Let’s imagine this picture for a moment: you wake up in the morning, look at the window shutters and they immediately open up, think about hot coffee and the coffee maker in the kitchen immediately starts work, you want to send a message to your friend, think about it and it immediately appears in front of him, right in his head. Or imagine that paralyzed people will be able to independently manage their limbs with the “power of thought” by means of special devices.
In 2019, this sounds pretty fantastic, but if you go deeper into this topic, it is possible to find out that such technologies already exist. In our time, several large technology companies are working in this direction. And in this article, we will tell you in detail what neurocomputer interfaces are, what research in this area has already been carried out, and which companies are now developing this fantastic future.
- What is a neurocomputer interface?
- “Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative”
- Neurocomputer Interface Studies
- Project Neuralink by Elon Musk
1. What is a neurocomputer interface?
The neuro-computer interface (NCI) is a system of sensors, with which help it is possible to exchange data between the biological brain and the electronic device.
There are unidirectional interfaces that can either send signals to the brain (for example, an artificial eye or ear) or receive nerve impulses from the brain (for example, artificial limbs). There are also bidirectional interfaces with which it is possible to exchange data in both directions.
Work in this area began back in the 70s of the last century, but it is worth noting that the first working experimental model appeared only in the 1990s. Long years of animal experiments helped to create working implants, which allowed to restore auditory and motor functions. The main goal of all these years of research was to create an innovative “plastic” cerebral cortex that would not perceive implants as alien objects.
Using the latest developments in this area, the largest technology companies in the world are now working not only to restore lost human capabilities but also to add new ones. It still sounds like a fantasy film script, but people like Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg claim that this will become a reality in the coming decade.
2. “Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative”
Not so long ago, Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of the largest social networking site Facebook, together with his wife Priscilla Chan sold some of their shares and founded a new unique project called the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative. It is worth noting that the Zuckerberg family invested only $30 million in their brainchild, but during the work period, the project has already managed to collect more than $5 billion of additional investments. Their ultimate goal is to cure all diseases, the deadline is one generation. Do you think this is too ambitious?
This non-profit organization provides grants to groups of scientists who struggle with various diseases. For example, the organization launched the project Chan — Zuckerberg Biohub, on which leading scientists from Stanford and California universities are working on. Now, they are in the process of creating a neurocomputer interface that can help paralyzed people to become full members of society again. According to the researchers, their invention (which they call Wand or “magic wand”) will help to cure Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy and other diseases associated with the nervous system. Wand will transmit and receive nerve impulses from the brain to the desired area of the body and vice versa.
For the proof of performance, this device (Wand) was tested on primates. A special device was implanted into the motor area of the cerebral cortex of the experimental subjects. With it, scientists read the monkey’s nerve impulses. Over time, based on the data obtained, the researchers understood which movement the primate should make. The experiment proved that with the help of the developed device it is possible to accurately read signals from the motor zone of the cerebral cortex.
From this, it follows that, in theory, these signals can be not only received but also sent. In addition, with the help of Wand, scientists were able to interrupt any movement of test animals. This means that through this invention it is possible to suppress excessive pathological nerve impulses, which are the main problem in a number of incurable diseases, for example, Parkinson’s or epilepsy.
3. Neurocomputer Interface Studies
The fact of the work of this approach was proven by neuroscientists from the Federal Polytechnic School in Lausanne in Switzerland in 2016. They have done tremendous work, they have studied in detail exactly what impulses are born in the head of primates during the movement of the hind limbs.
Let’s find out, how the transfer of the command from the brain to the limb happens. As we know, all the nerve impulses (commands to do anything) are born in the brain, then they are transmitted along the main nervous “highway” – the spinal cord – to a specific part of the body. If this “highway” is damaged for some reason, then the impulses cannot reach a certain limb, which leads to its paralysis.
Scientists from Lausanne did a practical study. They took a group of primates and cut off their spinal cords so that only one hind limb was paralyzed. Then two devices were implanted into the monkey’s body:
- implant in the motor cortex of the brain, which is able to read and transmit nerve impulses;
- the implant in that part of the spinal cord where the nerve impulses did not reach, it is able to receive signals from the first device.
After these microchips were turned on, primates could once again fully use their paralyzed paw. After shutting down, the monkeys again lost complete control over the limb. This global study is available on this video.
By and large, we all have long lived in the world of human robots, which use neurocomputer interfaces everywhere. For example, people with limited hearing use cochlear implants that pick up sound vibrations and transmit them to the inner ear. Bionic eyes or retinal prostheses Argus II have been on the market for several years and allow people with blindness to restore vision at least partially.
In 2018, the specialists of the BrainGate project demonstrated how three paralyzed people with the “power of thought” could:
- type on a computer text message;
- play the piano in the app;
- open and close several programs;
- make orders in online stores.
To transmit their brain impulses to an electronic device, special microchips were implanted into their brains. More information about this experiment can be found in this video.
4. Project Neuralink by Elon Musk
Another good sign for the future of the neurocomputer interface industry is the fact that “iron man” Elon Musk drew attention to it.
In July 2016, he registered a new company, Neuralink, whose main goal is to improve people through neurocomputer interfaces. As Elon thinks, this is a necessary measure in order to give mankind a chance to confront Artificial Intelligence in the future. Musk has high hopes for this technology, he wants to connect the biological brain to literally all technologies on Earth. This will significantly expand human capabilities, which should give our human species a chance in the fight against artificial intelligence. Musk believes that sooner or later the artificial intelligence will be able to surpass the natural abilities of a human, and then the superpowers that neurocomputer interfaces can provide will not prevent us. According to his words, by the year 2030, any person will be able to upgrade oneself through this technology.
Such statements now may seem too fantastic, but do not forget that technological progress is developing not linearly, but exponentially. It is also worth noting that Elon Musk has always been distinguished by his exceptional ability to look in the future and determine the development of entire industries. Therefore, his words should not be taken too skeptical, although he is often exaggerating about the deadlines.
Based on this, it appears that the management of various objects (into which special sensors are integrated) with the help of the “power of thought” is already a reality. And such technologies will only become more complicated and more accessible in the future.
It is also important to understand that since neurocomputer interfaces go beyond the restoring function for people with disabilities, humanity needs to solve many of the ethical, moral and social issues that are associated with the rapid development of technology.
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