Evolution of the interface between Human-Machine Intelligence.
A brain-computer interface (BCI) also called a Neural-Control Interface (NCI), Mind-Machine Interface (MMI), Direct-Neural Interface (DNL), or brain-machine interface (BMI) is a direct communication between an enhanced or wired brain along with an external device.
BCI vary from neuromodulation in that it allows for bidirectional flow of information. BCIs are often directed at researching, mapping, assisting, augmenting, or repairing human sensory-motor or cognitive functions. The origin of BCI began with Hans Berger‘s discovery of the electrical activity of the human brain and the development of electroencephalography (EEG). In 1924 Berger was first to record human-brain activity by means of Electronic Ephalo Graphy (EEG). Berger identified oscillatory activity, such as Alpha wave or Berger’s wave (8-13Hz), by analyzing EEG traces. Berger analyzed the interrelation of alternations in his EEG wave diagrams with brain diseases. EEGs permitted completely new possibilities for the research of human brain activities.
Jacques Vidal Professor from UCLA coined the term “BCI” and produced the first peer-reviewed publications on this subject. Vidal is widely recognized as the inventor of BCIs in the BCI community. His paper in 1973 stated the “BCI challenge” – Control of objects using EEG signals. He especially pointed out to Contingent Negative Variation (CNV) potential as a challenge for BCI control. In the 1977 experiment, Vidal described the first application of BCI after his 1973 BCI challenge. It was a noninvasive EEG (actually Visual Evoked Potentials (VEP)) control of a cursor-like graphical object on a computer screen. The demonstration was movement in a maze.
In 1988 Stevo Bozinovski wrote a report on noninvasive EEG control of a physical object, a robot. The experiment described was EEG control of multiple start-stop-restart of the robot movement, along an arbitrary trajectory defined by a line drawn on a floor. The line-following behaviour was the default robot behaviour, utilizing autonomous intelligence and autonomous source of energy. In 1990, a report was given on a bidirectional adaptive BCI controlling the computer buzzer by an anticipatory brain potential, the Contingent Negative Variation (CNV) potential. The experiment described how an expectation state of the brain, manifested by CNV, controls in a feedback loop the S2 buzzer in the S1-S2-CNV paradigm. The obtained cognitive wave representing the expectation learning in the brain is named Electroexpectogram (EXG). The CNV brain potential was part of the BCI challenge presented by Vidal in his 1973 paper.
BCIs vs Neuroprosthetics: Neuroprosthetics is an area of neuroscience concerned with neural prostheses, that is, using artificial devices to replace the function of impaired nervous systems and brain-related problems, or of sensory organs. As of December 2010, cochlear implants had been implanted as a neuroprosthetic device in approximately 220,000 people worldwide. Several neuroprosthetic devices aim to restore vision, including retinal implants. The terms are sometimes used interchangeably. Neuroprosthetics and BCIs seek to achieve the same objective, such as restoring sight, hearing, movement, ability to communicate, and even cognitive function. Both use similar experimental methods and surgical techniques. Studies that developed algorithms to reconstruct movements from motor cortex neurons, which control movement, date back to the 1970s.
There has been rapid development in BCIs since the mid-1990s. Several groups have been able to capture complex brain motor cortex signals by recording from neural ensembles (groups of neurons) and using these to control external devices. Recently several companies have scaled back medical-grade EEG technology (and in one case, NeuroSky, rebuilt the technology from the ground up) to create inexpensive BCIs. This technology has been built into toys and gaming devices; some of these toys have been exceptionally commercially successful like the NeuroSky and Mattel MindFlex.
A consortium consisting of 12 European partners has completed a roadmap to support the European Commission in their funding decisions for the new framework program Horizon 2020. The project, which was funded by the European Commission, started in November 2013 and published a roadmap in April 2015 a publication led by Dr Clemens Brunner describes some of the analyses and achievements of this project, as well as the emerging Brain-Computer Interface Society. For example, this article reviewed work within this project that further defined BCIs and applications, explored recent trends, discussed ethical issues, and evaluated different directions for new BCIs. As the article notes, their new roadmap generally extends and supports the recommendations from the Future BNCI project managed by Dr Brendan Allison, which conveys substantial enthusiasm for emerging BCI directions.
Other recent publications, too, have explored future BCI directions for new groups of disabled users. Some prominent examples are summarized below.
- Disorders of consciousness (DOC): Some persons have a disorder of consciousness (DOC). This state is defined to include persons with coma, as well as persons in a vegetative state (VS) or minimally conscious state (MCS). New BCI research seeks to help persons with DOC in different ways. A critical initial goal is to identify patients who can perform basic cognitive tasks, which would, of course, lead to a change in their diagnosis. That is, some persons who are diagnosed with DOC may be able to process information and make important life decisions (such as whether to seek therapy, where to live and their views on end-of-life decisions regarding them).
- Motor recovery: People may lose some of their ability to move due to many causes, such as stroke or injury. Several groups have explored systems and methods for motor recovery that include BCIs. In this approach, a BCI measures motor activity while the patient imagines or attempts movements as directed by a therapist. The BCI may provide two benefits: (i) if the BCI indicates that a patient does not imagine a movement correctly (non-compliance), then the BCI could inform the patient and therapist; and (ii) rewarding feedback such as functional stimulation or the movement of a virtual avatar also depends on the patient’s correct movement imagery.
- Functional brain mapping: Each year, about 400,000 people undergo brain mapping during neurosurgery. This procedure is often required for people with tumours or epilepsy that do not respond to medication. During this procedure, electrodes are placed on the brain to identify the locations of structures and functional areas precisely. Patients may be awake during neurosurgery and asked to perform specific tasks, such as moving fingers or repeating words. This is necessary so that surgeons can remove only the desired tissue while sparing other regions, such as critical movement or language regions. Removing too much brain tissue can cause permanent damage while removing too little tissue can leave the underlying condition untreated and require additional neurosurgery.
Thus, there is a strong need to improve both methods and systems to map the brain as effectively as possible. In several recent publications, BCI research experts and medical doctors have collaborated to explore new ways to use BCI technology to improve neurosurgical mapping. This work focuses mostly on high gamma activity, which is difficult to detect with noninvasive means. Results have led to improved methods for identifying critical areas for movement, language, and other functions.
Today, Neurotechnology is one of the burgeoning areas in engineering, and the technological advancements and achievements sound miraculous. Paralyzed people have robotic controlled limbs and computer cursors with their brains. Blind people are receiving eye implants that send signals to their brain’s visual centres. Researchers are figuring out how to make enhanced implantable devices and scalp electrodes to record the brain signals or to send electricity into the brain to change the way it functions. Many of these systems are intended to help people with severe illness and disabilities; there is a growing interest in using the Neurotechnology to augment the capabilities of everyday people.
Silicon Valley’s biggest influencers are all geared up to get inside your head. Over the past year, four leading personalities have announced plans to make gadgets that will either nestle into the fleshy folds of your brain or sit atop your head to read your thoughts from outside. Elon Musk has a reputation as the world’s greatest visionary and the doer. He can propose unimaginably ambitious technological projects—like reusable rockets for Mars exploration and hyperloop the tunnels for transcontinental rapid transit, and we believe he can do it. So, his latest venture, a new company called ‘Neuralink’ will build brain implants both for medical use and give healthy people superpowers, has gotten the people excited about a coming era of consumer-friendly Neurotechnology.
In April 2017, a blog called Wait But Why reported that the company aims to make devices to treat serious brain diseases in the short-term, with the eventual goal of human enhancement, sometimes called transhumanism. Musk said he got partly interested in the idea from a science fiction concept called “neural lace” that is part of the fictional universe in The Culture, a series of 10 novels by Iain M. Banks. Neural lace is an ultra-thin mesh that can be implanted in the skull, forming a collection of electrodes capable of monitoring brain function. It creates an interface between the brain and the machine. It creates an interface between the brain and the machine.
Neuralink aims to create a device that can be implanted in the human brain so that people can merge with software and keep pace with advancements in artificial intelligence; the device will improve memory and allow direct interfacing with computing devices. Neuralink hopes to build a neural lace, which will be a digital layer of your brain and work with your cerebral cortex. According to Elon Musk, the advancements in AI eventually will make humans become so far below in intelligence that we will be like a pet, like a house cat.
While the house cat reference was partially a joke, the point made is not a joke. We will continue to advance AI technology, without giving ourselves those same advancements. This could affect people on a global scale. Musk is worried that AI could surpass the point of human control, and our knowledge would not be sufficient to compete, which theoretically, could result in the end of humanity. The solution he proposes is – “Let us think we have an AI layer, limbic system, cortex and a third layer above the cortex; the third layer which is the digital layer could work symbiotically with your brain.
His neural lace would serve as a “digital layer above the cortex,” that would not necessarily imply extensive surgical insertion but ideally an implant through a vein or artery. To insert neural lace, a tiny needle containing the rolled up mesh is placed inside the skull, and the mesh is injected. As the mesh leaves the needle, it unravels, spanning the brain. Charles Lieber and Guosong Hong offer another possibility for delicately inserting a BCI into the brain. Lieber, a Harvard professor of chemistry and engineering, and Hong, one of his postdocs, are developing an “electronic mesh” that is injected by syringe into the brain tissue, where it unfurls to make contact with many neurons. “The mesh electronics can be precisely targeted to any brain region by syringe injection and forms a seamless and stable interface with neural tissue—because it behaves very much like the brain tissue we seek to study,” Lieber says. “Mesh electronics cause negligible damage or chronic immune response.” His group has shown that the mesh is stable in the brain and can record from individual neurons over many months.
He points out that our major weakness is our information output, we have loads of information input in our brains, but we communicate the information or the output slowly. The difference between input and output effectively merging in a symbiotic way with digital intelligence revolves around eliminating the input and output constraint. The long-term goal is to achieve “Symbiosis” with Artificial Intelligence,” which Musk perceives as an existential threat to humanity. Like previously stated, people with Neural Lace will have their brainpower significantly improved. That means that people will have enhanced memory, processing power, and a more exceptional ability to learn. You would have the potential to learn a new skill at the press of a button on your computer, and it would download through the Neural Lace and into your brain in seconds. Another huge benefit, also mentioned before, is the ability to fight neurodegenerative diseases, like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.
With the positive impacts, comes the negative consequences. Eliza Strickland talks about how the Neural Lace mesh being in your brain could clog red blood cells, which could block off proper oxygen flow, and lead to diseases, and even brain damage, (Strickland). However, this theory has yet to be proven but is a serious issue that needs to be addressed, so the Neural Lace can be safe to use. The other major problem with the Neural Lace, according to Candice Chandler, is the many ethical implications, and complications that it brings (Chandler). Firstly, there is a potential for someone to hack the Neural Lace since a computer controls it. Secondly, someone could download a virus into your brain and theoretically give the hacker full control to your brain. It would be near impossible to fight the virus and could ruin your entire life. Furthermore, the Neural Link would gather all of its information from the internet. That brings many privacy issues into play, as you would have almost no privacy since your thoughts will forever be connected to the internet.
Also, this would give the government more control over your life, enhancing their ability to monitor you, and now your thoughts which is another huge privacy issue, which is borderline unethical. Finally, since information is being retrieved from the internet, there is the possibility that the Neural Lace could transfer misinformation into your brain, not knowing that it is wrong. You would then be living your life in a constant lie, without even knowing it. While these are only theoretical, since the Neural Lace is still in the developmental stage, these are huge negatives with severe impacts on its users. Musk’s goal is to improve humanity. However, these side effects could have the potential to strip us of our humanity. It will soon be up to you whether or not you are willing to take these risks to get the tremendous intellectual benefits the Neural Lace has to offer.
To summarise, the Neural Lace would significantly improve the power of the human brain, making people as smart as, if not more intelligent than the robots and also help the healthcare industry in treating diseases that have no cure would prove beneficial to the world and have global impact. The field of brain-computer interfaces is now taking centre stage and is being recognized as one of the next greatest endeavours and breakthroughs in the technological disruptions where the world will witness the symbiosis with “Digital SuperIntelligence.”