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Matching advances in AI through Brain Interface Devices

“The disruption we should be preparing for is fusion-based; integration of ubiquitous computing, XR, BCI, and AI. This disruption will completely merge digital with the physical, transforming the nature of our experiences and how we perceive and interact with the world.”

— Aviad Almagor (Senior Director of Mixed Reality and BCI at Trimble)

 

There is no doubt that artificial intelligence (AI) is becoming more and more prevalent in our society.

From Siri and Alexa to self-driving cars, AI is slowly but surely infiltrating every aspect of our lives.

While this may sound like science fiction, it may soon become a reality as businesses race to stay ahead of the competition.

Some experts predict humans will increasingly turn to brain interface devices to keep up with the competition.

Brain interface technology is still in its early stages, but it has the potential to radically change the way we live and work.

Ever since the business tycoons such as Elon Musk (Neuralink) and Bryan Johnson (Kernel) announced their new startups that seek to enhance human capabilities through brain-computer interfacing…

The scientific and business communities have debated the potential benefits and risks of using BCI devices.

 

What Are Brain Interface Devices?

Brain interface devices can be implanted into the brain or worn on the surface of the skull to directly interface with neural activity.

There are currently two approaches to connecting the human brain to external computing systems, invasive and non-invasive.

Invasive brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) involve direct contact between the brain and electrodes. Invasive BCIs are being used experimentally to help people with paralysis operate prostheses.

On the other hand, non-invasive BCIs read neural signals through the scalp and can be used to aid people with hearing or sight problems.

BCIs offer the potential for people to control devices with their thoughts, which could be a major boon for those with disabilities.

Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh used signals recorded inside the brain to control a robotic arm.

In another experiment, researchers from Stanford University extracted the movement intentions of paralyzed patients from their brain signals.

Very early versions of bionic eyes for people with severe vision impairment have been deployed commercially, and improved versions are now undergoing human trials. Cochlear implants, on the other hand, have become one of the most successful and prevalent bionic implants – over 300,000 users worldwide use the implants to hear. [1]

But BCIs could also be used by able-bodied people to gain an edge over their competition…

If you can control a computer or other device with your thoughts, you can respond to emails and messages much faster than someone who has to type. BCIs could also be used to control augmented reality devices or even other people.

In areas other than medicine, many forward-thinking companies are already looking at BCIs—the gaming world is making significant advancements.

 

Valve is exploring the use of brain-computer interfaces

For example, the gaming company Valve is exploring the use of brain-computer interfaces to create adaptive gameplay that can respond to the player’s emotions or ability. This could be achieved by placing Electroencephalography (EEG) sensors in VR headsets. [2]

The potential for BCI technology is virtually limitless. And as BCI technology gets better and more widespread, its competitive advantages will only grow.

Many experts believe the next generation of A.I.-powered brain implants could enable users to perform more advanced tasks, such as helping patients power and steer wheelchairs by thought alone.

The underlying premise is that the brain is a “data organ” that processes information and, in turn, takes actions, such as sending signals to muscles to command them to move. [3]

AI specialist Robert Edgington, a co-founder of the brain-computing startup Braingrade, said that the brain-computer industry still requires much more data to make AI useful in the field.

Tech giants like Google-parent Alphabet and Facebook-parent Meta created powerful computer vision systems because they had access to many photos of cats from the Internet that they could use for training their neural networks.

At this point, the brain-computer space lacks its enormous trove of valuable data, he said. [4]

 

Potential Applications of Brain-Computer Interface Devices…

While this may sound like something out of a science fiction movie, brain interface devices are existent and are being developed by major tech companies like Facebook, Google, and Microsoft.

There are many potential applications for brain interface devices, such as…

  • They could be used to control prosthetic limbs or assist people with disabilities.
  • They could also be used in military and law enforcement settings to provide soldiers and officers with real-time information about their surroundings.

But perhaps the most exciting use for brain-computer interface devices is their potential to enhance human cognitive abilities.

Some experts believe that brain interface devices could one day be used to help humans keep up with the ever-increasing pace of AI development.

By allowing us to directly interface with computers, brain interface devices could give us the ability to process information and make decisions at speeds that are currently impossible for humans.

This would be a vital advantage in many fields, including medicine, finance, and law.

 

Benefits of BCI Devices…

Brain-computer interface devices have the potential to be one of the most revolutionary developments. Some of its benefits include:

  • Enhancing memory, attention, and problem-solving abilities

Imagine if you could prepare for your next big project or presentation using only your thoughts. Or you could drive your car without actually having to touch any gear.

A Toronto-based startup called “Muse” has developed a sensing headband that gives real-time information about what’s going on in your brain. As you can imagine, the startup already has a “Corporate Wellness Program” to “help your employees lower stress, increase resilience, and improve their engagement.”

Other headbands on the market also use proprietary sensors to detect brain signals and leverage machine-learning algorithms to provide insights into the engagement levels of users/workers. They can track whether someone is focused or distracted.

Theoretically, this could help individuals in their day-to-day tasks by evaluating which tasks should be tackled first based on their attention level.[5]

The ability to monitor brain activity can open doors to many possibilities…

For example, companies could access a specific “BCI HR dashboard” in which all employees’ brain data would be displayed in real-time.

Are we going to see supervisors monitoring the attention levels of their colleagues?

At the end of each annual performance review, will we also analyze and compare attention levels thanks to our BCIs?

Your brain information may interest your employers, allowing them to keep an eye on how focused you are and to adapt employees’ workloads accordingly. [6]

Researchers are also keen to replace passwords with ‘passthoughts’. The idea is to enable users to log in to various devices using thought patterns instead of passwords.

When we perform mental tasks like picturing a shape or singing a song in our heads, our brains generate unique neuronal electrical signals.

A billion people could mentally hum the same song, and no two brain-wave patterns generated by that task would be alike.

An electroencephalograph (EEG) would read those brain waves using noninvasive electrodes that record the signals. The unique patterns can be used as a password or biometric identification.[7]

 

  • Anxiety and Depression

Around 3.6 percent, or 264 million people worldwide, have anxiety disorders. According to the latest report by WHO, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a substantial increase in depression and other mental health problems.

Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, successfully attempted to implant a chronic deep brain sensing and stimulation device in a patient with depression who had stopped responding to the medication.

The implant improved the patient’s quality of life and helped keep the depression at bay.

Neuroscientists who were not involved in the project agreed that it was a significant step forward while cautioning that many years of work would be needed to convert an expensive and time-consuming surgical procedure into something that could be applied more widely to intractable depression.

Patients with other psychiatric conditions may benefit too from personalized deep brain stimulation, as well as those with Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy who are already treated with DBS. [8]

 

What about the potential risks associated with Brain-Computer Interface Devices?

No matter how exciting it looks, life may not be all rainbows and sunshine while using BCIs…

There are several potential risks associated with using these devices. Companies considering venturing into this area should consider the medical, moral, ethical, and financial implications of using such devices.

First, in the case of invasive implantation, there is a risk of infection. This can happen if the BCI device is not kept clean or inserted improperly.

Another way BCIs can cause infection is by damaging the blood vessels around the implantation site.

This can allow bacteria to enter the bloodstream and cause an infection elsewhere in the body. The implantation site is close to the brain, so infections may cause serious health problems and even death.

Second, there is a risk that the device may malfunction or fail to work properly. Or the electrical signals from the device could interfere with normal brain activity.

In addition to these risks, there are also ethical concerns associated with brain-computer interface devices.

Some people worry that the use of brain interface devices could lead to a future in which only those with enhanced cognitive abilities would be able to compete in the workforce.

This could create a two-tiered society in which those with access to these technologies have a significant advantage over those without.

There is a long-standing debate about whether or not structural or genetic abnormalities in the brain can mitigate the responsibility of actions, leading to “my brain made me do it” arguments.

Using BCI technology can create nuanced claims: “my BCI technology made my brain make me do it.” BCI works to decode signals from the brain and translate them into commands to an output device that accomplishes the user’s intention.

If the BCI malfunctions, it becomes difficult to determine if the user’s intentions were accurately translated into action. BCIs may cause accidents. For example, if a BCI incorrectly interprets a wheelchair or prosthesis command and causes harm to another individual, it is difficult to pinpoint the true intent of the individual that caused harm.

This would influence legal disputes. There would have to be the implementation of new laws and regulations to clarify policies regarding BCI technology and legal culpability.

Legal cases would have to analyze the initial ailment (in cases of medical use) and the influence that a particular BCI technology has on cognition regardless of, or in combination with, a medical condition. [9]

 

Final Thoughts…

With the rapid development of artificial intelligence (AI), some people are beginning to worry about whether humans will become obsolete. After all, if machines can do everything better than us, why would anyone want to keep us around?

Neural and brain-computer interfaces may soon challenge the very essence of what it means to be human. We must have an open and inclusive debate involving many voices to determine how and if we want to use these technologies.

 

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References:

[1]. Rajesh P N Rao & James Wu, General Electric Newsletter, 30th April 2017, How Close Are We Really To Connecting Human Minds To Artificial Intelligence?

[2]. Sol Rogers, Forbes Magazine, 25th September 2019, Brain-Computer Technology Is Accelerating. Will We Soon Be Typing With Our Minds?

[3,4]. Jonathan Vanian, Fortune Magazine, 25th February 2022, The next generation of brain-computing interfaces could be supercharged by artificial intelligence.

[5,6]. Alexandre Gonfalonieri, Harvard Business Reviews, 6th October 2020, What Brain-Computer Interfaces Could Mean for the Future of Work

[7]. Emily Waltz, IEEE Spectrum, 31st August 2016,    From Passwords to Passthoughts: Logging In to Your Devices With Your Mind

[8]. Clive Cookson, Financial Times, 8th October 2021, Electrical brain implants: a new way to treat depression?

[9]. Nadia Boachie, The McGill Daily, 30th October 2017, Risk-benefit analysis of brain-computer interface technology

 

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