We are at the dawn of human-machine symbiosis. Our knowledge of the brain is increasing rapidly and as we learn more about the intricacies of the brain, our ability to augment ourselves via computers is becoming increasingly common. There are now numerous companies working on building devices called Brain-Machine Interfaces (BMIs), and scientists are discovering new neural stimulation techniques to directly control our senses. All signs point towards a future where humans are augmented with computers. This begs the question if humans meld with computers will we have the ability to download sensations directly to our brains?
What is a Brain-Machine Interface?
A BMI is a device that translates brain activity into data for computers to control via software or hardware. BMIs can either be surgically implanted chips or non-invasive wearables that rest on the head. Research on BMI’s actually began decades ago in the 1970s at the University of California. In the 1980s and 1990s, there was also some work done in the BMI field but things didn't really start to pick up until recently. Over the past few years, there has been a massive increase in research and development on BMI. The majority of BMI use-cases today generally pertain to people with some sort of disability or condition. The software and hardware that run the BMI’s of today, have gotten to the point where the patients or users of the BMI’s are experiencing direct benefit. These clear business use-case and the direct benefit that people receive are encouraging more research and development of this technology.
How Do BMIs Work?
Essentially, our brains operate as exceptionally advanced and efficient computers. In the same way that transistors give computers on/off commands using electrical signals, nerve cells (neurons) carry electrical signals throughout the brain to tell the body what to do. The brain’s electrical signals can be identified by invasive or non-invasive devices. Scientists can then decode and connect them to machines so they perform a specific function. For example, a paralyzed person can use a BMI to move a robotic arm with their thoughts.
Companies Building BMIs
Kernel was founded in 2016 by Bryan Johnson, the founder of the payment company Braintree. In September 2013, Braintree was purchased by PayPal for $800 million. Johnson then invested $100 million of his own capital to form Kernel with the goal to create a non-invasive mind-body-machine interface (MBMI). The MBMI will be used to augment human intelligence and also help those with diseases and conditions, such as Alzheimer’s, dementia, seizures, and more.
The most well-known company in BMI space is Neuralink. Founded in 2016 by the legendary Elon Musk, Neuralink is creating a BMI that will be used to interact with computers. Unlike Kernel, Neuralink’s device is invasive: a robot surgically implants tiny threads directly in the patient's brain. Impressively, Elon Musk stated that a monkey was successfully able to control a computer using only its brain and a Neuralink device. Neuralink hopes to implant their devices in paralyzed human patients in 2020.
Paradromics is also building an implantable BMI, but their focus is to treat medical-related issues. A nickel-sized chip is implanted in the brain to potentially help with mental illnesses like schizophrenia and diseases like ALS. Human trials are expected to begin in 2021 or 2022.
Emotiv has built a non-invasive BMI headband. It works by training the system to learn various thoughts and the computer reacts accordingly once they occur. The extraordinary video below shows a person training a computer and then using his brain to drive a motorized ball across the floor. The video explains that although this technology is impressive, it needs additional work before it can go mainstream.
Numerous other companies are developing BMIs and have conducted human trials, but in 2020 we will likely see a larger focus on human testing. Although there are risks, the push towards human implementation will expedite BMI availability to the public and help advance the entire BMI ecosystem. With large amounts of capital and incredible talent contributing to BMI technology, we are well on our way towards machines-human symbiosis.
Augmented Senses Research
Imagine if your brain had instant access to all of the world's information. You could download an entire foreign language directly to your brain or telepathically connect to your family no matter where they are. It would be using your smartphone by just thinking about using it. These use-cases sound sci-fi, and they are currently, but the directional progress points towards this type of future. Luckily, the current focus and development of BMI’s are much more noble, such as treating disabilities, diseases, and other debilitating conditions.
Movement and Touch
BMIs are showing incredible promise with paralysis. BrainGate, a BMI company, conducted a study with three paralyzed individuals where a tiny device implanted in their brains’ motor cortex was able to pick up and decipher neuron signals. Using the device, the patients were able to move a cursor and type on a tablet computer. Controlling a computer with just a brain is obviously incredible, but most importantly the patients were able to control affordable off-the-shelf Google Nexus 9 tablets instead of costly purpose-built devices. BrainGate also conducted another incredible research trial that allowed a paralyzed individual to move his arm. Watch the incredible video of the patient’s story below.
In this research trial, a small brain-machine interface device was implanted in an individual’s skull and simultaneously 36 muscle-stimulating electrodes were implanted in his arm. The electrodes allowed the patient to rebuild his arm muscles after having not moved it for eight years. After he built up the required muscle, he was able to move his arm simply by telling his brain to do so. Using a brain to control paralyzed limbs is a huge leap from simply using a brain to control a computer.
Additionally, DARPA and the University of Pittsburgh teamed up to recreate the patient’s sensation of touch. This video shows the immense promise of BMI to enable paralyzed people to feel touch once more.
Researchers from the Baylor College of Medicine have been able to partially restore the sight of six completely blind participants. The researchers implanted a BMI into their brains along with sixty electrodes. In order to see, the patients wear a pair of camera glasses that transmit images directly to the BMI and accompanying electrodes, bypassing the non-functioning optical nerves and transmitting images directly to the patient’s brains. Their brains were then able to recreate the visual image from the camera. To be clear, the patients were not able to fully see the same type of imagery people without blindness are able to see, but they see a type of shaded environment that allows them to see basic object outlines.
Hearing aids already are quite effective, however, they could massively evolve if combined with a brain-machine interface. A group of researchers from the German University of Oldenburg is developing a BMI that works as an incredibly effective hearing aid. Their device aims to allow users to discern individual speakers in a room full of multiple conversations, a feat not yet mastered by current hearing aids.
While there have been few experiments involving BMIs and the sense of smell, there have been numerous experiments on recreating smells with machines. During a study in 2018 by the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, researchers put electrodes in human noses to stimulate the olfactory bulbs, where the brain receives smell information. This stimulation activates different scents within the brain, effectively tricking it into thinking it’s smelling a specific scent.
Researchers from the University of Singapore have embedded electrodes in eating utensils to magnify different tastes such as salty, sour, and bitter. Although there has not been human experimentation, there have been successful experiments with insects where they were convinced bland food was sweet. Researchers from Portugal’s Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown fed houseflies a bland substance that suddenly became more delicious when a light was activated. When the researchers turned off the light, the food went back to bland. The light manipulated their taste neurons to think that the food was delicious. This light enabled neuro-manipulation is created with optogenetics.
While not a brain-machine interface technology, optogenetics is a biological technique that allows light to control genetically modified neurons. The light can activate cells to be on or off, just like a computer transistor. The activated cells can then perform an action or commence a sensation. The earlier fly example might go something like, “if the light is on, then activate feelings of extreme hunger.” Watch the video below for a great optogenetics explainer.
Most optogenetics research has been on animals, but a few human patients have also utilized optogenetics for medical treatment and research trials. The technique is extremely promising for a vast number of use-cases. Will we eventually have the technology to activate any sensation at will?
Today’s BMIs and optogenetics are already proving that humans have the understanding and technology to activate sensations in our brains. We have already restored a paralyzed man's touch, partially restored the sight of blind patients, and are even modifying the taste of food. However, many questions still need to be answered before this technology becomes accessible by the average person.
Is the technology safe?
Will the sensation downloading process be invasive or non-invasive?
Will we discover a more effective technique to activate neurons other than optogenetics?
Once the technology is safe and effective, will people fully live within virtual environments?
How will this technology impact society or global markets?
There is an essentially unlimited number of questions that need to be answered before this becomes widespread but once the technology has been made completely safe and commercialized, we will see apps built around our senses come to market? What about directly downloading sensations from a marketplace?
A Sensations Market?
Downloading sensations may create a sensation market. Sensations could be sold for one-time use, as unique digital assets, or even bundled in a monthly subscription. Perhaps Apple will create “iSense” to sell sensations for $0.99, just like iTunes. Imagine elevating the taste of white rice by purchasing a “steak taste sensation” from iSense to download directly to your BMI. An open market of sensations is a little sensational (pun intended 😎) but it does seem possible. A marketplace like this would likely be a highly regulated market that requires a medical prescription, but who really knows at this point. This all sounds far-fetched (and is), but the fact is that the technology is possible today. Instead of asking if this will happen, we should start asking when.