Is it possible to “throw emotion?” In other words, could you send a feeling to another person the same way you send a text or an email? That may be the next step toward unlocking human thought with the brain-computer interface.
People worldwide are using brain-computer interfaces, or neural interfaces, to control devices with their minds. Those living with paralysis or neurodegenerative diseases such as ALS send emails, interact on social media, operate robotic limbs, and even play video games using only their thoughts.
This revolutionary technology is transforming lives, freeing those who feel trapped in immovable bodies and restoring their autonomy. It also promises to alter substantially how we connect and communicate. Consider texting without typing, sending a “neural postcard” to a friend, or driving without touching a steering wheel. “Turn left,” you’ll think, and your car will respond, essentially by reading your mind.
We’re still learning about brain-computer interfaces, such as how to implant them without invasive surgery and what privacy and ethical concerns they present. But BCIs fundamentally will change how we deploy our minds. In fact, they already have.
What is a Brain-Computer Interface?
Belgian researcher Jacques Vidal introduced the term in 1973 to describe using brain signals to control devices such as computers or prosthetic devices. Essentially, electrodes connected to the brain record impulses that computers associated with desired actions. Computers use machine-learning algorithms to translate these impulses into actions. That allows users to control a screen cursor through thought.
Researchers have been developing this technology for decades, making significant strides over the past ten years. In 2016, Nathan Copeland fist-bumped with President Obama and felt the sensation, using a robotic arm he controlled with his brain. In 2021, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine detailed the process of using a neural interface to restore the speech abilities of a stroke victim by decoding words and sentences from cerebral cortex activity.
Recently, Dennis DeGray, a California resident paralyzed in a fall, had a neural interface surgically embedded into his brain as part of a groundbreaking study. According to the study, DeGray gained control of a computer cursor using only his mind within 37 seconds of calibration. The New York Times reported that DeGray has since used a prosthetic limb, ordered from Amazon, and flown a drone, all via the interface.
Brain-computer interfaces have proven life-changing for people with ALS. Graham Felstead and Phillip O’Keefe became the first people to use the Stentrode, a device placed in a vein near the brain cortex. A receiver implanted in the chest sends signals from the Stentrode to a machine-learning algorithm, which translates them into actions. The Stentrode restored Felstead and O’Keefe’s ability to use devices and communicate with loved ones.
As Tom Oxley, CEO of Stentrode-maker Synchron, said in a Ted Talk, the Stentrode gave Felstead “immense comfort to know that, even if his body was failing, he was always going to be able to tell his wife that he loved her.”
What’s Next for the Brain-Computer Interface?
Synchron leads a startup surge in the brain-computer interface market, one growing with immense capital and astonishing ideas. Neuralink, co-founded by Elon Musk, is developing a neural implant that would connect to an app, giving the user control of devices. Neuralink is developing its implant as a medical device but says it’s scalable to anyone who wants to connect mentally with tech.
Other companies like Neurable and NextMind are developing wearable tech to build what Neurable calls “everyday BCI.” Neurable already has developed a mind-controlled VR game, and NextMind’s headset seeks to make the applications of BCI accessible without surgery to anyone.
Brain-computer interfaces hold unimaginable potential, which creates immense allure and uncertainty. BCI technology could reopen the world to those living with injury or disease. It could lower the impact of pain, potentially reducing our need for medication. It could open creative pathways we can’t yet imagine.
Of course, BCI technology carries security risks. The prospect of having your brain hacked is terrifying. And what are the privacy concerns? Could companies that sell phone numbers and email addresses begin selling thoughts? “Brain information is probably the most intimate and private of all information,” says neuroethicist Marcello Ienca.
We also must consider the implications of creating “superhuman” beings that could be used as instruments of war. “… BCI is not that different than the automobile; it can be dangerous, but it can be very helpful,” says Timothy Marler, senior research engineer at RAND.
For people like Dennis DeGray, the brain-computer interface represents the restoration of personal agency. That’s a remarkable achievement. As we further develop this technology, let’s also remember to cherish the brain, already a remarkable instrument.