by Katheryn Zhou
From stories about cyborgs seamlessly controlling artificial bodies to communicating thoughts and images straight from the mind, humans have long dreamed of manipulating their surroundings with the mind alone through telekinesis and telepathy. While we are still not quite in the worlds of Ghost in the Shell, these dreams are no longer just a thing of fantasy in the wake of new technologies that constantly push the limits of reality. In particular, the field of brain-computer interfaces (BCI’s) is rapidly developing and will likely one day allow humans to fully merge technology with their bodies, with many current applications and enormous implications that can completely transform our way of living.
BCI’s are devices that detect brain signals and translate them into a desired output. Brain signals are caused by billions of neurons constantly producing signals to maintain and control our bodies. For example, if we wanted to move our arm, neurons in the cerebral cortex will send out electrical signals using membrane transport proteins which pump ions across its membranes. Since ions of the same charge repel each other, this would cause a chain reaction across neurons in its path through the spinal cord and peripheral muscles until it reaches the muscles in our arm, making them contract. This neuron activity can be detected and quantified in various ways using electroencephalograms (EEG’s), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)) and functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) to measure changes in our brains’ electrical field, magnetic field, and infrared radiation. BCI’s will analyze these brainwaves to determine when people are thinking of different things, subsequently producing a desired outcome like moving a robotic arm or a cursor on a screen. Currently, the main goal of BCI research is to create assistive technology that can greatly improve the lives of paralyzed people, and many advancements have been made in this area already. However, the potential applications of BCI technology are extremely diverse, and many are pioneering new ways that BCI’s may eventually be applied in our lives, such as assisting highly-skilled professionals and perhaps one day even directly augmenting the performance of our brains.
Much of today’s BCI research is directed towards improving the lives of the incapacitated. Our brains move our bodies by sending signals through our nervous systems to the parts that we want to move. When something goes wrong and messages are unable to be delivered or reach their destination, however, paralysis occurs. Currently, BCI research aims to help paralyzed and otherwise incapacitated patients through the restoration of communication and control.
Restoring communication and control means allowing patients to communicate with external devices like prosthetic limbs, speech synthesizers, and tablets. BCI’s can be used to mitigate the effects of paralysis by bypassing the motor system and creating movement through an external device. Studies that have been conducted in this area often involve measuring the brain activity of patients action for weeks or months both when they are thinking of performing certain actions and when they are not. This data is then analyzed so that the computer can recognize when the patient wants to perform a specific action, carry out the corresponding appropriately, and then stop performing the action when the patient is no longer thinking about that action. For example, Johnny Matheny, a man who lost his arm to cancer, became the first person to live with a mind-controlled robotic arm in 2016 after undergoing a year-long research study at Johns Hopkins University. Using his mind alone, Matheny is able to control the movement of his wrist and his individual fingers, and after living with his arm for several years, he can cook, garden, and even play the piano. Other research is being done on using electrical stimulation to directly stimulate the muscles of those with paralyzed limbs. That same year, UC Irvine researchers enabled a paralyzed man to move on his own legs again by stimulating his leg muscles whenever he thought about walking. And just recently in 2019, researchers at Columbia University successfully translated brain signals into synthesized speech as patients counted from 0 to 9 in their heads. These are just a few examples of the enormous potential of BCI’s.
However, while these advancements are amazing, there is still much that needs to be done to improve this technology. Patients who use BCI’s report many technical issues and shortcomings with them such as breakage and the inaccurate interpretation of brain signals. Additionally, these technologies would often require surgical implantation into the patients in order to be compatible with use in everyday life, meaning it may be decades before these advancements become available to the regular public. Fortunately, research in this area is rapidly advancing, and with further development, all of these technologies have the ability to completely restore the lives of millions of people.
Finally, in the wake of these extremely promising advancements, there are already many futurists who believe BCI’s can be applied in numerous other ways and greatly alter the lives of everyone in the future. Just a handful of companies moving in this direction include Kernel, which is developing AI that can “record” memories by targeting the hippocampus, Neuropace, which is working to identify and mitigate the brain signals that cause seizures, and Mindmaze, which aims to combine VR and computer simulations to stimulate the brain signals of patients with brain injuries. Entrepreneur Elon Musk has also invested in the future of BCI technology with the establishment of Neuralink in 2016, a startup that seeks to fully integrate technology into our lives by creating implants that will allow humans to communicate with computers. Although it’s currently focused on creating treatments for neural disorders, it’s ultimate goal is to improve the capabilities of the brain itself–things like increasing memory space, improving processing speed, granting us direct access to the internet and the wealth of the world’s knowledge with just a simple thought. These ideas are incredibly exciting and can allow humans the transcend the limits of our physical bodies.
But with these exciting futuristic endeavors comes some potential dangers. As humans become more and more reliant on technology, there have been increasing concerns over cybersecurity against hackers, people who look for weaknesses in computer systems and exploit them. If humans eventually integrate their brains into computer systems through BCI technology, then it is possible that there will be an emergence of brain-hacking, where hackers target neural devices. Those hackers may try to access information about their users’ lives and even their memories and thoughts. They may also try to manipulate the information users receive from their devices, changing the way they perceive the world or even altering their minds. Although BCI research is still in its early stages and the dangers of brain-hacking may never reach those extremes, these are important concerns that highlight the need to study and regulate brain-related technologies to keep them safe and maximize their ability to better our lives.
There may come a day when humans are able to use BCI’s to fully merge our brains with technologies, allowing us to easily enhance our bodies and even our minds. With proper regulations and resources, BCI technology can be used to restore the lives of those who need it most and advance society in unparalleled ways.
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