The human mind - an inner frontier that is being explored from every angle possible. Scientists might explore how neurons are able to produce memories. They might explore the way different regions in the brain are active during conscious experience. Others might look into brain injuries and how the damage could be repaired or overcome. So much exploration is possible along the millions of neural connections. Future developments and understanding of the nature of consciousness remain unpredictable. Yet this does not mean that technological progress is just as unpredictable and unruly. In fact, current developments in brain technologies are evidence that progress will happen when there is a vision and a philosophy that individuals choose to guide them.
But what is the state of brain technology today? Before I can talk about visionary thinking, I have to see what kind of progress is happening in the first place. Some of the most exciting neurotechnology being developed right now are neural prosthetics, or more specifically, brain computer interfaces.
Brain Computer Interfaces
Imagine holding a pen, then imagine writing with it, then - without any extra effort - words appear in front of you on your computer screen. Or, imagine that a robotic arm next to you was actually your arm, then imagine bringing a glass of water to your mouth with the arm. And then, without any extra effort, the robotic arm actually moves. These are both real-life working examples of brain computer interfaces. In their current form, brain computer interfaces are essentially the technology of directly connecting the human brain - in all its biological complexity - to a computer. This is accomplished by a sensor that reads brain waves or neural firing, which are then translated by a decoder into a form that a computer can read.
The first functioning example of this kind of brain computer interface was in 2004, when Matt Nagle learned to play Pong, operate a remote control, open emails, and draw on a computer screen. To make this possible, researchers first implanted an array of electrodes into the patient’s brain, which required invasive brain surgery. A small portion of the array was exposed from the skull, so that a decoder device could be plugged into it. Whenever he activated the neurons the array could read, that decoder performed complex math to translate the neural pattern into an equation. At the other end of the decoder was a computer. From there, the computer did the rest of the work. Research with the BrainGate system is still going, with a large consortium of researchers ranging from electrical engineers, to computer scientists, to neurologists.
Like the earliest astronauts who risked their lives to explore and test viability of human space travel, BCI requires individuals to test out the technology by risking their lives through brain surgery. These are not sacrifices for a greater good; especially regarding BCI; these are people who receive a tremendous amount of value in their lives if the tests work out. Nathan Copeland had BCI arrays installed in 2015. Since then, he has had the array installed longer than anyone else - more than 7 years by this point. Dennis DeGray received his Implant in 2016. Others, like Pancho - who lost the ability to speak after having a stroke - have put in a lot of time testing out and perfecting communication interfaces. Each of these people, and all the other neuronauts, have been absolutely crucial to demonstrating first-hand that BCI is both viable and life enhancing, rather than merely a technological curiosity.
Surprisingly enough, the technology for BCI has been around since the eighties. The Utah array, developed by Richard Normann at the University of Utah in the late 80s, is a microelectrode array which has numerous electrodes that stick out like needles from a small silicon square. It is the type of array used by BrainGate, and the only one approved for use in humans by the FDA. The array has of course received many improvements since then, and is now primarily manufactured by Blackrock Neurotech, a company whose products are completely devoted to all things neuroprosthetic. So why aren’t BCI users able to drive cars with their mind yet, or play video games competitively just by thinking? To be sure, computing power was not strong or fast enough 40 years ago for a person to realistically control a robotic arm. Surgical methods to make implants in the brain have also improved radically since then. Yet for a while, even until very recently, progress on BCI technology appeared to grow incrementally, in line with computer advancements in general. Interest was largely in the realm of treating people with paralysis or severe neurological disorders. Slow and steady, not accelerating.
Like any story of technology in the modern world, there is far more to BCI than incremental steps of gradual change. BrainGate has been a fantastic start, but some people have wanted to go further, and faster.
In 2012, Thomas Oxley, an Australian neurologist, founded Synchron. The company has developed what they call the stentrode, a substantial innovation for BCI implants. To place the implant, they use a completely different method than invasive brain surgery. First the stentrode is attached to a catheter, which is threaded by a neurosurgeon through a wire inserted into the jugular vein. The catheter is then threaded to the motor cortex. At this destination, the stentrode opens up like a flower, forming a scaffold; the stentrode is then able to pass neural signals to a receiver implanted in the chest. Transmissions are in turn sent wirelessly to a decoder.
Part of his inspiration came from reading the article in Nature about the woman who controlled the robotic arm in 2006. He was also inspired by an experience early on in his neurology training. Back then, he worked with a patient who, after a stroke, couldn’t move anything except his eyes. The patient didn’t want to live in such a locked-in state. From these experiences, Oxley has said that his mind was opened to many possibilities.
In 2021, Precision was cofounded by Ben Rapoport, a neurosurgeon with a PhD in electrical engineering, and Michael Mager, a private equity investor. The company has also produced an innovative BCI implant, known as the Layer 7 Cortical Interface. The name is a reference to how the brain has 6 distinct layers, with the seventh layer being the interface. A neurosurgeon inserts the thinner than paper interface lined with electrodes through a thin slit cut into the skull. Once inside, the interface can unfurl and conform to the shape of the brain’s wrinkles. Ideally, neural data will be collected and processed across multiple brain regions. Already, signals can be sent to and from the interface, further expanding the potential of BCI beyond what is possible through BrainGate.
Speaking in the shortterm, Precision has a very straight forward objective as a company. They say that “everything we do at Precision is geared towards creating tangible, near-term benefits for our users: people suffering from neurological disorders.”
Neuralink, of course, is another innovator. Cofounded in 2016 by Elon Musk and 7 others (Ben Rapoport was one of them), it is also shaping advancements in BCI. Although the implant they use requires invasive brain surgery, their innovations have been from many angles. Their implants have consistently improved in terms of increasing bandwidth and reducing power usage; surgical methods for implantation have been fine tuned and advanced through AI. So far, monkeys have controlled keyboards and played Pong with their BCI. Although this is a notable proof of concept, Neuralink is first focusing on the engineering problem of attaining sufficient information processing. Such an approach is in contrast to precision in Synchron, whose developments have first focused on the biological problem of implanting BCIs.
Like the other companies though, Neuralink has a vision that extends into the future. In a presentation at the end of 2022, they mention both short-term goals of solving brain injury issues, and long-term goals of aligning AI development with human technological development. The long-term goal might be esoteric, as Musk himself admitted, but he also mentioned other ambitious goals like restoring body functionality lost by a spinal cord injury. The BCI could serve as a way to allow brain signals go past the point of the spinal injury. All of these potential values in the future have been integrated across three principles: 1) scalability, 2) safety, and 3) functionality (accessing and making use of various brain regions). Much can be said about these principles, but that they exist at all is the main point.
How is it that progress has seemed to happen most rapidly in the past 3 years, rather than 17 years ago after BCI technology was first demonstrated and used? Part of this could be the founding of Neuralink, with Musk’s ambitious statements about the potential of BCI. Whether or not he was the reason for spurring on more and faster advancement in BCI, he certainly represents a visionary attitude - believing in and reaching for incredibly ambitious goals. Musk might represent the way that a visionary attitude has reached a critical mass.
Before getting all the way into the future though, it’s worth taking a look at where the technology for BCI originates, long before the Utah array. Back in 1875, Richard Caton published evidence from experiments with animals that there were measurable electrical currents in the brain that correlated with shining light into their eyes. He did this by placing an electrode on the brain and one on the skull, and measuring electric current with a galvanometer. His research directly influenced and was cited by Hans Berger, the man who coined the term EEG and made the first electrical current recordings from the brains of humans.
Berger was not motivated merely by a disinterested pursuit of scientific exploration. During a military training exercise when he was 19, he was nearly crushed to death by an artillery gun. That morning, his sister, who was far away in a completely different city, had a feeling that he was in danger, so she had her father sent a telegram to see if he was all right. The incident was so strange and mysterious that, regardless of if he believed in telepathy, he was spurred on to investigate the mysteries of the mind as a scientist. He had a personal motivation and curiosity to figure out how thinking happens on a material level in the first place.
After EEG was invented, scientists figured out ways to manipulate, record, and make use of electrical signals from the brain. For instance, in 1964, José Delgado, a Spanish neurophysiologist, could force a bull to stop charging just by using electrodes embedded in its brain. A connection between mind and machine appeared possible, where perhaps the advancements in computer technology could be fully integrated with advancements in brain science. But in the 60s, nothing like BCI existed yet, except related notions floating around from science-fiction books ranging from those by Philip K Dick to Frank Herbert. Still, The fact that related ideas existed in science fiction shows that there were people who thought about the ways that technology and the brain could potentially interact.
This changed in the early 70s, when Jacques Vidal, a professor at the University of California Los Angeles, came up with the term brain-computer interface. He even demonstrated how people could mentally guide a cursor through a simple virtual maze. Then came the Utah array, which made Vidal’s ideas more viable. But progress was still not much more advanced than that first demonstration in terms of measurable results that BCI could show - a moving cursor, but not much else. Once again, science fiction speculated and envisioned the future, especially in the 80s with William Gibson’s Neuromancer where people could directly connect their brain to cyberspace or integrate mind and computer directly with implants and prosthetic eyes. To be sure, there was steady gradual progress. In the early 2000’s, scientists at Duke University published studies demonstrating that monkeys implanted with brain interfaces could control robotic arms with their minds alone. And as would be expected, the next step was testing the same thing in humans, which is exactly what happened in 2004 with Matt Nagle.
The progress of BCI technology does not seem to be hindered by current hard limits on computing power, the materials for the implants, or the neurosurgical methods required to place them. Instead, the current limitations might be from issues like not enough researchers, lack of creative vision for new approaches and goals, insufficient funding, or any number of issues that don’t have to do with scientific knowledge. More to the point, BCI research hasn’t progressed alongside a clear philosophical understanding of what progress requires.
Neuralink, Precision, and Synchron represent the expansion of BCI from medical and academic research into industry. With business-oriented attention to research, more resources can be directed into development, not to mention how greater scaling that comes with business support creates more attention and interest. Although the introduction of profit motive may make some worried that progress will be thrown aside in favor of money, the fact is that the development of BCI relies upon appealing to the people who will ultimately be using it. Seen in a different light, progress can be accelerated when more and more people see the value of BCI for their lives. Even though disabled users are a limited and narrow market, the more they are invested in BCI, the more opportunities researchers will have to test any range of creative applications. And so on, as BCI offers increasingly more value potential, expanding out from an immediate medical application.
But what is it that pushed anyone to expand medical research out into an industry and invest millions of dollars? BCI is not a vanity project, since the basis for the technology goes back decades and the users so far have found their lives are improved. More importantly, the push towards greater investment and therefore more progress must accompany a reason to think more, develop more, and do more. In this case, it is evident that envisioning future value in terms of life is a big part of what makes progress more than simply a step forward.
Sometimes, a vision for the future is an unbounded and naïve dream. Sometimes, dreams are grounded in reality and can be achieved with the correct path. Where should the dream of curing paralysis through applications of BCI technology and enhancing human intellectual capacity fit? Whatever the case may be, a goal is needed to determine that progress is going in any direction at all. Otherwise, the value of BCI developments will appear limited to the immediate moment, without any particular reason to invest more time and energy into the technology. The effort being put in would already be sufficient, and nothing would happen any faster. But when somebody seeks to enhance human intellectual capacity, it introduces a long-term motive to make progress and a measure to see how effectively progress is being made.
Ultimately, progress involves a dedication to enhancing life. What can one reach for, as an individual? One might wonder if looking ahead towards using BCI to overcome paralysis and restore full body functionality will distract from the more immediate achievements like allowing a quadriplegic person to drive a car. Yet, if developers and researchers pay attention to the value that BCI can bring to all kinds of people, and figure out the value that can be offered to as many people as possible, those earlier steps become even more important. The first people using BCI, the neuronauts, are a necessary and critical step to show that not only does the technology work, but represents the value that meaningful progress brings - one synapse at a time.