The brain/computer divide: can BCIs bridge the gap between human and machine?
When contemplating our ability to solve complex problems that we encounter in our daily lives, you’ll likely be astonished at the human brain’s endless capabilities. But just how do our brains work? To answer this question, scientists have divided the brain into two main layers. The first layer is the limbic system and is mainly responsible for our primitive behaviors and emotions, especially those we need for survival. The second layer is the cortex, which is the part of our brain responsible for consciousness, reasoning, and decision-making.
Today, our smartphones have become our brain’s metaphorical third layer. They provide us with any piece of information almost instantaneously (with little effort on our end) and enable us to connect with the world in a way that is indispensable. However, as technology develops exponentially, our desire for even higher speeds of access increases, and smartphones can’t keep up in the way computers can. We need an “interface” between our greatest organ and these sophisticated machines.
Brain Computer Interfaces (BCIs)
BCIs are devices which can be implanted in the skull and can communicate with the brain directly using electrodes. Artificial intelligence (AI) plays an important role in enabling these BCIs to comprehend the signals between neurons inside of our brains. By using cutting-edge machine learning (ML) models, AI can detect the activity of neurons and convert it to pieces of information which can be understood by computers. For example, when you think about moving your arm, an electrical signal will be fired from your brain’s motor cortex and transferred to your arm’s muscles. A BCI can detect these signals from the moment they’re fired from the brain, even if the nervous system is damaged and can’t deliver the signal to the muscles.
BCIs in Medicine
This key feature of BCIs was the basis of a study conducted at Stanford University in 2011, where the devices were used to enable paralyzed individuals to move a robotic arm by simply thinking about moving their own hands. A decade on, BCIs have advanced significantly. Today, BCIs are smaller than a penny, implanted seamlessly, and can even be charged wirelessly. They’re mainly designed for long-term usage for people with different types of disabilities and cognitive impairments.
Advances in BrainGate – a brain implant system - have enabled patients with motor impairments to communicate via written word. Using state-of-the-art AI models, the system converts the neural signals associated with writing into pieces of information computers can understand, which is then translated to text (Video 1). So, people who have difficulty speaking can easily communicate by only thinking about what they want to say. In the near future, this type of break-through technology could completely transform the lives of people with motor and cognitive impairments.
The capabilities of BCIs are advancing thanks to growing investment in the field. In 2016, Neuralink was launched, and has been publishing amazing breakthroughs since then. Co-founded by Elon Musk, Neuralink is a neurotechnology company that focuses on the development of implantable BCIs. Part of what differentiates Neuralink from other neurotechnology companies that develop implantable BCIs is their surgical robot, which is capable of implanting the device into the brain. By inventing this robot, Neuralink is trying to automate the process, thereby minimising potential for human-error. According to estimates, using this robot will enabledoctors to finish the surgery in under an hour without general anaesthesia.
So far, the company has been testing the chip on animals. In 2021, Neuralink successfully implanted a BCI in a monkey, and enabled the animal to play a game using only its mind. The monkey, named Pager, played the game using a joystick, and was given a fruit smoothie as an incentive and reward. The brain signals that fired up when Pager wanted to move its hand in the direction of the ball were recorded on the BCI. The joystick was then removed, allowing Pager to play the game using only its mind, while enjoying the sweet taste of the smoothie!
Another example of Neuralink’s success with BCIs comes from Gertude, a pig that had the Neuralink chip implanted in its skull. The chip, which recorded Gertude’s brain signals, was implanted in the region of its brain responsible for sensory processing in its snout. The chip could successfully record Gertude’s brain’s neural spikes while its snout snuffed about for food (Video 2). The chip also helped the scientists working with Gertude to successfully predict its limbs' next positions before it actually moved them.
The Future of BCIs
Like Pager the monkey, imagine yourself playing a video game and controlling a character in the game only by thinking about it. That would be the most immersive experience ever, right? That is part of the future that Mark Zuckerberg is building with the development of the metaverse. Most people imagine Zuckerberg’s metaverse as a combination of virtual reality and augmented reality, where users "live" within a digital universe with cartoonish avatars. However, in the coming years and decades, the term ‘metaverse’ won’t just refer to this virtual reality game or digital universe, but rather a radical shift in our relationship with technology.
As mentioned above, BCIs have enabled incredible breakthroughs in the field of medicine – especially for those with cognitive and motor impairments. This type of technology could also have fascinating implications for the future of communication more generally. When we start a conversation, our brain exerts so much effort encoding our thoughts into words. The sentences we form, however, don’t always capture our thoughts fully - just think about how many times you tried to rephrase a sentence to make sure that your thoughts were translated clearly.
Furthermore, there may be additional loss in accuracy on the receiver side while hearing you or when trying to decode the sentences to understand them. The example mentioned earlier in this article explored the role BCIs have played in allowing a person to write by only picturing the letter in his/her mind. As this technology matures, these developments could have a major impact on the way we speak and understand one another (think universal translation). Perhaps in the near future, we might even be able to achieve telepathy.
With these developments, important existential questions are being asked about BCIs and the future of AI more generally. As technology continues to advance exponentially, AI is developing from being ‘limited’ – and ‘narrow’ - intelligent agents that can perform specific tasks, like differentiating between cats and dogs - to being ‘general’ more sophisticated models that can replicate human's intelligence. Important questions arise - if AI exceeds our intelligence one day, would it be an ally or an enemy?
Perhaps this is where BCIs and the metaverse might alter how we approach these questions. If – as some experts predict - we could one day digitize our consciousness, what would this mean for our relationship with technology? Would we be able to avoid competing with AI? Maybe one day we will be able to merge with it, creating a "symbiosis" that might help us reach a so-called "democratization of intelligence".
There is an unlimited number of questions that we could ask about the impact of such technology in our lives. We can make an analogy to the time before the internet - could we have expected any of the current technologies? Our biggest challenge will be developing regulations for these emergent technologies as soon as possible and ensuring that they are only used for the good of humanity to make our world a better place.