Computing Applications

Whither BCIs?

Many issues still need to be addressed before invasive and non-invasive BCIs are adopted more widely.

Credit: Getty Images human head with color motion trails, illustration

Earlier this year, Elon Musk’s brain-chip company Neuralink released a video of a paralyzed man playing chess on a computer using his thoughts alone. He was the start-up’s first patient to have one of their chips implanted in his brain; it is able to read brain activity and translate it into intended commands that are then sent wirelessly to a device to carry out a task.

“It is definitely something where you feel that the science fiction movies of your childhood are starting to become reality,” said Balint Varkuti during a panel discussion at the Hello Tomorrow Global Summit, a deep-tech event held in Paris, France in March. Varkuti is CEO of Ceregate, a brain-machine interface venture based in Munich, Germany.

Neuralink’s chip is an example of a brain-computer interface (BCI), a system that allows a direct communication pathway between a brain and a computer.  In this case, the device needs to be surgically implanted in the brain to allow for brain signals to be picked up in high resolution.

However, head-worn accessories such as headsets or glasses also can pick up neural activity when embedded with sensors and by using techniques such as EEG, electroencephalogram, a method to record electrical activity in the brain, or fNIRS, functional near-infrared spectroscopy, which measures changes in the properties of light as it shines through the skull. Since the sensors in such accessories are further away from the brain than implants, signals are detected in lower resolution, but wearable BCIs are still suitable for certain applications. Systems that adapt their responses based on brain readings are already on the market to help people improve their focus or sleep, for example. Also, Apple’s Vision Pro headset uses a crude BCI by tapping into pupil reactions in the eye to predict what a user wants to click on, and hence what is going on in their brain, before they actually do it.

However, many issues still need to be addressed before invasive and non-invasive BCIs are adopted more widely.

“[Brain-related data] is the most intimate data you can generate, there is nothing more intimate,” said Nataliya Kosmyna, a research scientist at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, MA, during the Hello Tomorrow panel discussion. At the same time, “especially with non-invasive (BCIs), it’s the Wild West: anyone can put a sensor onto any type of wearable,” she said.

Initially, invasive BCIs are likely to be especially of interest to people with medical needs due to the surgery required. Systems such as the one being developed by Neuralink, for example, could change the lives of people with disabilities who cannot speak or control computers in conventional ways, making it worth going through a surgical procedure. Varkuti’s company is also developing an implantable device, with the goal of using it to transmit information into the human brain. Their system could have a variety of applications, such as creating an artificial sense of balance to allow patients with Parkinson’s disease to walk more steadily.

However, with improvements such as surgical techniques becoming less invasive, higher-quality sensors, better batteries, and improving wireless connectivity, Varkuti thinks invasive BCIs will become a boutique experience similar to how laser eye surgery or cosmetic surgery is now widely available today. “This is five to ten years away,” he said.

Wearable BCIs also are being developed for certain medical applications. Since they don’t require surgery, they are more accessible to all age groups, including children and older adults. Kosmyna and her colleagues have been developing a system called Brain Switch, for example, that uses EEG data to help people with degenerative diseases such as ALS to communicate certain basic needs to a caretaker. It uses a neural network that is trained to recognize some mental states of a user in real time.

Kosmyna describes how game-changing this is for the mother of one of her young patients who can no longer speak or move his muscles due to a degenerative disease. “She can just put a super-simple device [on him] and have basic communication with her son,” Kosmyna said. “If the patient doesn’t want the system anymore, they can request it to be discarded.”

On the other hand, the idea of wearing a BCI is concerning to many members of the public. Some people are afraid the technology could be used by the government to spy on their thoughts, for example, or that unwanted information could be sent directly into their brain. Kosmyna thinks reliable information about BCIs needs to be made available in an accessible way, and not just in scientific papers that will mostly be read by academics. “Helping [the public] to understand what the technology can and cannot do is super-important,” she said. 

How companies store, use, and profit from brain-related personal data also needs to be addressed. Two years ago, Chile became the first country to implement privacy laws for brain data, while the states of Colorado, California, and Minnesota are at the forefront of brainwave regulations in the U.S. In Colorado, legislation going before the state senate is looking to include neural information under ‘sensitive data’ in the state’s existing privacy bill, which would require companies to obtain consent before collecting brain activity data. Minnesota introduced a bill in March which establishes that individuals have a right to ‘cognitive liberty’ and that companies that record brain data from BCIs must be clear about how the data will be used, as well as third-party access, which must be approved by users.  

Kosmyna thinks more concrete, actionable regulations are needed. Legislation should specify where data can be stored, for example only on servers from certain countries, and what types of applications the data can and cannot be used to develop, with fines applied or intellectual property (IP) taken away for companies that break those rules. “I think it’s very important to go maybe a bit on the crazier side of control,” said Kosmyna. “I don’t think this will hurt in the long run, [given] what the technology has to offer.”

How brain data will be interpreted and used is also a concern. Max L. Wilson, an associate professor of human-computer interaction at the University of Nottingham in the U.K. and a member of the steering committee of ACM’s Special Interest Group on Computer-Human Interaction (SIGCHI), is particularly worried about employers using BCI to monitor the performance of their employees. “We are already starting to see cases of using brain data in recruitment as well as in the workplace, if not inferred from broader surveillance of workers through whether their mouse is moving, for example,” he said.

Non-invasive BCIs are taking off to help people focus for longer and improve their attention levels, but the resulting brain-related data could lead to discrimination in the workplace. What sort of brain data corresponds to being good at one’s job, for example? If an employee has low attention levels, would that demonstrate they find their role easy, or that they should be trying harder? “This may be the biggest area of cultural-norm changing, as we oscillate between possible and acceptable uses of employee brain data,” Wilson said. 

However, BCIs also have the potential to empower users if used responsibly. Individuals would have access to their brain data and could monitor and enhance certain cognitive aspects, in a similar way to how current wearable technology allows people to track their heart rate, blood pressure, and number of steps to achieve fitness goals, for example. “The opportunities are learning more about ourselves, getting more data, and being able to compare it with other people on a large scale,” said Wilson.

“We now expect to see an explosion in how consumer neurotechnology will allow people to take new measurements about themselves.”

Sandrine Ceurstemont is a freelance science writer based in London, U.K.

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