In the 2018 sci-fi movie Upgrade, tech innovator Eron Keen used an artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled chip called Stem that gives a paralysed man control over his limbs. While that was fiction, brain implants such as Stem are not too far from becoming reality.
With Brain Computer Interface (BCI), scientists and medical practitioners are already helping people with damaged limbs, eyes or ears regain sensations like touch, grasp, eyesight and hearing, by recording specific brain signals and translating them into actions.
BCI exists in two forms: the first is the non-invasive, which includes devices or electrodes that are worn on the body. The second is the invasive variant where an electrode is implanted under the scalp so it can record information directly from the neurons in the brain.
“The moment you talk about the invasive variety, it opens up a lot of possibilities. We have always had cochlear implants for cornea and ear, and pacemakers for heart. They have been fairly successful. Invasive variety can never be a mass product as it has to be entered carefully in a sophisticated medical environment only," points out Kumaar Bagrodia, founder and chief executive officer of NeuroLeap, a neuroscience startup.
A major limitation of the invasive variant is the electrode technology. According to researchers at Stanford University, existing electrodes are not meant for long-term recordings due to their large size, low channel count and poor integration with neural tissues. Stanford University is working on a new BCI that uses implants similar in size and are more compatible with natural tissues.
Elon Musk’s brain tech company Neuralink is also working on a BCI that uses flexible threads as electrodes, reducing the risk of damage to the soft tissues of the brain.
Many of the advancements in BCI have been in the non-invasive space. While the application has largely been in the field of medical science, its use is being explored in other areas as well.
Carmaker Nissan is working on a brain-to-vehicle technology that can detect, understand and respond to a driver’s brainwaves in real time. So, if a driver wants to turn the steering wheel or slow down the car, the system will anticipate it and initiate the action seconds before the average human response time.
NeuroLeap, which is based in Mumbai, is using BCI to understand the human brain and help it achieve its full potential. It provides brain function assessment using non-invasive sensors to make users more aware of their brain without asking any questions. After the assessment, NeuroLeap provides brain function enhancement where audio and visual feedback is played on a TV screen so the brain can make the correct adjustments.
But BCI headsets are far from reliable, says Bagrodia.
“For non-invasive products to become mainstream, it is important that insurance providers start looking at it in a positive way. In the US, companies like us are being reimbursed by health insurance providers and that is going to change the game," Bagrodia adds.
In addition to the issue of developing a stable and long-lasting electrode, there is a need to understand the neural data so they can be used to generate rich, reliable, and flexible motor commands. Companies like Brain-Q are turning to artificial intelligence and machine learning to identify high-resolution patterns in a patient’s brain waves and to offer personalized electromagnetic treatment.
Ranjan Kumar, founder and CEO of Entropik Tech, a Bengaluru-based emotion AI company, says technology to collect neural signals exists. There’s also tech that can create actionable signals and send them to a computer and also back to the brain.
“What is not available is the understanding of the data and what these neural signals mean in different contexts. That context in understanding is missing because the data gap is huge. There is no publicly available, large data-set of brain waves to create AI understanding. It will take a couple of years for AI to simulate what the brain wants to replicate," he said.
The promise of restoring lost movement and capability is a big deal. Whether the technology will make people smarter than they are is yet to be seen, though.
Bagrodia says it is just a matter of time when we will be seeing invasive products that can be used for supplementing or augmenting brain with data. It will augment abilities such as memory using an external device. and use of smart prosthetics.