Operate your smartphone through thought; send a message or post a photo online without making any movement: are these practices worthy of a science fiction book in the process of becoming reality? In the future, will we have alternatives to the body for communicating with the outside world? This is the dream of the giants of the digital world who have thrown themselves enthusiastically into the field of Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCIs).
The Brain-Computer Interface is a system directly connecting a brain and an electronic device (computer, exoskeleton, etc.), allowing an individual to carry out tasks without activating peripheral nerves and muscles.
So how does it work? By collecting the electrical information sent by the neurones in specific areas of the brain using microelectrodes and digital sensors that can read the signals then convert them ready for final processing by a machine.
A long-established field of research, now growing fast in laboratories around the world
This field of research, which appeared in the 1970s, has already seen numerous advances, particularly in the medical and military fields. For example, it has enabled amputees to move again, with their prosthesis controlled by brain activity.
In June 2004, the American Matthew Nagle became the first human implanted with a BCI named BrainGate. Since then, work has proliferated in a growing number of research laboratories around the world, with announcements coming regularly: in 2017, researchers from Wits University in Johannesburg (South Africa) succeeded in broadcasting the activity of a human brainin real time on a website;in April 2019, researchers from the University of California in San Francisco developed a system for decoding the brain signals that activate the muscles linked to speech in order to translate them into computer-synthesised words; in October 2019, the Clinatec research centre (CEA) in Grenoble enabled a tetraplegic to move the limbs of an exoskeleton through thought, thanks to a brain implant.
Neuralink develops a conclusive initial prototype
In July 2016, Elon Musk founded Neuralink, his neurotechnology company dedicated to Brain-Computer Interfaces. Three years and several million dollars later, the company presented its prototype brain implant. Although this is not the only company to work on these topics, the announcement was followed with interest due to the speed with which Neuralink produced a prototype and its ability to raise funds. It has a number of technological advances to its credit, including the use of 4 to 6 micrometre-diameter flexible polymer wires which reduce the risk of damaging the brain, and the development of a “neurosurgeon robot” capable of implanting these wires in different areas of the brain.
After exercises on monkeys that the company confirms as conclusive, it aims to test the prototype on humans by 2020, subject to convincing the FDA (US Food and Drugs Administration), the powerful American federal agency in this area. Their announcements also relate to recruitment, because the company needs expertise in order to take the next steps: in particular, moving from a mechanical hole in the brain for implanting devices to the use of laser techniques that are less invasive.
Less invasive techniques, an approach favoured by Facebook?
Less invasive techniques are also improving, as demonstrated by the press release in spring of 2019 from the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). This US military scientific research agency indicated that it had developed a BCI without brain implants, in the form of headphones, to allow military personnel to control weapons systems with robotic capabilities (drones, weapons related to cyber-defence) through brain activity only.
These techniques are the route that Facebook also appears to favour in its exploration of BCIs, if we are to judge by its recent acquisition of CTRL-Labs, in September 2019. This start-up is developing a bracelet capable of operating a computer via electrical signals transmitted to the muscles by the brain. The idea is to allow the user to control a device as a natural extension of their movement, only by thinking about the action required.
For Andrew Bosworth, manager for augmented and virtual reality at Facebook, it’s a matter of exploring “more natural, intuitive ways of interacting with devices and technology”.He believes that “within the next ten years, the capacity to type directly from our brains may be considered as normal”. An opinion that follows on from the recent advances of a programme launched in 2017 by Facebook on their BCIs, whose purpose is to create a device that allows us to write using thought. In July 2019, researchers from the University of California in San Francisco participating in this project succeeded in decoding and translating human brain activity as part of a dialogue based on multiple-choice questions and answers, with a high rate of success.
BCIs fuel transhumanist ambitions
While many research studies today aim to combat the effects of diseases affecting the brain or spinal cord (Parkinson’s, epilepsy, Alzheimer’s, depression, etc.) and to restore dignity to patients, long-term ambitions could be quite different in nature. “Cognitive improvement”, “augmented-brain humans”, “human brain linked to AI”, and more: just like Elon Musk, some display transhumanist perspectives and are already imagining an infinite number of possibilities. Improving memory, calculation ability, or the ability to translate phrases, or even downloading data into the brain: predictions that make many scientists sceptical, like Andrew Hires, assistant professor in neurobiology at Southern California University, who believes that it is“a vision of a very distant future”and “it is not certain that we will reach this stage one day”.Not to mention the ethical reservations that such projects would not fail to raise.
A very distant concern for the construction industry
Could Brain-Computer Interfaces one day be beneficial to the construction industry? Could controlling devices without moving or simply through thought help to optimise construction sites or to make them safe? The sector is currently exploring the field of human-machine interfaces via exoskeletons, the cobotics solutions capable of assisting operators with the most arduous tasks. They operate using sensors that detect the user’s intention and amplify their movement to increase its strength, for example. These solutions are all the more complex when movement control is shared between the sensors decoding the user’s motor intention and the user who has motor capacities. Might Brain-Computer Interfaces offer opportunities for progress in the future?