Back in 2015, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg envisioned a time when people would be able "to send full rich thoughts to each other directly using technology." That's what a brain-computer interface (BCI) does, and while aspects of it have been depicted in movies, it is not the stuff of science fiction.
Rather, experts say, BCI, providing the ability for a human brain and an external device to communicate directly, is a burgeoning research area because the information generated can be helpful in understanding and aiding cognitive and motor functions. BCIs can be implanted or used externally; the latter is a more common scenario, according to Carmen Fontana, IEEE member and practice lead, cloud and emerging technologies at Centric Consulting.
Yet, compared to artificial intelligence and robotics, BCI is relatively immature, and not commercially pervasive, says Tim Marler, senior research engineer at the RAND Corporation and a professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School. Like other technologies, BCI "will mature and can have a positive impact in the future, and arguably, in people's households,'' Marler says. "To be clear, this is not a brand-new term; brain-computer interface was first coined in the late '20s or '30s," Marler adds. "But now we're on the cusp of having some significant impact in a variety of different subjects."
Already, "You can have a paraplegic control a mouse on a computer just by thinking about it, albeit, in a controlled lab environment; that capability is there," Marler says. "What's next is productization."
Bin He, Trustee Professor and head of the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, spent 2004 through 2018 as a professor of Biomedical Engineering and director of the Biomedical Functional Imaging and Neuroengineering Laboratory at the University of Minnesota. He said that lab was the first to enable humans to pilot an actual drone just by thinking about it.
He explains that when a human thinks about how to control the flight of a drone, that is an intention. The intention is recorded by an electroencephalogram (EEG) via electrodes on a person's scalp, and the recording is sent to a device that uses a machine learning algorithm to convert it into a control signal. The job of the BCI device is to decode and interpret the meaning of the intention to fly, He says.
He says his work has advanced from controlling a virtual drone to controlling an actual drone to controlling a robotic arm. Today, his lab at Carnegie Mellon is working on technology that may lead to the ability to mentally control a prosthetic limb.
There are ethical questions surrounding the use of BCI, however, as well as fear and the risk of cultural challenges, says Marler. "Whenever you have a new technology, there's a lack of understanding regarding the pros and cons and that can induce fear that it may take away jobs or be detrimental."
For example, "Because BCI technologies may directly connect to an operator's brain, they may present new areas of potential exploitation. Physical vulnerabilities would likely be most acute with the invasive variant of the technology."
He says he does not see the need to implant a chip in an ordinary person's brain to enable BCI. "If some patient is very sick, it's worth an invasive procedure," but surgically implanting a chip in someone's head to help them do something like fly a drone is risky. That is because it requires alterations to the human body and poses health risks such as infections, he says.
Fontana agrees. "Ethical and legal considerations need to be included alongside BCI technology conversations. There are the obvious concerns, such as do employers have the right to monitor the brain functions of their employees?"
Another conundrum is that we have many thoughts that we do not act on, she says. "What if someone thought hypothetically about doing or saying something harmful, but the BCI actually acted upon it? And, of course, privacy is a significant worry,'' Fontana says. "When bad actors steal passwords or credit card info, it's frustrating. When those same people take your inner thoughts without your permission? That could be devastating."
Other concerns are more nuanced, such as the potential for bias, that BCI feedback can be influenced by gender, age, and even current fatigue level, Fontana says.
For example, BCI signal processing algorithms are often developed from the data of younger adults, she says. "However, older and younger brains perform differently. Thus, these algorithms need to be adjusted to account for the age of the BCI wearer to maximize performance."
Marler believes as more BCI use-cases emerge, such as in prosthetics and the military, BCI will show its promise. Marler doesn't see BCI replacing a lot of jobs.
"You see a lot of work being done with prosthetics; a prosthetic hand moving when you think about moving it," Marler says. "So it helps people and that's really exciting." Another exciting potential use-case, he says, is giving a paraplegic the ability "to send an email or change a temperature electronically in a smart home."
Regarding the potential use of the technology by the military, Marler cites the example of a pilot flying a jet who needs to determine whether he or she has been detected, or how many missiles are coming at them. "There is a tremendous amount of data, and our minds are only so good at processing the data and taking in so much," he says. "BCI can help feed that decision-making process. If I can get some information … and think a thought and send it out, I'm speeding up the decision-making process."
Yet, Marler too, cites legal and ethical implications with the use of BCI. "The extent to which neuro-technologies represent changes to the human brain and body has legal, as well as ethical, implications," he says. In a military context, by statute, the Department of Defense is responsible for any changes to a veteran's body during their time of service, he explains.
"To the extent that BCI may change a service member's baseline health over the long term, the U.S. government would be responsible for any service-related disability," Marler says. "Beyond the physical implications of the technology itself, the withdrawal of 'superhuman' capabilities afforded by BCI—such as control over machines or cognitive enhancement—might elicit psychological harm for which the U.S. government would be responsible."
Like Marler, He hopes BCI will eventually be used to help people control a prosthetic limb. "I want to further the technology to make the brain be able to control that."
He also hopes "to bring BCI to everybody's office, household, and the pocket." He envisions using BCI in some type of device like a phone that can turn lights on or off or pour coffee -- just by thinking about it.
"My vision is it [BCI] would become another new functional capability," He says. "If you think you'll get things done in your daily lives, you will."
Esther Shein is a freelance technology and business writer based in the Boston area.
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