What if you could book a cab or order your favourite dish online by just thinking about it? Life would be so simple right? You might think that I’m imagining this stuff. But Brain-Computer Interface is actually going to make such imaginations turn into reality soon.
What is Brain-Computer Interface (BCI)?
A Brain-Computer Interfaces measures brain activity and extracts functions from it converting those into real outputs. These outputs can enhance, restore, supplement or improve human functions.
BCI has the power to bring back lost functions like speaking or moving. It can make older people’s hands tremble less by stimulating nerves or muscles that move the hand. The users can interact with external devices such as computers directly through the activities inside the brain. Let’s go into a little bit of technicality. We can call it a system where electrical impulses that are produced when our neurons communicate with each other, are processed and decoded into commands sent to an external device to give the desired action.
Types of Brain-Computer Interface
BCI is of two types – Invasive and Non-invasive. In the invasive techniques, a device is inserted directly into the human brain or specific neurons by a critical surgery. In non-invasive techniques, the device is either inserted into the skull or placed in the top of the scalp. It uses sensors on or near the head to track and record brain activity. Examples of non-invasive techniques are – EEG (electroencephalography), MEG (magnetoencephalography) and fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging). People usually prefer non-invasive BCIs as they are safe and low-cost types of devices. The main problem with these devices is that they can only capture weaker human brain signals.
The interest in developing deep learning solutions that will help improve BCI accuracy in the non-invasive devices is taking momentum. Many new companies are working on it with experienced scientists to use brain data to generate revenue.
Applications of BCI
BCI is contributing in various fields and scientists are continuously researching its applications. Some of the most common applications of BCI can be seen in the following areas:
- Healthcare – Prevent smoking and alcoholism, detect tumours and disorders, help in the rehabilitation of disabled people.
- Games and Entertainment – Brain-controlled VR games.
- Educational and Self-Regulation – Self-regulate brain activity for treating anxiety, attention-loss etc.
- Security and Authentication- Controlling linked (IoT) devices such as smart door locks.
Let us look at a few companies that are unlocking the mysteries of the mind through non-invasive and invasive BCI solutions –
Neurable builds “full-stack neurotechnology tools that interpret human intent, measure emotion and provide telekinetic control of the digital world.” The company particularly became famous in 2017 for inventing the world’s first brain-controlled virtual reality (VR) game, wherein the players were asked to wear an EEG headset while they sat in front of a computer and drive a remote-controlled car with their mind. The company is working on building brain-computer interfaces with varied applications like AR and VR wearables used in various industries such as gaming, transportations, construction etc. It is located in Massachusetts, US.
The French startup NextMind is building non-invasive BCIs EEG reader devices. NextMind recently made news at the CES 2020 conference for its wearable brain-sensing device. The device records the brain’s electrical activity allowing the person to command machines through their thoughts. The AI-based brain-computer interface is placed on the back of the head of the user. It is a product for the mass market and not just a specific group. The company recently launched a development kit for VR and AR companies to use, that is available at US$ 399 for pre-order. The kit includes the following:
NextMind Sensor – A brain-sensing wearable with an adjustable headband.
NextMind Engine – Real-time algorithms transform neural signals into commands.
NextMind SDK – Unity resources including tutorials, demo apps and examples.
- Cala Health
San Francisco-based Cala Health is a bioelectronic medicine company transforming the standard of care for chronic disease. Cala Health’s wearable therapy is for tremors, experienced by more than seven million people worldwide. Many new treatments are also under development in the neurology, cardiology and psychiatry department. Their primary non-invasive device “Trio” is worn as a wristwatch, which sends signals to the median and radial nerve on the wrist, the signals reach the ventral intermediate nucleus of the thalamus (in the brain), limiting the tremors movements. Cala Health is a part of the funding portfolio of US venture capital Lux Capital.
The brainchild of the CEO of Tesla Elon Musk, Neuralink is developing “neural lace” that would be surgically connected to the human brain to allow a user to interact with a computer without the bandwidth challenges. Neuralink will explore how the brain interface could alleviate the symptoms of chronic medical conditions. It is developing a super-fast, high bandwidth brain-machine interface that will help the brain function better using artificial intelligence (AI). The Neuralink chip sensors will first assist paraplegic people and also to treat epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease and provide rich visual feedback to the blind. According to Elon Musk, the ultimate goal of Neuralink is to create a symbiosis between the human brain and AI. He also said that “ Brain-computer interfaces are needed to confirm humans’ supremacy over artificial intelligence.”
The future of BCI has a vast potential in every industry and is set to disrupt the world. According to Davide Valeriani, Post-doctoral Researcher in BCI at the University of Essex, “The combination of humans and technology could be more powerful than artificial intelligence. For example, when we make decisions based on a combination of perception and reasoning, neurotechnologies could be used to improve our perception. This could help us in situations such as seeing a very blurry image from a security camera and having to decide whether to intervene or not.”
This industry is still under progress and the technology is still dangerous. Even though humans know how computers work, they have not yet unravelled our complex brain’s working. But considering the research going on and the way companies are developing innovative products using Brain-Computer Interface, the day is not far when we could do anything we want to by just thinking about it!
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