A growing number of private and public institutions are pursuing the idea of a neural link, a brain-computer interface capable of uploading and downloading thoughts between human and machine. The potential applications of such a technology are limitless. In addition to facilitating our interaction with computers, a direct mind link with computing devices could enhance cognitive functions such as memory and the speed of thought processing.
A neural interface would act as a translator between the brain and a computer, converting back and forth between the electrochemical signals of neurons and the binary code of information technology. Some basic understanding of neural interfaces already exists. A recent study found that paralyzed people with a brain implant recording neural signals could type at up to eight words per minute by choosing letters with an on-screen cursor, using their thoughts alone. Patients have also received brain implants to reduce the negative effects of conditions like epilepsy or neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s.
But the gap between our current limited understanding about how neurons in the brain communicate and effective neural interfaces is wide. Fundamental research must be conducted to expand our knowledge. Breakthroughs are needed across many different disciplines including synthetic biology, neuroscience and medical device packaging. Eventually volunteers will be needed to have implants placed in their brains, undergoing procedures that require dangerous and invasive surgeries.
Some visionaries have recognized the potential of brain-computer interfaces and are pursuing development of the technology. Elon Musk, founder of electric car-maker Tesla Inc. and rocket company Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX), has discussed a “neural lace” — tiny, implanted brain electrodes that would serve as a “direct cortical interface” to enhance the function of the human brain.
Musk is worried about advanced artificial intelligence posing a danger to humans and wants to level the playing field. He founded medical research company Neuralink Corp. in California last July. Its first products could be implantable devices used to treat brain disorders like depression and epilepsy. If the technology is proven safe and effective and receives approval from the government, it could then be expanded to include enhanced cognition.
That business approach is similar to the strategy that another private company pursuing neural interfaces has settled on. Kernel was founded in 2016 by Braintree co-founder Bryan Johnson. The entrepreneur sold Braintree to Paypal for $800 million in 2013 and is investing $100 million of his own money in Kernel.
Kernel started out pursuing development of a memory implant, a device that could record memories, store them on a chip and serve them back to the brain. That goal was judged to be exceedingly ambitious to achieve in a short timeframe, so the company has shifted focus to a simpler platform that can simultaneously measure the electrical output of many neurons and stimulate them as well. Such a device could eventually treat diseases such as depression or Alzheimer’s.
Small startups aside, even tech industry giants are interested in exploring links between mind and computer. Within two years, Facebook aims to have an interface that can type words on a computer by reading your thoughts. The device would be noninvasive and use optical sensors to pick up neural signals, similar to how functional near-infrared spectroscopy senses brain activity. The interface would be capable of converting thoughts to text at a rate of 100 words per minute by detecting speech signals just before the words are actually spoken. The technology is being developed by Facebook’s Building 8, a team dedicated to developing innovative hardware products.
Government funding is providing the private sector a boost in its pursuit of neural interface technology. The Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative was announced by the Obama administration in April 2013. The initiative seeks to increase our understanding of how the brain works and improve the development of treatments and cures for brain disorders.
As part of the BRAIN Initiative, the Defense Advanced Research Agency (DARPA) announced in January 2016 that it is investing up to $65 million over four years in its Neural Engineering System Design (NESD) program. The aim of the program is to develop an implant smaller than one cubic centimeter that is capable of serving as a high-bandwidth interface with advanced signal resolution between the brain and electronics. This will require neuro-computation techniques to transcode between sensory data from the brain and electronic neuron representations.
Neural interfaces that are currently approved for human use combine the signals of tens of thousands of neurons into single channels. NESD hopes to develop interfaces that can communicate individually with any of up to a million neurons. This will provide a more precise signal with less noise.
“Today’s best brain-computer interface systems are like two supercomputers trying to talk to each other using an old 300-baud modem,” said Phillip Alvelda, the NESD program manager, in a press release. “Imagine what will become possible when we upgrade our tools to really open the channel between the human brain and modern electronics.”
Paradromics Inc. is one of six recipients of DARPA NESD funding. It was awarded $18.3 million to develop a neural input-output bus (NIOB), a cortical implant with an effective data rate over 1 Gbps. The NIOB is intended to help patients afflicted by ALS who can no longer communicate. Capable of reading and stimulating the activity of 1 million neurons, the device would allow them to speak fluently again.
Cortera Neurotechnologies Inc. is another startup that has received funding from DARPA as part of its Systems-Based Neurotechnology for Emerging Therapies (SUBNETS) program, part of the BRAIN Initiative. The neural interface that Cortera is developing will be capable of recording and stimulating the brain to treat neuropsychiatric disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and major depressive disorder.
The result of these efforts will be advances in the field of neurotechnology. At the very least, there should be improved therapies for a variety of devastating brain disorders. If the most ambitious goals of neural interface technology are fulfilled, humans will be entering a brave new world in which mind and machine are merged, further cementing the link between our progress as a species and the advancement of our technical expertise.