From Medical To Consumer Facing: Next Wave of NeuroScience Technology

My latest illustration reiterates on Neurochip (Brain-Computer Interface) with functionalities for consumers, to directly control consumer electronic products – specifically mobile smartphones, tablets, laptops, computers, etc…

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Brain-computer interfaces are seeing massive AI breakthroughs including neural bridges being built for learning, treatment of specific diseases and overcoming the electrical-to-biochemical language barrier. These trends are what will optimise the information bandwidth that comes with neuroscience technology.

“A monkey has been able to control a computer with its brain.” That almost unimaginable yet remarkably accurate observation was made by Elon Musk, author and CEO of Tesla. In his presentation, Musk switched between varying forms of “what is” to “what could be”, before announcing the details surrounding Tesla Energy.

“It’s not going to be suddenly Neuralink will have this neural lace and start taking over people’s brains,” Musk said. “Ultimately” he wants “to achieve a symbiosis with artificial intelligence.” And that even in a “benign scenario,” humans would be “left behind.” Hence, he wants to create technology that allows a “merging with AI.” He later added “we are a brain in a vat, and that vat is our skull,” and so the goal is to read neural spikes from that brain.

First waves of development

The first person with spinal cord paralysis to receive a brain implant that allowed him to control a computer cursor was Matthew Nagle. In 2006, Nagle played Pong using only his mind; the basic movement required took him only four days to master, he told The New York Times in an interview. Since then, paralyzed people with brain implants have also brought objects into focus and moved robotic arms in labs, as part of scientific research. The system Nagle and others have used is called BrainGate and was developed initially at Brown University.

“Neuralink didn’t come out of nowhere, there’s a long history of academic research here,” Hodak said at the presentation on Tuesday. “We’re, in the greatest sense, building on the shoulders of giants.” However, none of the existing technologies fit Neuralink’s goal of directly reading neural spikes in a minimally invasive way.

How Neuralink pips older technology

The system presented today, if it’s functional, may be a substantial advance over older technology. BrainGate relied on the Utah Array, a series of stiff needles that allows for up to 128 electrode channels. Not only is that fewer channels than Neuralink is promising — meaning less data from the brain is being picked up — it’s also stiffer than Neuralink’s threads. That’s a problem for long-term functionality: the brain shifts in the skull but the needles of the array don’t, leading to damage. The thin polymers Neuralink is using may solve that problem.

Challenges of complexity

However, Neuralink’s technology is more difficult to implant than the Utah Array, precisely because it’s so flexible. To combat that problem, the company has developed ”a neurosurgical robot capable of inserting six threads (192 electrodes) per minute [automatically],” according to the white paper. In photos, it looks something like a cross between a microscope and a sewing machine. It also avoids blood vessels, which may lead to less of an inflammatory response in the brain, the paper says.

For Musk, the central problem of interacting with AI is actually “bandwidth.” You can take in information much more quickly than you push it out via your voice or your thumbs, but you’re already connected to a machine — an idea most closely associated with philosopher Andy Clark. Hence, his goal is for this system to allow humans to more quickly communicate with machines directly from their brains.

Finally, the paper says that Neuralink has developed a custom chip that is better able to read, clean up, and amplify signals from the brain. Right now, it can only transmit data via a wired connection (it uses USB-C), but ultimately the goal is to create a system that can work wirelessly.

That wireless goal will be embodied in a product that Neuralink calls the “N1 sensor,” designed to be embedded inside a human body and transmit its data wirelessly. It may read fewer neurons than the current USB-based prototype. Neuralink intends to implant four of these sensors, three in motor areas and one in a somatosensor area. It will connect wirelessly to an external device mounted behind the ear, which will contain the only battery. “It will be controlled through an iPhone app,” Hodak said.

“There is a whole FDA process we have to go though,” he added, “we haven’t done that yet.” Matthew MacDougall, head surgeon at Neuralink acknowledged that safety is a primary goal, and that ultimately they want it to be “something more like Lasik” eye surgery — including eliminating the need for general anesthesia. The first patients wouldn’t have that non-invasive experience, though.

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To further emphasis on the Artificial Intelligence and Robotics aspect of the Neurochip, in my work-in-progress I added the human brain and the human nervous system on the TV screen, and the word NeuroChip on the computer screen.

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Data Gathering and What is to Come

What happens if we want to collect health data when no one’s wearing a device? Engineers at MIT have modified a WiFi-like box so it can capture vital signs and sleep patterns of several people in the same residence.

As new sensing technologies emerge, they’ll yield more biomedical data and insights—and these can be paired with growing stores of genomic data. In combination, they’ll lead us to new ways to optimize wellness, understand disease, and select the most patient-specific preventives and interventions.

The widening array of digital tools paired with AI analytics almost certainly will boost diagnosticians’ accuracy and speed, improving disease detection at early stages and thus raising the odds of successful treatment or cure. Many likely will be phone-based.

In an op-ed for the Financial Times, Schneider argues that the project could amount to “suicide for the human mind.” Although Schneider says brain intelligence could be augmented with chips, “there will be a point at which you end your life. I call this horrific ‘brain drain.’”

According to Schneider, AI-based enhancements could be used to supplement neural activity, but if they go as far as replacing normally functioning neural tissue, at some point they may end a person’s life.

Will merging with AI crush possibilities?

“The worry with a general merger with AI, in the more radical sense that Musk envisions, is the human brain is diminished or destroyed,” Schneider told TNW. “Furthermore, the self may depend on the brain and if the self’s survival over time requires that there be some sort of continuity in our lives — a continuity of memory and personality traits — radical changes may break the needed continuity.”

Schneider goes on to say: “The issue is also philosophical: What is the nature of the self or mind? If the mind is just the brain, a full merger with AI wouldn’t work. I suspect those advocating a mind-machine merger think the self is a program.”

While Schneider is skeptical of Musk’s plan to turn us into robots, she adds that replacing parts of the brain with a few chips “wouldn’t have a dire impact.” However, as the philosopher Derek Parfit observed, it’s unclear where to draw the line. “Would it be at 15 per cent neural replacement? At 75 per cent? Any choice seems arbitrary,” Schneider said.

Musk isn’t the only person radicalizing the future of our brain’s. For example, Ray Kurzweil, the futurist and Director of Engineering at Google, said he expects that we’ll be able to back our brains up to the cloud by 2045 — ultimately making us immortal.

But as Schneider points out, we shouldn’t fully invest our trust in the suggestion that humans can merge with AI. Instead, more research should be done around the possibilities and consequences of merging technology with the human brain.

Already, it is clear that melding digital technologies with human brains can have provocative effects, not least on people’s agency — their ability to act freely and according to their own choices. Although neuroethicists’ priority is to optimize medical practice, their observations also shape the debate about the development of commercial neurotechnologies.

Addressing these gaps and riddles could create more intelligent machines that are capable of learning from their environments and that can combine the speed and processing power of computers with more human abilities. The data-crunching and modelling abilities of computers are already bringing about advances in brain science that researchers, AI experts and neuroscientists say are likely to grow.

While all the marketing hype is about Elon Musk’s Neuralink, we take a look at current developments of some of the other emerging players in the keenly competitive neuroscience tech space.

Top 12 Neuralink Competitors Everyone Should Track

#1 – Neurable

Neurable, which has $2.3M in funding, is building non-invasive BCIs (shown at right) for “immersive computing” in virtual-reality and mixed-reality gaming: By detecting and analyzing changes in brain activity, Neurable believes it can use thoughts to guide the trajectory of video games and other media content viewed through AR/VR headsets.

#2 – BrainCo

BrainCo, with $5.5M raised, is applying a similar concept to the classroom: By using brain-signal detection to monitor and analyze the attention levels of students wearing its Focus 1 BMI headset, BrainCo says it can help schools “optimize student engagement” and craft better teaching strategies. (BrainCo’s founder launched the startup to improve education in China.)

#3 – Paradromics

Paradromics is working to develop “massively parallel neural interfaces” capable of decoding brain information in real time. Paradromics says its “next-generation brain-machine interfaces” will ultimately “increase the data transmission rate between brains and computers 1,000 fold.” They call this Broadband For The Brain.

As part of an $18M DARPA contract awarded in July 2017, Paradromics first aims to develop an implantable device that can help stroke victims relearn to speak.

#4 – Kernel

Kernel, which has raised $100M, hopes to initiate clinical trials for a brain-implantable microchip they call a “neuroprosthetic.” Their device is similar to one that was shown to restore memory and improve information recall in rats (per a study in 2011).

#5 – Neurosity

Neurosity, a New York-based tech startup, has come up with a new brain-reading device called “Notion.” Last year, Elon Musk brought up his ambitious idea of a brain-interface company called Neuralink. Neurosity’s idea is similar to Neuralink and focuses on doing real-world tasks via brain waves. Basically, the mind-reading device called Notion can capture brain waves of an individual and process signals to IoT-based devices or smart devices to perform a specific task.

Interestingly, Neuralink needs a chip to be placed inside a brain directly, which raised concern among people, as it was complicated. Notion doesn’t need to be connected to the brain or human body physically which can boost its adoption.

#6 – Facebook

Facebook has bought out a start-up which builds mind-reading computer interfaces is being bought out by Facebook, offering further proof of the social media giant’s ambitions to forge a new kind of link between human and machine.

#7 – CTRL Labs

CTRL Labs, a New-York-based company which has raised $67m (£54m) in funding from Amazon, Spark Capital and others, has created an armband which intercepts the signals sent by users’ brains to their hands in order to let them control a virtual keyboard or mouse.

#8 – EMOTIV

EMOTIV has developed algorithms that enable brain waves to be decoded by sensors placed on the surface of the scalp. The headsets allow users to control devices and vehicles such as cars – by translating their thoughts into actions. Its more recent second-generation product democratises research into the health and fitness of the brain.

“We are aiming to make this technology available to everyone including those who might not have access due to prohibitive costs. These may be people in parts of Asia or Africa or students or ‘tinkerers’ anywhere in the world who want to gain a better understanding of the brain,” Tan Le, its founder said. She also identified three key ingredients that have been central to EMOTIV’s success since its inception in 2003: clarity of vision; adaptation and persistence over a long period of time; and courage and conviction in the face of uncertainty.

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In my final completed illustration, I colored it in neon-style, and a digital background to bring out the futuristic element. Of course, the sonar waves from the neurochip to the electronics are symbolic for illustration purposes.

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#9 – MindMaze

MindMaze originally spun out of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. Over the last two years, the company raised $108.5 million at a over $1 billion pre-money valuation to build what it calls a “neural virtual reality platform.” The technology uses inputs from motion sensory activities, neuroscience, haptics, artificial intelligence, and computer vision to create more realistic human-machine interfaces that can be applied across a number of verticals.

MindMaze is dedicated to developing products that help speed overall AR/VR adoption – and is branching out beyond traditional gaming and entertainment use cases to provide solutions in fields like healthcare and education. MindMotion Pro, MindMaze’s very first technological breakthrough, is now engaged in a clinical trial to examine the efficacy of using its VR-based tools to speed rehabilitation for chronic stroke survivors and amputee patients.

#10 – NeuroPro

NeuroPro aims to bring together cutting-edge mobile computing and innovative brain data analysis methodologies to create user-friendly, real-time solutions for consumers, researchers and healthcare professionals.

Tools produced by NeuroPro for monitoring and analyzing brain activity will contribute to accelerating brain research – pushing the boundaries of brain science and its applications. The VMLPro (Virtual Mobile Laboratory) cloud sits on Amazon Web Services (AWS) infrastructure and provides an as-a-service environment in which to store, manage and process EEG data in such a way that the datasets can be used to run remote monitoring on patients, perform remote diagnostics and collaborate with other clinicians.

#11 – DARPA

DARPA’s Next-Generation Nonsurgical Neurotechnology (N3) program has awarded funding to six groups attempting to build brain-machine interfaces that match the performance of implanted electrodes but with no surgery whatsoever.

By simply popping on a helmet or headset, soldiers could conceivably command control centers without touching a keyboard; fly drones intuitively with a thought; even feel intrusions into a secure network. While the tech sounds futuristic, DARPA wants to get it done in four years.

#12 – NeuroSky

Around 2007, NeuroSky, a California-based firm that manufactures brain-computer interface technology, launched what is considered the consumer BCI space, as the technology had evolved from medical to consumer-facing.

This was a major leap forward for BCI in that now it better met the more exacting consumer requirements for price, ease-of-use, aesthetic design (fewer electrode contacts), comfort, mobility and, of course—no skull drilling.

This was new territory for BCI, and clearly certain sacrifices were required. BCI control granularity was attenuated in order to satisfy users who had no patience for BCI products that introduced inconveniences into their lives.

What consumer BCI could promise was a scaled down and courser version of control. Imagine one electrode (consumer headset) replacing a full array of 64 or 128 electrodes or, more unbelievably, direct brain implants. A simple rule of thumb is that BCI is full of important trade-off considerations driven by the all-important use case model.

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