Jan 31, 2020
In July 2019, Elon Musk took to YouTube to confirm the worst fears of contemporary science fiction writers. Man really is about to merge with machine. If Elon Musk has his way, this will come about as a result of his very own brain-machine interface, Neuralink.
Will brain-machine interfaces transform humanity into a race of Borg-like cyborgs? Hopefully not. However, if you are not already taking notice of Neuralink and BMI technology, you should be.
What are Brain-Machine Interfaces?
The idea of a brain-machine interface (BMI) that can link a person’s thoughts to a computer seems ultra-futuristic. However, brain-machine interfaces are nothing new.
In 1924, German psychiatrist Hans Berger was the first to discover that the brain is alive with electricity. Berger subsequently gave the world the first rudimentary brain-machine interface in the form of the electroencephalograph (EEG).
With an electroencephalograph, electrodes placed on the scalp allow medical professionals to record electrical activity in the brain. As surprising as it might sound, this is also exactly how most modern brain-machine interfaces work.
Many 2020 Brain-Machine Interfaces are Surprisingly Low-Tech
Elon Musk and Neuralink are currently breaking new ground in the world of brain-machine interfaces. (We’ll look at why shortly.) However, there are several brain-machine interfaces already on the market — many of which work just like an electroencephalograph.
Launching this year, NextMind is a wearable device that uses electrodes placed over the brain’s visual cortex to decode electrical signals.
At its most basic, NextMind is able to translate specific electrical discharges in a person’s visual cortex into commands. Focus your visual attention on the play button of your music player, and NextMind will press play for you. (Assuming you are using a smart player paired with Next Mind).
Not to be confused with Neuralink, Neurable is famous for creating the world’s first brain-machine interface VR gear. Like NextMind, Neurable uses an EEG headset to read electrical activity in the brain. This allows wearers to control a VR remote-controlled car. Now, though, Neurable is going one step further.
In December, Neurable announced a new $6 million round of funding. With capital raised, Neurable plans to design a true brain-computer interface (BCI). If successful, this will replace physical computer interfaces like traditional computer keyboards, mice, and touchscreens.
Applications and Limitations of Brain-Machine Interfaces
For almost 100-years, scientists have been electrically mapping the brain using electroencephalography. As a result, we now know which areas of the brain are responsible for everything from movement to visual acuity.
Mapping the brain in this way is what makes today's BMI technology possible. Moreover, the capabilities of today's BMI technology extend far beyond the realms of VR gaming.
Welcome to Cyberdyne Inc.
Anyone familiar with the Terminator movie franchise will be familiar with Cyberdyne Industries. They were the fictional robotics and AI corporation that gave rise to Skynet. Now, though, in what some might call life imitating art, there is a real Cyberdyne Industries.
Based in Japan, Cyberdyne Inc. pairs BMI technology with robotics. In doing so, they create wearable body exoskeletons that restore mobility to those with disabilities and degenerative neurological disorders.
Think about moving a certain way, and your Cyberdyne exoskeleton will move the way you want to. As aresult, being mobility impaired might soon not mean having to live with disabilities for life.
Naturally, restoring mobility to people with disabilities is one of the most exciting looming advances of BMI technology. However, today’s brain-machine interfaces all share one common limitation.
Basic Limitations of Brain-Machine Interfaces
As already discussed, today’s BMI tech works the same way as an electroencephalograph. Electrical discharges in the brain are interpreted by software into what essentially output commands. All we can’t do at present is input information back into the brain. At least, not directly.
Elon Musk and Neuralink
Not satisfied with being able to turn electrical signals in the brain into rudimentary output signals, Elon Musk is currently striving to bring BMI technology out of the dark ages.
In what sounds like a plot straight out of the Matrix, Elon Musk and Neuralink have found a way to implant electrodes that are a fraction of the width of a human hair directly into the brain. Moreover, when Neuralink comes to market, devices will be controlled by up to 10,000 such microelectrodes.
That’s right. Unlike existing BMI tech, Neuralink will be physically wired into the brain itself. This will allow Neuralink to register electrical discharges from tens of thousands of individual neurons — and write back to those same neurons.
The Exciting But Terrifying Implications of Neuralink
Leaving the terror of having 10,000 wires surgically implanted into the brain aside for a moment, Neuralink promises to redefine human relationships with technology.
Unlike with existing BMI technology, Neuralink will make it possible to write information to the brain in a similar way to how Neo learns Ju-Jitsu in the Matrix. It is also entirely possible that Neuralink might eventually be used to compensate for cognitive functions lost as a result of brain injuries and degenerative diseases.
BMI Technology and the Future of Software Development
Unlike NextMind and Neurable, Neuralink won’t appear in your local Apple store any time soon. However, brain-machine interface technology is here to stay. This opens up a world of new commercial possibilities for software developers.
From BMI controlled operating systems to BMI controlled games and apps, consumers will eventually demand even more immersive software experiences than we have already. After all, if the recent past has taught us anything, it’s that humans are already inseparable from technology.