Brain-machine interface technology could be combined with XR tools to do truly astonishing things
Last week, a “healthy, happy pig" named Gertrude attained her 15 seconds of fame. This was courtesy Elon Musk, the serial entrepreneur and now the third-richest man in the world, who demonstrated his latest venture, Neuralink, an ultra-high bandwidth brain-machine interface (BMI) to connect humans and computers. As this column has often gushed about Musk, he thinks new and big, and Neuralink did live up to its billing, certainly from a public relations viewpoint. Reactions to it from the scientific community were mixed, and we will discuss those in a forthcoming column.
But what Neuralink did was to fire a few of my memory neurons and take me back to a programme I attended at Singularity University. In a session by a professor there, Jody Medich, I saw a quote by Satya Nadella: “The future of computing will be driven by Quantum, AI and XR". While I understood why he talked about AI (artificial intelligence) and quantum computing, it was his mention of XR in the same breath that threw me. XR or extended reality includes technologies like AR (augmented reality), VR (virtual reality) and MR (mixed reality). I had always considered XR an afterthought to blockbusters like AI, blockchain, Internet of Things, etc. But Nadella was thinking otherwise. I learnt that XR was not just a tool to make Pokémon Go, or to show you a car in different colours, it was something that could make paralyzed war veterans walk, or the sightless “see", much like what BMI was promising.
XR is big in enterprise usage, with Statista and the International Data Corp estimating the market’s worth at $209 billion by 2022, powered by a shipment of 66 million AR/VR headsets. Applications include training in unsafe areas; retailing by way of virtual apparel, shoes, property, etc.; entertainment via virtual music festivals; and travel where you can see giraffes without going to Kenya (good for covid times). XR has great potential in healthcare. For instance, it could show the veins in your arm for accurate intravenous drug administration. Solar installations use XR with overlays and heads-up displays, increasing efficiency and safety.
While these are great, what makes this technology a superpower is the “merging of the digital, physical and biological". Consider the cerebral cortex of our brain, specifically the neo-cortex, which is concerned with sight and hearing. XR explicitly works on one part of this, the primary visual cortex, the part that enables us to see. It is here where XR can work its magic. It can amplify our vision and literally rewire our brain.
One application of this XR-rewiring is pain reduction. VRHealth, an Israeli firm, works on using VR to cure migraine pains, for instance. “Our brain is like a CPU—75% of that CPU goes to visuals and sound," says founder Eran Orr. “When we overload our CPU with an immersive technology like VR, things like pain can get downgraded in the priority list. That is why it’s amazing for pain management or pain distraction. Once you combine that with actual rehab, it’s a game-changer." The New York Times has written of Hollie Davis, who owes her current full mobility to trying VR as part of her treatment for a persistent, life-inhibiting pain after a motorcycle accident. She “spent 10 or 20 minutes in a dark room while a head-mounted 3-D screen transported her to a very relaxing place, taught her about the nature of pain, how oxygen travels through the body, then how to breathe, focus on her breathing, relax her body and think of nothing else." The device engages multiple senses, essentially flooding the brain with so much input that it cannot register pain signals. When pain messages try to get through, “the brain gives a busy signal".
VR can help restore feelings in paraplegics. Recently, researchers worked on eight “chronic paraplegics", where the study’s participants underwent a year-long training module that used BMIs combined with virtual reality tech. Half the patients were upgraded from “chronic" to “incomplete paraplegia" as their status classification. One of them, who had suffered from paralysis for 13 years, was able to move her legs without the help of a support harness.
As Medich puts it, XR can be used to provide “cognitive ergonomics". While physical ergonomics amplifies manpower, cognitive ergonomics amplifies brain power. XR, combined with Neuralink-like technologies, therefore, will be super powerful. They could help the disabled walk again and let the pain- ridden transcend pain. I am already wondering how cool Gertrude would look in a VR headset.